I referenced the curse in my column on the Nuggets All-Intangibles Team. But with K-Mart and Nene's health coming up over and over again, I thought we'd dive into the subject deeper today.
Like appearing on the cover of EA's John Madden Football, playing power forward for the Nuggets is one of the most cursed places to be in sports. Since 1980, and with the exception of Hall of Famer Dan Issel (who played as much at center as power forward), the Nuggets power forward position has either been anchored by All-Star caliber - yet injury riddled - players like Calvin Natt, LaPhonso Ellis, Antonio McDyess, K-Mart and Nene. Underachievers like Rodney Rogers, Danny Fortson and Raef LaFrentz. Or colossal Stiffs/busts like Mark Alarie, Jerome Lane and Tony Battie.
During his four full seasons in Denver, Calvin Natt (now a mortician and minister) appeared in just 175 of 328 games (53.4% of his games). In 1984-85, his healthiest season, Natt played in 78 games, averaged 23.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, shot an exceptional 54.6% from the field, was named to the NBA All-Star Team and helped lead the Nuggets to just their second conference finals appearance in franchise history. It's not crazy to say that had Natt stayed healthy, the Nuggets would have made it to another conference finals or two...maybe even an NBA Finals.
LaPhonso Ellis, my all-time favorite Nugget, appeared in 363 of the 542 (67%) games when he was in Denver. He may not have had Natt-like numbers, but Ellis' infectious enthusiasm, tough play and energy made him the heart of the team. You can track the Nuggets downward spiral after their amazing upset of the Supersonics in the 1994 playoffs to Phonz's devastating knee injury the following summer. It essentially took the Nuggets eight years to recover from Phonz's injury.
Antonio McDyess was probably the most naturally talented player ever to play the power forward position in Denver. Not only did he have a ridiculously high vertical leap, but he had a soft jumper to boot. Appearing to overcome the curse, McDyess missed just 27 games spread over his first five seasons as a Nugget. But from 2001-2003, he played in only 10 after succumbing to one knee surgery after another. Luckily for McDyess, he played in the microfracture surgery era and has resurrected his career in Detroit, where's he's appeared in all but nine games in four seasons there.
Nene, meant to be McDyess's heir apparent at the four spot, is entering his seventh season on the Nuggets. In his first six, Nene has played in just 293 of 492 available games (59.6%) due to an assortment of injuries and a recent cancer scare. Generously listed at 6'11" (he's really about 6'9"), Nene is being asked to start at center this season and have his healthiest season since his rookie year. Is that too much to ask? We'll see.
And finally, Kenyon Martin's knee injury history is well documented thanks to his absurd maximum contract that will pay him $14 million this year, $15.4 million next year and $16.5 million in 2010/11. Putting the contract aside (and remember, it's not his fault for signing it...you would, too), K-Mart recovered from missing about half his games in his first three seasons as a Nugget to play respectably in 71 games last season and post a career high 53.8 field goal percentage. Additionally, K-Mart was much better in the second half of the season and even played some tough defense on Kobe Bryant in the playoffs. Let's hope that was a sign of things to come from K-Mart.
So will 2008-09 be another cursed season for Nuggets power forwards? Or will this be the season that we break the curse?
If for no other reason, pray for K-Mart and Nene to remain healthy or the Nuggets might take a flier on Shawn Kemp (whom George Karl maintains a close relationship with and Kroenke Crony Mark Warkentien brought into Portland a few years back). Having both Kemp and Travis Henry in Denver would be too many deadbeat dads for one city to take.