The Denver Nuggets miracle run to, very nearly, making the NBA Western Conference Finals in the 1993-94 season started relatively inauspiciously in the summer of 1993. Twenty years ago this offseason, the Nuggets made some minor moves that proved to be critical in pushing the team toward its miracle run in the playoffs. It all started in June.
How Dan Issel saved the credibility of the Nuggets
It could be argued that the best decision Bernie Bickerstaff ever made in his tenure as Nuggets General Manager (1990-97) was understanding his mistake in hiring Paul Westhead after he fired Doug Moe in 1990. Westhead and his run and gun, no defensive system was so bad (Nuggets averaged 119.9 points per game, but gave up 130.8 points per), that the Nuggets won a total of 44 games in two seasons: 20-62 in 1990-91 and 24-58 in 1991-92. To remedy this, Bernie hired well-respected former Nuggets player and future Hall of Famer Dan Issel in 1992 to coach a very young Nuggets squad. Issel had been working as a part-time Nuggets color analyst and running a horse farm in Kentucky.
The move to replace Westhead with Issel helped restore credibility to a Nuggets organization that had been in perpetual flux since 1989 when the team was sold to Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee, then unsold, then sold again to Bynoe and Lee and majority partner COMSAT Video Entertainment Group, and subsequently found out that Lee couldn't afford to buy a team and had been evicted from his Boston apartment. It was ownership hell combined with Westhead's ridiculous offensive system that made the Nuggets the laughingstock of the NBA, for a time.
The Nuggets payroll was at, or near the bottom of the league in those years. With so many high draft picks due to tanking and poor play the team's oldest player was Scott Hastings (who was 31 years-old when he came to the Nuggets in 1991 via trade). Meanwhile, when Issel took over he slowed the pace of play a bit and took a more defensive approach (as much as he could with the players assembled).
Prior to the 1993 Offseason
The key to the defense was the rebounding and shot blocking Dikembe Mutombo, the team's 4th overall selection in the 1991 draft out of Georgetown (by way of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa). In the 1992 draft the Nuggets were looking to add pieces around their center and selected power forward LaPhonso Ellis (5th pick) out of Notre Dame and shooting guard Bryant Stith (13th pick) out of Virginia.
The seeds of a potentially good team were sewn with those three hopeful cornerstones. Additionally, Chris Jackson (who became Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf before the 1993 season) was finally starting to develop into the shooter the Nuggets thought he could be when Doug Moe drafted him (the 3rd overall pick in the 1990 draft out of Louisiana State). Note: in one of the more bizarre firings in NBA history, Bickerstaff let Moe conduct the draft in 1990, and THEN fired him ... to which Moe arrived in a Hawaiian shirt and toasted his firing with champagne.
Jackson, aka Rauf, cemented himself as the team's point guard, going from starting just 11 games the previous season to starting 81 games in 81 games played (1992-93), and a clutch shooter (like in the last game of the season against the Phoenix Suns, watch right here).
Also, before the 1992-93 season the Nuggets traded for Robert Pack - an undrafted point guard acquired by the Nuggets for a second round pick from the Blazers - whose impact as a reserve was immediate and explosive. He averaged 10.5 points and 4.4 assists for the team in 20 minutes a night after scoring just 4.6 ppg for the Blazers in 12 minutes per game his rookie season.
The 1992-93 Nuggets went 36-46, winning 12 more games than they did in the previous year under Westhead. Issel was tough on the players, but he also seemed to have everyone's respect and was certainly more credible than their previous coach. For the first time since the 1987-88 season there was a tangible sense of hope when the Nuggets season concluded.
None of this would have happened if the Nuggets and (to his credit) Bickerstaff had not signed Dan Issel. While hindsight has crippled his reputation due to his second, and disastrous, stint in Denver (1998-2002), it could be argued that the single greatest coaching job in Nuggets history was about to unfold in 1994. Issel was highly credible, had years of broadcast experience, and was one of the most beloved players ever to wear a Nuggets uniform.
The team made NBA history in 1994 ... and it started with some key offseason moves.
1993: Here comes Rodney Rogers and Brian Williams
With the 9th pick in the 1993 draft, the Nuggets selected Rodney Rogers out of Wake Forest. He was a 6'7" combo forward. He was lithe enough on the offensive end to back up veteran Reggie Williams (who was now the oldest player on the roster in just his 6th NBA season once Scott Hastings retired following the 1992-93 season) at the small forward spot, but was also big enough to play power forward and back-up LaPhonso Ellis. He could also hit the three-point shot ... and he gave Nuggets fans one of the most exciting end of game sequences in NBA History, during his rookie season:
The Nuggets lost the game, but that showed you more than anything else his ability to score from outside despite having such a compact body. The Nugget got a steal at the 9th position in that draft, and he would go on to be a HUGE factor against the Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs, even though he was just a rookie. This draft pick was a bonanza for the very young Nuggets team.
On August 19th of 1993, Bernie Bickerstaff pulled off the second best trade of his time in Denver by trading fan favorite Todd Lichti and little-used Anthony Cook to the Orlando Magic for Brian Williams (aka: Bison Dele). Williams came along as a back-up to Mutombo and became a rebounding force to be reckoned with on Issel's new offensively challenged Nuggets squad. Watch his highlights right here.
Williams' toughness was invaluable on the defensive end, particularly when playing the 6'10" Detlef Schrempf of the Supersonics. The scrapes those two would get into on the court were testy and epic. Most of all, Williams' ability to play "big" ball alongside Mutombo proved to be a huge factor in what was to come in the playoffs that season.
So, the roster was set heading into training camp. For the first time in what seemed to be ages, there was a buzz around this Nuggets team. While no expectations were set, there was a palpable sense of potential that permeated as camp began. The Nuggets seemed to be doing everything right ... or so it seemed.
Behind the scenes there were tense moments between Bickerstaff and Issel in regards to the roster. Things would stay that way into the next season. While outwardly they projected harmony, behind the scenes Bernie and Dan were on two different planets ... and with COMSAT barely paying any attention to the Nuggets (team President Tim Leiweke already had his eye on bringing an NHL team to Colorado and seeds were planted to start moving toward building a new arena) the team was left for Bickerstaff to run.
Again, all of that was behind the scenes. For all intents and purposes, the Nuggets rebuild was going along swimmingly. The season would play out in an unexpected way ... and culminate in a miracle.
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