In referencing the upcoming general election, Republican Nominee John McCain (R-Arizona) has asked his eventual Democratic opponent – and his fellow Americans – not to re-litigate the past, but rather to focus on issues pertaining to the future.
Unfortunately, we as Nuggets fans can’t help ourselves and must re-litigate the past.
Given that election season is upon us and the Nuggets might be conducting a coaching candidate search soon, I thought we’d delve into a little history – albeit recent history – of past Nuggets Administrations. I believe this will help explain how the Nuggets have gotten to a point that despite having the league’s fourth-highest payroll, the highest number of top three lottery picks in one starting lineup, two starting All-Stars, two top-four scorers, the reigning defensive player of the year, and one of the league’s highest paid coaches, our team is on the outside looking in at the 2008 Western Conference Playoffs.
In a DenverStiffs.com exclusive five-part series, I will tackle the records of five Nuggets Administrations, beginning with the Bernie Bickerstaff Administration of 1990, and ending with the current three-headed regime of Mark Warkentien, Bret Bearup and Rex Chapman. I will grade each Administration on the results produced during their tenure, draft picks made and passed on (within a few reasonable picks), moves made, and what transpired in the aftermath of their stewardship.
Please note that I will try to keep each of these segments brief as a) I have a day job to keep up with, b) I’m not a news journalist, just a blogger and, c) I’m not writing a book on the Nuggets (not yet anyway).
THE BERNIE BICKERSTAFF ADMINISTRATION
(July 1990 – February 1997)
Background: When Bernie Bickerstaff arrived in 1990, the Nuggets had completed a 43-39 season, and appeared in their ninth straight postseason under Coach Doug Moe. The consensus, however – under new "owners" Peter Bynoe (pictured), Bertram Lee and the Comsat Corporation – was that mediocrity was no longer tolerable, and the Nuggets needed to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch in order to compete for a championship some day.
Gone within one season was Coach Moe, and Nuggets cornerstone players Alex English, Fat Lever , Danny Schayes, T.R. Dunn, Blair Rasmussen, Michael Adams and Walter Davis, and replaced by an assortment of draft picks and bad players with expiring contracts. Even English’s poetry books would be removed from the Nuggets Store at McNichols Arena (they were probably there on consignment anyway).
This philosophy of building through the draft lottery (or accumulating other team's lottery picks) would persist throughout the decade, and still haunts the Nuggets to this day.
Best Draft Picks: Dikembe Mutombo (1991, 1st Round, 4th Pick), LaPhonso Ellis (1992, 1st Round, 5th Pick)
Worst Draft Picks (and players passed on within a few picks): Mark Macon (1991, 1st Round, 8th Pick) - passed on Stacey Augmon, Terrell Brandon and Dale Davis. Efthimios Rentzias (1996, 1st Round, 23rd Pick) - passed on Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic, Steve Nash and Jermaine O'Neal (note: these players passed on were because the Nuggets originally held the 10th pick, see more on this below).
Best Move: 1993 - Trading Todd Lichti, Anthony Cook and a 2nd round pick for Brian Williams (and by default, his alter-ego Bison Dele).
Second Best Move: Firing Chris Wallace (not the Fox News anchor) as Director of Scouting. For those unaware of Wallace’s record, he was the "mastermind" behind bringing Vin Baker and his alcoholism to the Celtics in 2002, and colluding with the Lakers…errrr…trading Pau Gasol to the Lakers for nothing this year. I’m convinced Wallace is getting a Christmas bonus from Dr. Jerry Buss in December.
Worst Move: 1996 – Trading the 10th pick, Jalen Rose and Reggie Williams to Indiana for Mark Jackson, Ricky Pierce and the 23rd pick (and then drafting Efthimious Rentzias). Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Jermaine O'Neal were all drafted after 10, and Jalen Rose went on have a successful career with the Pacers, including an 18-point, 5 rebound and 4 assist-per-game season in 1999-2000 that included an NBA Finals appearance and high praise from all-time great player / great coach / not-so-great GM Larry Bird.
Second Worst Move: 1996 – Letting Dikembe Mutombo go to the Atlanta Hawks…for nothing. Literally, nothing. No, really, nothing. Look it up!
Best Season: 1993-94 (42-40) – Under Coach Dan Issel, the Nuggets (the NBA’s youngest team) pulled off the biggest upset at that point in playoff history, by beating George Karl’s 1-seed Seattle Supersonics - who had won 21 more games than the Nuggets - in the first round.
Worst Season: 1996-97 (21-61) – Three seasons removed from having the hottest young team in the NBA, and after a summer in which Bickerstaff let Dikembe Mutombo go for nothing and traded Rose, Williams and the 10th pick in the draft for Jackson, Pierce and a Greek guy no one in Denver ever saw play except me* (and by proxy passing on Bryant, Nash and O'Neal), Bickerstaff resigned as head coach in late November, and then resigned as General Manager and President in February, leaving the Nuggets in disarray for years to come. Even though Bickerstaff left abruptly and Allan Bristow quickly took over, this season is on Bernie.
For a more detailed review of the mess he left behind and the careers that were ruined as a result, I highly recommend reading this scathing indictment on Bickerstaff’s reign by the Rocky Mountain News’ Bob Kravitz at the end of that disastrous campaign.
Accumulative W-L Record: 219-355 (.380)
Summary: Bernie Bickerstaff - acting on either his own instincts, at the behest of incompetent ownership, or both – blew up over 15 years of relatively successful basketball and stable management in one year. Bickerstaff chose to run a fire sale and re-build the Nuggets through the draft, which is the lazy way to revamp a team for a championship (and has only worked infrequently in NBA history, like the Spurs throwing away a season to get Tim Duncan). In fact, I’m convinced that Bickerstaff didn’t even scout half the players he drafted or signed, but brought them in solely because they made Sports Illustrated covers (like Mark Macon and Darvin Ham) or played deep enough into the NCAA tournament for Bernie to notice them, regardless of the Nuggets personnel needs (like Jalen Rose).
Since Bickerstaff was brought to the Nuggets in the wake of turmoil created by minority owners Bynoe and Lee, and operated under the Comsat (and then Ascent) Corporation who had its own ongoing inner turmoil, Bernie’s reign over the Nuggets seemed to have gone largely unchecked. After all, he was the General Manager and the President (and eventually the coach) all at the same time.
What makes the Bickerstaff era unique is that he actually did a semi-decent job after his first two disastrous seasons (when he blew up the team and hired Coach Paul Westhead who guided the Nuggets to a 44-120 record). Within four years of Bernie’s arrival, he had built the most exciting young team in the NBA with a core of solid players like Mutombo, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, LaPhonso Ellis, former high school valedictorian Bryant Stith, Reggie Williams, Brian Williams, Rodney Rogers and Robert Pack, culminating with the monumental Seattle series upset in 1994.
From that point forward, however, everything Bickerstaff did was a total disaster. Other than trading for Antonio McDyess in 1995, he made no significant trades to improve the team, and when he did wheel-and-deal, he had whatever the opposite of the Midas touch is called.
Case in point being the Efthimious Rentzias pick in 1996 (which he traded down for because he didn’t think there was anyone "worth drafting" after the 10th pick). Not only did Bickerstaff essentially pass on Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Peja Stojakovic and Jermaine O'Neal by relinquishing the Nuggets original pick at 10, Bernie later admitted to never seeing Rentzias play in person. In fact, no one from Denver saw Rentzias play in person in 1996 EXCEPT ME (see next paragraph).
*I saw Rentzias "play" when Greece faced off against Brazil in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Rentzias "played" about 10 minutes off the bench and went 0-4 from the floor in a game that featured no NBA players on either side. It’s just too bad Joe Dumars wasn’t around in those days to draft a totally unproven European project before a Nuggets GM could get his hands on him.