The Nuggets are absolutely doing the right thing by sending JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried to work out with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon. But most unfortunately, Olajuwon isn't available to coach the team's many big men throughout the season. So who will?
Nuggets head coach George Karl has a great track record with guards.
A former star point guard himself, Karl has coached players like World B. Free, John Bagley, Sleepy Floyd (remember Floyd's 51 points / 10 assists / 4 steals game in the 1987 playoff against the champion Lakers? That happened on Karl's watch), Gary Payton, Nate McMillan, Ricky Pierce, Hersey Hawkins, Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Michael Redd, Andre Miller, Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson - to name a few - to their best-ever seasons as NBA players. Some were probably destined to be stars anyway, others gave Karl the best basketball of their careers under his tutelage.
Karl's track record with big men, however, isn't nearly as impressive. Of course, it doesn't help when your general manager saddles you Stiffs to work with like Mel Turpin, Joe Barry Carroll, Chris "Worst Ever Third Overall Pick" Washburn, Benoit Benjamin, Steve Scheffler, Ervin "Don't Confuse Me With Magic" Johnson, Jim "My Contract Was So Bad I Ruined the Sonics Forever" McIlvaine, George Zidek, Scott Williams, Joel Pryzbilla, Francisco Elson, Nikoloz "Worst Ever Fifth Overall Pick" Tskitishvili and now Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos.
But with the Nuggets recently re-signing center JaVale McGee to play in front of Mozgov and Koufos, Karl may - for the first time ever in his coaching career - have an All-Star center plus two solid backup centers at his disposal, in addition to complementary big men like second year star Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington and the newly signed Anthony Randolph (who's no slouch at a legitimate 6'10"). After years of being forced to play small in the wake of the Marcus Camby trade, the Nuggets have gone big and the coaching staff will have to adapt to it. The only problem is, the Nuggets don't have a former big man within the organization to mentor these young bigs (no offense to Ryan Bowen and I think Scott Hastings prefers broadcasting to coaching).
And don't dare for a second suggest bringing Dan Issel back.
Clearly aware of the need for some big man assistance, the Nuggets are sending McGee and Faried (separately) to work out with the great Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston. McGee is there now and Faried will follow in a few weeks. Having the opportunity to work out with (arguably) the fourth of fifth best center ever could do wonders for both McGee and Faried's raw game.
Olajuwon - a former soccer goalie - was able to top the best big men of his era by having supreme footwork ... something rarely seen among the modern NBA big men. Great footwork certainly doesn't come to mind when thinking about Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and McGee. Olajuwon's all around game was so good that he able to lead his sixth-seeded, 47-win Houston Rockets through Karl Malone's Jazz, Charles Barkley's Suns, David Robinson's Spurs and Shaquille O'Neal's Magic en route to the 1995 NBA Championship. A back-to-back championship victory for Houston.
Anyone who had the privilege of watching Olajuwon slice and dice Robinson and O'Neal that year knew they were watching one of the great center performances in NBA history. And to this day, Olajuwon remains first all time in blocks, 11th all time in rebounds, ninth all time in points and eighth all time in steals. Steals!! So there's no question that spending a few weeks with Olajuwon will be invaluable for the Nuggets youngsters.
But what happens when the 2012-13 season commences? And what about the mentoring needed for Mozgov, Koufos, Gallo and Randolph in addition to McGee and Faried?
Several other NBA teams have addressed the need for a big man coach. Last season, former big men like Patrick Ewing, Jack Sikma, Buck Williams, Ed Pinckney, Mark Bryant, Herb Williams, Bob McAdoo, Tyrone Hill and Denver Stiffs Hall of Famer Joe Wolf held assistant coaching jobs. Like most NBA benches, the Nuggets already have plenty of assistant coaches ... so at this point, what's the big deal of adding one more?
Unfortunately, the Nuggets "tree" of big men isn't exactly inspiring. The aforementioned Issel may have been the Nuggets best big man ever, but he already ruined the franchise once and doesn't deserve a redo. The second-best big man ever to wear a Nuggets uniform, Dikembe Mutombo, has much more important things to do as the NBA's global ambassador. But as we've seen throughout NBA history, the best players don't necessarily make the best coaches (you know, that whole "those who can't, teach" idea) and the same probably applies to assistant coaches.
If I were the Nuggets, I'd strongly consider hiring Kim Hughes back as an assistant coach. A former assistant coach in Denver under Issel, Hughes (a former Nuggets player, as well) went on to become an assistant with the Clippers under Mike Dunleavy and briefly took over as head coach in 2010 after Dunleavy was removed. Hughes didn't have a stellar record as a briefly-tenured head coach, but as an assistant he was instrumental in the development of DeAndre Jordan and Chris Kaman, with Kaman's lone All-Star appearance happening while Hughes was his mentor on the Clippers' bench. Nate recently caught up with Hughes during Las Vegas Summer League, and having been out of basketball since the Clippers' fiasco, Hughes is ready for a new gig.
Not since the Nuggets trotted out Wayne Cooper, Calvin Natt and Alex English have the Nuggets been so stacked up front as they are currently. We as fans were teased with the 2007-08 team that could have had Camby, Nene, Kenyon Martin and Carmelo Anthony as a front line, but due to injuries to Nene and K-Mart it never really materialized, and by 2008-09 the organization had given up on Camby altogether, trading the former Defensive Player of the Year for a trade exemption.
Let's hope the Nuggets recognize this unique moment in their history and bring in a big man coach (even on a consulting basis, like the Lakers used to do with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for Bynum) to get the most out of their young, versatile front line.
Just having Pamela McGee screaming orders from near the Nuggets bench isn't going to cut it.