The Summer of 1996, Mark Jackson and the demise of Bernie Bickerstaff

Doug Pensinger

Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson has an interesting history with your Denver Nuggets. While in no way his fault, his trade to the Denver Nuggets helped bring about the demise of then General Manager/Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Oh what a summer it was.

Warriors coach Mark Jackson has the distinction of being one of a handful of NBA players to be traded to the Nuggets on multiple occasions (along with Antonio McDyess and Chauncey Billups). Jackson came to the Nuggets twice via trade -- once in 1996 and again in 2002 (like McDyess in 2008, he chose a buyout in 2002 ... can't say I blame either of them) and unwittingly played a part in one of the worst trades in Nuggets history. Masai Ujiri was nowhere near the Nuggets at this time, but must have known the consequences of 1996 when he came to the Nuggets in the summer of 2010.

Mark Jackson was a point guard with definitive post up skills who had a tremendous assist reputation from his stops with both the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers. By 1996 he was entering into his 10th year in the league (for readers who are too young to remember Jackson as a player, the closest current analogy I can think of is Andre Miller ... more on that later) and you could argue his best days were behind him. However, sometimes the overall vibe of an organization can alter the perception of what is really going on. In hindsight, Mark Jackson's brief stay in the Nuggets organization was, statistically, one of his best years in the NBA. Something I had not really even thought about before doing research for this article.

1996 is both the year I graduated from high school and maybe the darkest year in Nuggets history. So bad was the offseason that I seriously (for the first time ever) considered giving up on the team. Bernie Bickerstaff, through a series of bungled trades and the mishandling of Dikembe Mutombo tanked the team so thoroughly that subsequent General Managers (Allan Bristow and Dan Issel) struggled to dig out from the hole. It all started, and I would say was cap-stoned in a single day: June 13, 1996.

There were two separate trade transactions that were completed that day in 1996. First Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was traded to the Sacramento Kings for over the hill guard Sarunas Marciulionis and a second round pick. This trade wasn't a surprise. After his National Anthem fiasco in March of that year people felt that Rauf had worn out his welcome. It's a shame. Rauf was probably the purest shooter in Nuggets history and you could argue the Nuggets could have got more in return than Marciulionis and a throw-away pick.

Later on that same day, in a trade that still perplexes me and most Nuggets observers at the time, Bickerstaff traded promising combo guard Jalen Rose, small forward Reggie Williams, and the 10th pick in the draft to the Indiana Pacers for the aforementioned Jackson, 37 year old guard Ricky Pierce and the 23rd pick in the draft.

You see, Bickerstaff had determined that there was no one of "value" that could be taken at the 10th position in the draft, so trading down was his only choice. That would be fine, but giving up Rose (with the benefit of much hindsight, and at the time was based on potential) before you knew what you had was a true folly. Add in to that, the 1996 draft class, taken after the 10th pick contained the likes of Kobe Bryant (13th pick), Peja Stojakovic (14th pick), Steve Nash (15th pick) and Jermaine O'Neal (17th pick) and you begin to see the full terror of the Nuggets blunder. When you add in they drafted a player no one (not even the Nuggets brass) had seen, Efthimios Rentzias. This pick has been covered extensively in the past.

A month later, on July 22, Bernie Bickerstaff would let Dikembe Mutombo walk for nothing because COMSAT/Ascent Entertainment (the Nuggets owners) wouldn't pay what Deke wanted in a contract. The unfortunate aspect of this was that Bickerstaff KNEW COMSAT had no intention of paying Mutombo a market salary and refused to trade him, unlike what the Nuggets did with Carmelo Anthony in 2011. It was a dark, dark summer for Nuggets fans.

With all that being said, Mark Jackson still performed admirably on a really bad team (although the Nuggets still had talent with McDyess, Bryant Stith and Laphonso Ellis) In his time with the Nuggets, Jackson averaged 10.4 points and 12.1 assists a game to go with 5.2 rebounds. A career high average of assists for Jackson. I always have an admiration for players who gut it out on bad teams, if they aren't "stat padding". Jackson clearly was in a bad situation here in Denver and made the best of it. For example, here is a Miller-esque lob pass to the Dyess Man from 1996:

In the grand scheme of things, Jackson was but a curious footnote in Nuggets history. A product of a trade that never should have been consummated. While Jackson performed admirably, he was traded back to the Indiana Pacers on February 20th, 1997 after a total of 52 games as a Nuggets player. Making a horrible trade even more absurd. By the time the year was over, Bernie Bickerstaff who had already stepped down a coach, was then fired as General Manager at the end of the season. In his wake he left a roster almost completely bereft of talent and assets to get better. Subsequently, new GM Allan Bristow had to trade budding star Antonio McDyess to get picks to at least attempt to start the rebuilding process.

Aside from all that horrible history, it's important that we look back on that time and understand where we are now. Jackson had a stellar career and went to the NBA Finals with Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose in 2000 on an Indiana Pacers team coached by Larry Bird. He went from TV Analyst to, now, coaching one of the NBA's most exciting teams in the Golden State Warriors. I'm sure he looks back on his brief 52 game stay with the Nuggets as just a brief stop on the road. I appreciate him being a professional in a very bad situation with the Nuggets, and he eventually went back to what was then a winning organization (along with former Nuggets TV/Radio Legend Al Albert). Looking at Andre Miller now, he is like a version of Jackson with shorter arms and a worse jumper.

The Nuggets had to struggle through the immense wreckage that Bickerstaff brought on the Nuggets, but are now celebrating their 10th consecutive year in the playoffs. Something that in 1996 was virtually unthinkable. Kroenke Sports Enterprises, Kiki Vandeweghe, Mark Warkentien, Rex Chapman, Bret Bearup and Masai Ujiri all deserve a little bit of credit in restoring a dead franchise. This franchise is a model of consistency in the NBA. We have come a long way since then and we all have tremendous hope for the future even still.

What a dramatic change from 1996. We as Nuggets fans, and I'm sure Mark Jackson look back on those days and think -- so glad we ended up here, from there.

***

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