When you watch the Denver Nuggets face off against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday and wonder "why the @#$%& don’t we have any outside shooters?" or "why do we have no depth at the power forward spot?", today’s post will begin to answer those questions.
Several critics of this blog have accused me of placing too much blame for the Nuggets inability to finish in the upper tier of the Western Conference on George Karl, thereby implying that I've left management and the players off the hook. Since the purpose of this blog is to hold anyone affiliated with the Nuggets accountable for failures and praise those deserving for successes, back in early March I began an exclusive five-part series chronicling past and current Denver Nuggets management. The goal of this exercise was to inject a little Nuggets nostalgia into this blog (as I don’t want this blog to only be about George Karl all the time) and give the coach a fair hearing by detailing what happened before he arrived, and who he has to report to now.
With the remainder of the regular season ending up in such exciting fashion, I only got through three of these regimes (Bickerstaff, Bristow and Issel) and just didn’t have the time to address Kiki Vandeweghe’s reign and the present administration of Mark Warkentien, Rex Chapman and Bret Bearup. But with the lengthy delay before the playoffs begin, I thought now would be a good time to bring the series back, especially since Vandeweghe was responsible for shaping much of the current Nuggets’ roster.
THE KIKI VANDEWEGHE ADMINISTRATION
(September 2001 – May 2006)
Background: A former Nuggets star player from the early 1980’s, Harrison Ford lookalike Ernest Maurice (Kiki) Vandeweghe III would rejoin the organization in 2001 as the team’s General Manager overseeing head coach (and former teammate) Dan Issel and reporting to President, well, Dan Issel. The Nuggets had come off a somewhat successful season in 2000-01, finishing 40-42 with a thin roster in the tough Western Conference. It was the Nuggets best record in five seasons, which wasn’t saying much considering what Bernie Bickerstaff had done to the franchise.
While Issel did an admirable job taking one of the worst teams in NBA history (the 11-win 1997-98 Nuggets) and turning them into an (almost) playoff contender just three seasons later, his passing on Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Paul Pierce in favor of Raef LaFrentz in the 1998 draft, coupled with his trading away of four first round picks, left him with a painfully bare roster if anyone got injured. And when that big injury happened – to All-Star forward Antonio McDyess in 2001 – the wheels came off Issel’s regime, leading to one of the most frustrating seasons in Nuggets history (the 27-win 2000-01 campaign) and Issel’s eventual resignation. Worse yet, Issel left some horrific contracts on the books, specifically LaFrentz’s, Nick Van Exel’s (five years, $55 million), Avery Johnson’s (three years, $15 million) and Tariq Abdul-Wahad’s (seven years, $43.3 million)
This left Vandeweghe, who had previously been the Dallas Mavericks Assistant GM, mentored by Don and Donnie Nelson, in a terribly difficult spot. He could try rebuilding on the fly with the veterans left over and pray that McDyess would recover from knee surgery, or he could tear down the team entirely, forcing Nuggets fans to endure yet another rebuilding project through the draft, which would be the franchise’s third in ten years. With the support of new Nuggets owner Stanley Kroenke, Vandeweghe opted for the latter strategy, gambling that the Nuggets would get a high draft pick after the season was over and attract some free agents. But would the gamble pay off?
Best Draft Pick: Carmelo Anthony (2003, 1st Round 3rd Pick)
Worst Draft Pick (and players passed on within a few picks): Nikoloz Tskitishvili (2002, 1st Round 5th Pick) – passed on Amare Stoudamire and Caron Butler. With Vandeweghe already committing to draft one project – Nene – it was inexplicable as to why he wouldn’t pick up at least one sure thing in Butler.
Second Worst Draft Pick (and players passed on within a few picks): Julius Hodge (2005, 1st Round 20th Pick) – passed on Luther Head and Jason Maxiell. For those who actually saw Hodge "play," you could tell in 30 seconds that he had to be the most unathletic 6’7" player ever to come out of the ACC. I don’t think he could’ve played on my pick up team.
Best Move: Trading McDyess, the rights to Frank Williams and a second round pick to the Knicks for Marcus Camby, Mark Jackson and the rights to a lottery pick from Brazil named Maybyner (Nene) Hilario. God bless you, Scott Layden.
Second Best Move: Trading Van Exel, LaFrentz, Johnson and Abdul-Wahad to the Mavericks for Juwan Howard (and his expiring contract), Donnell Harvey, Tim Hardaway, Frank Williams and cash. God bless you, Mark Cuban. Quick side note: right after this trade went down, I was in Las Vegas and bumped into Cuban at the Palms Hotel. I introduced myself as the biggest Nuggets fan ever and asked Cuban if Kiki knew what he was doing, considering we were mired in a 17-win season with a roster of no-names. Cuban told me that not only did Kiki know what he was doing, but that the Nuggets would be in the playoffs within one year. So I give Cuban major props for calling that one correctly, and for giving me 10 minutes of his time.
Worst Move: Trading three first round picks to the New Jersey Nets for Kenyon Martin, and then signing Martin to a maximum NBA contract (that will pay him $16.5 million…in 2010/11!). I had nothing against acquiring Martin per se, I just had everything against acquiring Martin for three number ones and then giving him a max deal! Other than the CEO of Bear Stearns, no one’s ever been this overpaid.
Best Season: 2004-05 (49-33) – Two seasons removed from one of the greatest tank jobs in NBA history, the Nuggets had a deep and talented roster featuring Anthony, Andre Miller (and you thought A.I. overdribbled!), Marcus Camby, Martin and Nene. And yet they were struggling mightily. So with 40 games left in the season, owner Stanley Kroenke forced George Karl onto Vandeweghe as the new head coach and Karl led the Nuggets to a 32-8 record down the stretch – the greatest second half performance by a team in NBA history. (Of course the Nuggets would go on to lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round 4-1).
Worst Season: 2002-03 (17-65) – As discussed in great detail under my Five Greatest Denver Nuggets Coaching Performances of All Time, new head coach Jeff Bzdelik took the least talented team in NBA history and guided them to 17 wins. Not only did the Nuggets win 17 more games than they should have, but Bzdelik instilled a culture of hard work and professionalism among the players that was sorely lacking in Denver.
Accumulative W-L Record: 153-328 (.318)
Summary: Kiki Vandeweghe made some of the greatest moves in Denver Nuggets history by drafting Anthony (even though he fell into Vandeweghe’s lap - we all now Kiki would’ve taken Darko Milicic with the second pick!), pawning off a broken McDyess to the Knicks for Camby and Nene, and bringing in free agents like Miller and Jon Barry, my all-time favorite one-season Nugget. Those moves were so good, in fact, that the Nuggets were able to overcome all of Vandeweghe’s bonehead decisions that also took place during his tenure – such as the drafting of Tskitishvili (a total project and completely inexcusable when Caron Butler was on the board), trading away three first round picks for Martin (and then giving him a max deal after Martin was exposed for his many deficiencies against Western Conference teams in two NBA Finals), trading away Jameer Nelson for a future first round pick (that turned into...eek…Julius Hodge) and never, ever bringing in a consistent outside shooter who weighed less than Voshon Lenard.
Overall, however, given what Vandeweghe inherited you have to say his reign was a success. Within two years of having full autonomy after Issel resigned, Vandeweghe had the Nuggets in the playoffs for the first time in ten years, and they were an exciting team on the rise. But all would not be well for long.
Unfortunately for Vandeweghe and his hand-picked coach Bzdelik, his autonomy was short lived. I don’t know if owner Stanley Kroenke (or one of his confidants in management) got impatient and started pressuring Vandeweghe directly to deliver a championship, or if Vandeweghe just assumed the pressure was there. But either way, he panicked by giving up those three picks and all the Nuggets remaining cap space for Martin, a tough but cantankerous player. That deal alone continues to cripple the Nuggets’ flexibility to make any deals whatsoever to this day.
Vandeweghe also – shamefully – didn’t stand by Bzdelik when it was clear that Kroenke wanted to bring in George Karl, whom he had previous land dealings with (Karl’s "lawyer," Capital University "Law School" grad Bret Adams, was involved, too). Knowing that a coaching change was on the horizon, Bzdelik’s authority with the players was undermined, resulting in a less-than-stellar 13-15 start to the 2004-05 season and Bzdelik’s eventual firing. I’m not saying Bzdelik would’ve done a better job than Karl had he stayed, and Karl did a great job upon arrival (so great, in fact, that he’s lived off those first 40 games for four years now!), but Bzdelik deserved better than this. Much, much, much better than this. He was the lowest-paid coach in the NBA in 2002-03 and the only coach on the planet willing to take on Kroenke/Vandeweghe’s season-long tank job. And yet after making the most out of the opportunity, he was rewarded with no confidence by Vandeweghe or Kroenke whatsoever.
Fortunately for Bzdelik, he soon found success at the Air Force Academy where he led the Falcons to their most successful basketball season in school history and then was rewarded with a cushy, high-paid coaching job at the University of Colorado.
Vandeweghe would eventually get his comeuppance for the way he handled Bzdelik’s exit when the Nuggets didn’t renew his contract at the end of the 2005-06 season – a season which resulted in the Nuggets third straight first-round playoff exit, losing to the – gulp – Los Angeles Clippers. Per the article mentioned below, it was rumored that Karl tried to force Vandeweghe out as early as 2005. Whether that was true or not, it would be the Clippers playoff loss - featuring Martin’s now famous locker room fight with Karl and several teammates - that sealed Vandeweghe’s fate, while also kicking off a culture of dissension, dysfunction and a lack of accountability.
***I strongly urge all firegeorgekarl.com readers to read this article from 2006 written by the Denver Post’s Thomas George (now working for NFL Network). With terrific detail and amazing insight, George chronicles the Nuggets problems from management on down beginning with the 2005 playoffs through the end of the 2005-06 season, and includes interviews with Karl, Bearup, Kroenke, Martin and several anonymous players.***
Taking over for Vandeweghe would be a three-headed basketball operations squad including Kroenke confidant Bearup, former Kentucky and NBA star Rex Chapman, and former Jailblazers co-architect Mark Warkentien, whom collectively had plenty of experience, albeit sketchy experience (which will be detailed here in the final part of this series).
George Karl - by all accounts a good guy, affable with the community and the media, but (according to some sources cited in Thomas George’s article) possessing a big ego and the understandable desire to be the authority figure over any team he coaches – would soon discover that (allegedly) forcing Vandeweghe out the door wasn't such a good idea.
Part III - Breaking down the Dan Issel Administration
Part II - Breaking down the Allan Bristow Administration
Part I - Breaking down the Bernie Bickerstaff Administration