The Denver Nuggets, Antonio McDyess and what could have been

Antonio McDyess in his last run in the NBA as a part of the Spurs - Elsa

During the long, cold, dreary decade that was the 1990's for the Denver Nuggets there were few shining moments. In a trade with the Clippers in 1995, the Nuggets acquired a player who could have been their future and their star for many years to come... It wasn't to be...

Of late, I have noticed there is a large disconnect between long time Denver Nuggets fans and those who came aboard largely during the Carmelo Anthony era in Denver. I'm a firm believer that in order to plan for the future you must learn from the past. As an extension of my article about how Pepsi Center saved basketball in Denver, I will explore the promising beginning, and sad end to a career with the Nuggets that should have been better.

This is a story how bad management and a bad knee made a potential superstar a role player.

1995 NBA Draft: Lets make a deal

The Los Angeles Clippers selected Antonio McDyess as the second overall pick. He was then traded for Nuggets forward Rodney Rodgers and a mid-round pick that turned out to be Brent Barry. This move was, ostensibly, to replace LaPhonso Ellis and his cursed knees. This was a heady move for Nuggets General Manager and Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who had come under some fire the during the 1994-95 season for his brutal internal power struggle with former coach Dan Issel (which led to Issel resigning mid way through the season, claiming "burn out"). Nuggets fans were joyous to see the athletic power forward/center come to the Nuggets as a compliment to the defensive skills of Dikembe Mutombo, who was in the final year of his contract.

McDyess was an athletic freak who needed to understand his athleticism and harness his natural ability. However from the word go he thrilled Nuggets fans. Particularly exciting was McDyess's ability, much like Phonz, to leap. For those who never saw Dyess at his peak, think Amare Stoudemire with better athleticism. He hadn't yet developed a mid range game, but the raw talent was there. Easily one of Bickerstaff's best acquisitions.

During the 1995-96 season the Denver Nuggets should have played better and been coached better than they were. The roster consisted of McDyess, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Laphonso Ellis, Mutombo, Dale Ellis, Bryant Stith and Jalen Rose as primary rotation players. There is no reason the team should have finished with a 35-47 record. Particularly with a young, dynamic player such as McDyess. Yet, this disappointing season led do a series of cataclysmic decisions by Bernie Bickerstaff that his successors in the General Manager position that made basketball viewing in Denver unbearable.

*It should be noted that this is the Nuggets team that broke the 72-10 Chicago Bulls 18 game winning streak. Winning 105-99 on February 4th of 1996. Watch the video highlights right here.

1996 offseason and the destruction of the 90's Nuggets

While the 95-96 Denver Nuggets could rightly be deemed a disaster, what unfolded in the offseason of 1996 can be truly called a cataclysm.

Efthimious Rentzias. This was the "supposed" name of the 23rd pick in the first round of the 1996 NBA Draft. I say supposed because no one had ever heard of him or for that matter seen him (outside of our own Andrew Feinstein). What was worse (and believe me, it was worse), Bickerstaff traded promising point guard/combo guard Jalen Rose and reliable scorer Reggie Williams and the 10th pick to the Indiana Pacers for point guard Mark Jackson, an aged Rickey Pierce and the 23rd pick in the draft. They say that good ole' Bernie picked talent by seeing who was hot and trendy. Rentzias wasn't hot, nor trendy. No one was sure he existed (he never suited up for the Nuggets)

This was followed up by one of the most perplexing contract negotiations in Nuggets history. It was pretty clear that the Nuggets didn't want to give Dikembe Mutombo what he wanted in a contract. COMSAT was too cheap for that. So rather than enticing Deke to do a sign and trade, or trading him straight up as a rental ... the Nuggets just let Mutombo walk via free agency to the Atlanta Hawks for jack squat. Nothing.

The final kick to the gut was Bickerstaff trading the best pure shooter in Denver Nuggets history, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to the Sacramento Kings for Sarunas Marciulionis (granted, Rauf made his stay in Denver a bit uncomfortable by refusing to stand for the National Anthem and then going on a bizarre rant about it afterword). The roster was virtually bereft of talent and the Nuggets were in full tank mode after having one of the most exciting teams in the league. Shortly after beginning the season with Antonio McDyess as his only reliable young talent (with LaPhonso Ellis still recovering from knee surgery) Bickerstaff resigned his head coaching position and added Dick Motta as head coach. In February of that season Bickerstaff resigned as GM/President. The Nuggets finished with a 21-61 record that season.

What was Antonio McDyess left with? He averaged 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds a game that season for a horrible team. Dynamic, athletic. You could see the future through McDyess. It could only get better right?

Allan Bristow, Sign and Trade, and "El Busto"

Allan Bristow had a thankless job with the Nuggets. Essentially his job was to be caretaker over the wreckage of a roster that Bickerstaff had assembled. Taking over shortly after Bickerstaff resigned, Bristow saw the end of the disastrous 96-97 season and went into the offseason with virtually no assets to make the Nuggets better. Bristow had only one option.

Dyess was traded in a weird three team sign and trade deal featuring the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks essentially sending the Nuggets best player (just entering his third season) to Phoenix for three draft picks. On a personal note, I was gutted. Yet, I understood the move. Simply put, the Nuggets cupboard was so empty and bereft of assets and talent that trading MyDyess was the only thing Bristow could do to help somewhat improve the roster.

However, he later undid that by drafting 5th in the 1997 NBA Draft Tony Battie. Someone who should never have been drafted as high as he was (The Nuggets were shafted again prior to the draft when the San Antonio Spurs tanked when an injured David Robinson was lost for the season. The Spurs somehow lucked out and got the first pick in the draft, and thus, were allowed to draft Tim Duncan) Battie wasn't "bad" per se, but he certainly wasn't good. During the year, Dan Issel (who had returned to radio) bestowed the name on Battie that has lasted for 15 years "El Busto". Was it fair? Probably not, but Battie certainly never lived up to "5th pick in the draft" status and could be added to the Nuggets bone yard of disappointing moments in the draft.

With the season almost certainly lost, the Nuggets hired Bill Hanzlik to be the sacrificial lamb of this particular roster and the team went on to post an NBA second all-time worst regular season record of 11-71. This was one of the lowest, if not the lowest moment in Nuggets history. Meanwhile, in Phoenix, McDyess continued to blossom for the 1997-98 Suns team that featured Jason Kidd and Rex Chapman. He averaged 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds and caught alot of lobs from Jason Kidd. Nuggets fans were resigned to having lost Dyess as a player forever.

Or were they?

Dan Issel Mark 2, the return of the Dyess man and the fragile knees curse

The Dan Issel who was hired as the Nuggets team President and General Manager bore little to no resemblance to the Dan Issel who coached the Nuggets a mere four years before. This Issel was out to prove something after losing a brutal power struggle to Bernie Bickerstaff in 1994 (primarily over player control, specifically how to use guard Robert Pack whom Issel valued more than Bickerstaff did). This Dan Issel had a chip on his shoulder.

He also was hamstrung by the horrid ownership situation that was hanging over the team. COMSAT's entertainment subsidiary Ascent Entertainment (who ran the Nuggets and Avalanche, as well as the sole debt owner of the still in construction Pepsi Center) was being absorbed by media giant Liberty Media Corp. . In order to complete the deal, Liberty and Ascent put the Nuggets up for sale in late 1997. Thus began three years of ownership limbo hell. I covered this in my Pepsi Center article in January.

Shortly after the NBA Lockout of 1998 ended, Antonio McDyess was suddenly a Denver Nugget again. (The story of Dan Issel's shenanigans in order to get McDyess to re-sign is discussed by Andrew Feinstein right here. I happen to think it's an amusing story of business) Also, Issel traded Tony "El Busto" Battie for Nick Van Exel and the rights to Tyrone Lue. However, before all that happened Issel (inexplicably) drafted Raef LaFrentz with the 3rd pick in the NBA draft when a whole slate of better players were available (including Paul Pierce and Vince Carter). Lets just say that was a mistake. (Issel also traded Chauncey Billups, but keep in mind that version of Chauncey bore little to no resemblance to the Chauncey that appeared in Detroit)

However, Issel's big get was luring Antonio McDyess back to Denver. The strike shortened 1999 season (with Mike D'Antoni as coach) saw McDyess explode with a jaw-dropping 21.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. One of only three Nuggets in history with those averages (Dan Issel and George McGinnis being the others). More than that, Dyess was giving Nuggets fans a hope for the future. The following season (after D'Antoni was fired by Issel for having a gimmicky offense. Issel installed himself has coach) The Nuggets team was even better, slowly gelling as a team behind McDyess who averaged 19.1 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. Adjusting to Issel was the problem, as Dan the gentleman and respected NBA elder had turned into Dan the bitter.

The Nuggets ownership situation was making anything but the cheapest of moves impossible. Issel had to clear any potential move through THREE sets of owners. Ascent, Liberty and Denver billionaire Donald Sturm who had an agreement in principal to buy the Avs, Nugs and Pepsi Center. As Sturm's proposal (and subsequent proposal from Stan Kroenke's brother in law Bill Laurie) was rejected by Ascent's shareholders, the Nuggets money was rapidly drying up. Issel couldn't get anything done.

With that backdrop, Issel coached the Nuggets to their best record since 1995 with a 40-42 record. Things were on the rise and Antonio McDyess was the catalyst. In what could be argued as Antonio McDyess's best year as a pro, he led the Nuggets with 20.8 points and 12.1 rebounds A GAME. McDyess was everything we wanted Nene to be. A reliable scorer and rebounding presence. Athletic freak who, if combined with the right players, would become something special.

Stan Kroenke bought the Nuggets in July of 2000. Issel gave up his GM/President job to Kiki Vandeweghe and continued coaching. However, both Issel and Antonio McDyess were not long for Denver. 10 games in to the 2001-2002 season McDyess suffered a Patella Tendon rupture. He had season ending knee surgery and missed, in effect, two complete seasons. In the meantime, 24 games into the season Dan Issel snapped and hurled an expletive and racial slur at a Hispanic fan at Pepsi Center. He later resigned. It was a sad end to a hall of fame career. Issel later left the state of Colorado and declared bankruptcy. At heart, Issel was a decent man who became consumed by the business aspect of running a team. It crushed him. The decent and generous man who coached the Nuggets from 1992-1994 was gone.

As for McDyess, Vandeweghe decided it was best to move him on. Trading him to the New York Knicks for the draft rights' to Nene, Mark Jackson, and Marcus Camby. McDyess never again achieved what he did as a Nugget. His knee wouldnt' allow it. From then on Dyess was a glorified role player on contending teams. An off the bench guy, not a star. Dyess never averaged over 9 points a game for the rest of his career.

Oh what could have been. McDyess had the makings of a long time star in this league until a freak injury happened. It was a knee injury so powerful it sunk the career's of both a player an a coach. However, I choose to remember McDyess as the athletic freak he was. The joy he brought Denver fans though the tough lean 90's was immeasurable. Here are the numbers for Antonio McDyess in his first 6 seasons as a pro

Nuggets 1995-96: 13.4 points 7.5 rebounds
Nuggets 1996-97: 18.3
points 7.3 rebounds
Suns 1997-98: 15.1
points 7.6 rebounds
Nuggets 1998-99: 21.2
points 10.7 rebounds
Nuggets 1999-00: 19.1
points 8.5 rebounds
Nuggets 2000-01: 20.8
points 12.1 rebounds

Below is a video tribute to the Dyess man set to a really bad hip hop song. The man deserved better and for a brief 6 years he was amazing to behold.

Antonio McDyess (via junho91)

***

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Twitter: @jmorton78 https://twitter.com/#!/jmorton78

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