THE DAN ISSEL ADMINI-STRATION (March 1998 – December 2001)
Background: In the first two parts of this series, I documented how former Nuggets President, General Manager and "Coach" Bernie Bickerstaff firebombed the entire Denver Nuggets organization, leaving an unsolvable mess for new General Manager Allan Bristow to clean up. Unfortunately for Bristow, he was only given one season to work with, as Nuggets ownership brought in legendary Nuggets player and former head coach Dan Issel to salvage the situation in the spring of 1998.
Issel played 15 years of professional basketball, including 10 with the Nuggets (9 in the NBA), and is one of the all-time greatest basketball players ever – college and pro – recognized by his enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993. As a professional player, Issel won an ABA championship with the Kentucky Colonels, led the Nuggets to their only ABA championship appearance and was integral in the Nuggets only NBA Western Conference Finals appearance in 1985. Even today, he’s the 7th all-time scoring leader and 27th all-time leading rebounder in professional basketball history. Not too shabby. And as a coach, Issel guided the Nuggets to the biggest upset at that point in NBA Playoff history, when his 8th seed, 42-win Nuggets defeated George Karl’s 1st seed, 63-win Seattle Supersonics in 1994. Moreover, by all accounts Issel had been a class act among his piers, teammates, players he coached, the media, the fans and so forth. Therefore, Issel was a logical choice to bring much needed respectability to an organization in absolute shambles.
Best Draft Pick: James Posey (1999, 1st Round 18th Pick)
Worst Draft Pick (and players passed on within a few picks): Raef LaFrentz (1998, 1st Round 3rd Pick) – passed on Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki. Issel didn't even draft the better Kansas Jayhawk!
Best Move: Trading Tony "El Busto" Battie and the draft rights to Tyronne Lue to the Lakers for Nick Van Exel.
Second Best Move: Cajoling...errr...convincing Antonio McDyess into leaving a contending Phoenix team to rejoin the lowly Nuggets, the team that allowed him to leave for nothing a season earlier.
Worst Move: Trading George Washington High School legend / University of Colorado legend / future NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups along with Ron Mercer and Johnny Taylor to Orlando for Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Chris Gatling and a lottery protected first round pick, and then signing Abdul-Wahad to a 7-year, $43.3 million contract. Abdul-Wahad, formerly Olivier Saint-Jean, was so bad that he genuinely sucked under both monikers.
Best Season: 2000-01 (40-42) – Two seasons after firing Mike D’Antoni and naming himself as head coach, Issel guided the Nuggets to a very respectable record in the competitive Western Conference, especially considering how thin the Nuggets were talent-wise, with the exception of Van Exel and McDyess. There was one major black mark on Issel’s record this season, however, when after a four game road losing streak, Van Exel led the players to boycott the Nuggets practice on December 11th in protest of Issel’s tough coaching style.
Worst Season: 2001-02 (27-55) – One season removed from winning 40 games, McDyess went down with a major knee injury and had season-ending surgery after just 10 games. Issel’s failure to deepen the Nuggets bench (and his penchant for trading away first round picks) came back to haunt him in dramatic fashion. After starting 9-16, Issel’s own frustrations boiled over when he called a belligerent fan a "Mexican piece of s---" during the team’s 17th loss. Even though Issel eventually resigned as head coach and team president, leaving assistant coach and future firegeorgekarl.com Interim Head Coach Hall of Famer Mike Evans to take over, this season was Issel’s responsibility.
Accumulative W-L Record: 116-180 (.392)
Summary: I’ve yelled at my TV screen five times while watching the Nuggets make their selections in the NBA Draft: In 1991 when they drafted Mark Macon and passed on Stacey Augmon, 1997 when they drafted Tony Battie and passed on Ron Mercer (I didn't know Tracy McGrady would be a superstar), 1998 when they drafted LaFrentz and passed on Carter, Jamison and Pierce (ditto not knowing about Nowitzki), 2001 when they drafted Nikoloz Tskitishvili and passed on Caron Butler, and 2006 when they drafted Leon Powe in the second round - an absolute steal - only to trade him to Boston for nothing that same day. While all of these selections are infuriating, none was more unforgiveable, more obviously stupid, more astoundingly inconceivable than the LaFrentz selection, Dan Issel’s first and only lottery selection as Nuggets' President and General Manager, because he traded away all the other would-be lottery picks under his reign.
Upon arrival as the Nuggets new GM, Issel remarkably was able to trade all-time bust and poor suit selector Battie for an All-Star point guard and notorious referee shover in Van Exel, and subsequently convince another All-Star and Olympian, McDyess, to leave Phoenix and return to a Nuggets team that was one of the NBA’s worst. More remarkable was the stupidity of the GMs of the Los Angeles Clippers and Vancouver Grizzlies who would go on to draft Michael Olowokandi first and Mike Bibby second, respectively, leaving future perennial All-Stars like Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Paul Pierce on the board for the third-picking Nuggets (Nowitzki was available, too, but was certainly a gamble at the time). And yes, EVERYONE knew that Carter, Jamison and Pierce would be All-Stars for years to come. Everyone except Issel, apparently. The passing on Carter in particular irked me the most.
Say what you want about how Carter’s career has panned out, but not only was he an outstanding player out of the gate who led the Toronto Raptors to multiple playoff appearances, he put asses in the seats, sold jerseys, started in multiple All-Star Games, boosted TV ratings, etc. All things the Nuggets desperately needed at the time. In Denver, Carter would have been the second coming of David Thompson – another high flying superstar from a North Carolina-based university – while single-handily resurrecting the Nuggets franchise for years to come. Paired with Van Exel and McDyess, a Carter-led Nuggets team would have been regular postseason participants and the darlings of the NBA’s marketing machine.
GMs – even good ones – pass on great players all the time, like when Detroit’s Joe Dumars famously passed on Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in favor of Darko Milicic in 2003. But unlike Dumars’ Pistons, Issel’s Nuggets couldn’t afford any mistakes whatsoever. In addition, Issel never met a future first round draft pick that he wasn’t willing to part with in a bad trade. During Issel’s tenure running the Nuggets, he traded away a future first round choice four times, three of which would be lottery selections because Issel never got the Nuggets into the playoffs.
The LaFrentz draft debacle, coupled with the trading of future lottery picks, a player revolt, and the second most inexcusable trade in Nuggets history (when Issel shipped out Billups and Mercer for Abdul-Wahad, and then gave Wahad an All-Star-type contract) equaled no winning seasons and no playoff appearances under Issel’s leadership. Throw in Issel’s grossly insensitive remarks about Hispanic Americans (that he couldn’t even parlay into a job as Lou Dobbs’ backup host), and you get yet another disastrous Nuggets era that would require the franchise’s third teardown operation within 10 years.
Part II: Breaking down the Allan Bristow Administration
Part I: Breaking down the Bernie Bickerstaff Administration