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The post-Van Exel era starts in Denver
by Eric Peterson / March 10, 2002

The Nick Van Exel era in Denver is finally over. What seemed like 100 years only lasted three and a half, but now that Nick the Quick is riding high in Dallas, Kiki Vandeweghe says the Nuggets are taking a forward-looking approach. Again.

That's also what the club claimed when it let Dikembe Mutombo sign with Atlanta and got nothing in return. It used the same line after trading Antonio McDyess to Phoenix. (Luckily, that mistake was miraculously rectified when Denver got McDyess back via free agency the following year.) The list of blunders gets longer by the year - Keon Clark, Jalen Rose, Jeff McInnis, Chauncey Billups, Bobby Jackson - and not attributable to any one exec. Which begs the question, is this team ever going to catch a break?

That break may just have been the Van Exel deal. Swapping the me-first point guard, plus G/F Tariq Abdul-Wahad (thankfully), C/F Raef La Frentz (questionably), and G Avery Johnson (unfortunately) for F Juwan Howard, G Tim Hardaway, F , a first-rounder, and a cool million looks to be the best move by the club since it signed McDyess.

For now, however, the trade leaves the Nuggets with a bad case of donut syndrome - the roster lacks a pure center of any caliber. Actually, it's a double-whammy for the short term - requisite analogy: a donut with a big bite out of it - because the new point guard combination of Hardaway and untested rookie Kenny Satterfield pales in comparison to the Van Exel-Johnson tandem. Hardaway's 35-year-old knees are not what they once were, and whether he can still handle the strain of 35 minutes a game is a big 'if.'

This season aside, the trade has its strong points. It nipped the Van Exel problem in the bud rather than letting it fester into the offseason and dumped the last five and a half years on Abdul-Wahad's far-too-generous seven-year, $43 contract - which was Dan Issel's beast, a paper Frankenstein's monster engineered as rationale for dumping Ron Mercer.

In return, the Nuggets gladly take on another hyper-inflated contract in that of Juwan Howard, which luckily will be over following the 2002-03 season, for which Howard will reap $20 million. When this legendary contract does expire, however, the Nuggets should aggressively court Howard with a more modest deal.

Why? Despite the fact that both players are pure power forwards, McDyess' athleticism makes him a solid (if not All-NBA) starting center if healthy. Also, Howard and McDyess like to play from opposite sides of the low post, and both have had success starting alongside another true power forward. (Exhibit A: '96-97 Bullets: Howard put up 19.1 ppg and 8 rpg while Chris Webber contributed 20.1 ppg and 10.3 rpg. Exhibit B: '96-97 Nuggets: McDyess averaged 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds alongside Laphonso Ellis' 21.9 ppg and 7 rpg.)

McDyess has been playing limited minutes since his March 1 comeback from knee surgery, but the Howard-McDyess recipe already looks fairly potent. Best of all, the Nuggets have two legitimate post players in an era when some contenders have none.

And Harvey was no throw-in. A Rodmanesque shot of adrenaline, the second-year Florida product slides yet another contributor onto the Nuggets' already respectable bench. One drawback is that Harvey's high-energy game mimics Nuggets fan favorite Ryan Bowen in many ways, and finding enough minutes for both players is a tricky proposition for coach Mike Evans.

The deal was predicated on money. Denver will have plenty of salary cap wiggle for the next two offseasons, when players such as Tim Duncan, Andre Miller, and potentially McDyess become unrestricted free agents. If they can land a dynamic scorer, a true center, and a point guard through free agency and the draft over the next two years - another colossal 'if' - this team might shape up as respectable before New Year's 2005.

And, with the lottery already a foregone conclusion, the Nugs stand yet another good shot at winning - a privilege that has thus far evaded them, despite being in the running every year for the past 10.

A lineup anchored by McDyess, Howard, and Duke standout Jason Williams (or Chinese uber-prospect Yao Ming) sounds intriguing, especially if the right free agent pieces fall into place. But if free agents dismiss Denver as a never-will, the next chapter in the Nuggets' history will likely read quite a bit like the last. Again.

Eric Peterson is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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