The summer of 2013 will undoubtedly go down in Denver Nuggets history as one of the most bizarre in franchise history. Coming off an NBA franchise-best 57 regular season wins (and a third overall seed in a brutally competitive Western Conference to boot), the Nuggets jumped into this off-season by losing their "NBA Executive of the Year" general manager Masai Ujiri to the Toronto Raptors, firing their "NBA Coach of the Year" George Karl, losing their prized free agent in Andre Iguodala and trading away key role players Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer while taking back an assortment of role players in Randy Foye, Darrell Arthur, J.J. Hickson and Nate Robinson.
This collection of moves has left Nuggets fans somewhere between bewildered and perplexed. Or maybe it's between confused and frustrated? Regardless, the Nuggets will enter the 2013-14 NBA season with a roster somewhat re-made (lest we forget that the key players sans Iguodala remain on the team) with a new head coach and new general manager supervising the re-making.
But as I've written before, I don't foresee this tumultuous off-season having grave impacts on the Nuggets season. Would they be a little better - or at least as good - had Ujiri, Karl and Iguodala stayed? Perhaps. But with the Houston Rockets nabbing Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Clippers upgrading both their roster and their head coach, the Nuggets were likely to slip down two or three seeds with or without Iguodala anchoring the starting two-guard spot.
And, believe it or not, this off-season ranks as simply one of several bizarre off-seasons that we as Nuggets fans have had to endure since the team joined the NBA in 1976.
Coming off three straight playoff appearances under head coach Doug Moe (he of the "Stiff" phrase-coining) featuring one of the NBA's most exciting run-and-gun teams, then Nuggets GM Vince Boryla made a blockbuster trade that shocked the entire NBA. In June, Boryla traded All-Star (and the NBA's third-leading scorer) Kiki Vandeweghe to the Portland Trailblazers in exchange for Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, Wayne Cooper, a second round pick and a first round pick in 1985 that became Blair Rasmussen.
Controversial at the time and very upsetting to many Nuggets fans, the trade had an immediate positive impact on the team as the Nuggets ended up in the 1985 Western Conference Finals and were one of the West's most competitive teams throughout the remainder of the decade with Lever leading the way. When ranking the Nuggets best trades of all time, I put this one as second. And Boryla was rewarded with the NBA's Executive of the Year Award in 1985 for having the foresight to pull off this major deal.
Just five years removed from competing in the Western Conference Finals, new Nuggets ownership consisting of Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee (a disastrous ownership period recapped in detail by Jeff Morton recently) decided they weren't satisfied with a playoff bottom feeder that loses in the first round each season. And rather than build upon a roster that still featured star caliber players like Alex English, Fat Lever and Michael Adams, at ownership's direction new GM (and Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award Winner) Bernie Bickerstaff pulled off one of the great "gut and tank" jobs in NBA history.
In one summer, Bickerstaff said goodbye to Nuggets stalwarts English (via free agency), Lever (traded to Dallas for draft picks) and starting center Danny Schayes (traded to Milwaukee), and gone also was legendary head coach Doug Moe (the coach with the most wins in Nuggets history) in place of Paul Westhead ... who hadn't coached an NBA game since
Magic Johnson had him fired from the Los Angeles Lakers fired him in 1981.
Talk about a disruptive off-season! The pick brought in for Lever was then parlayed with the Nuggets' own first round round pick in a trade with the Miami Heat that enabled the Nuggets to draft Chris Jackson (who later became Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, via name change not trade for those not old enough to remember). Under Westhead's stewardship, the Nuggets soon became the laughingstock of the NBA, would "win" 20 games and couldn't even land the first overall pick at season's end.
Believe it or not, Bickerstaff's "gut and tank" job of 1990 almost worked. By the time the 1993-94 season came around (which Jeff will be memorializing this summer in honor of its 20th anniversary), Bickerstaff had assembled a roster deep in young talent and character, with the likes of Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Reggie Williams, Robert Pack and Brian Williams on board for one of the franchise's greatest playoff runs ever, when the 42-win Nuggets defeated the 63-win Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the NBA playoffs ... becoming the first ever eighth-seed to knock off a one-seed in the NBA Playoffs.
But thanks to misfortune (Ellis' devastating knee injury in 1994, head coach Dan Issel abruptly resigning the following season) and mismanagement, the Nuggets went from a would-be dynasty to a lottery denizen in just two years. Coming off a disappointing 35-win season, Bickerstaff supervised what was arguably the most bizarre and worst off-season in Nuggets history.
It all started with the 1996 NBA Draft when Bickerstaff - holding onto the 10th overall pick - arbitrarily decided that there wasn't a player worth drafting after nine and subsequently traded the pick, along with Reggie Williams and rising star Jalen Rose, to the Indiana Pacers for an aging Mark Jackson, an aging Ricky Pierce and the 23rd overall pick (which Bickerstaff used to draft Efthimios Rentzias - a name I've typed so many times on this blog that I don't have to look it up anymore) ... missing out on Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jermaine O'Neal and Peja Stojakovic in the process.
Then Bickerstaff doubled down on stupid by trading away Abdul-Rauf to the Sacramento Kings for an aging and oft-injured Sarunas Marciulionis and, unforgivably, allowed perennial All-Star center Mutombo to walk away to the Atlanta Hawks for nothing. For nothing! Thanks to the off-season of 1996, the Nuggets wouldn't return to the playoffs for seven years.
Following that trend, the man that was once traded in a surprising blockbuster was now doing the trading on behalf of the organization in 2002 when Kiki Vandeweghe took over as general manager for the 2001-02 season (a forgettable 27-win campaign). Well before the 2002 off-season began, Vandeweghe had already made a splash when he sent Nick Van Exel, Raef LaFrentz, Avery Johnson and Tariq Abdul-Wahad to Dallas in exchange for Juwan Howard, Donnell Harvey and Tim Hardaway, setting up a "gut and tank" job that is legendary even by NBA standards. Aiming squarely for a deep 2003 NBA Draft, Vandeweghe continued his tank job into the off-season to ensure that the Nuggets would suck - and I mean suck - throughout the 2002-03 NBA season.
To do this, Vandeweghe drafted a raw Georgian prodigy named Nikoloz Tskitishvili (another name I no longer have to look up) fifth overall in the 2002 NBA Draft and then pulled off a draft day coup by trading away the oft-injured Antonio McDyess to the New York Knicks for Camby, Mark Jackson and the draft rights to a Brazilian named Nene Hilario (I ranked that trade as third best of all time in Nuggets history). To top things off, Vandeweghe hired a no-name coach named Jeff Bzdelik to supervise the 2002-03 tank job.
Vandeweghe's plan worked (sort of), as he landed Carmelo Anthony with the third overall pick the following off-season and the Nuggets haven't missed a post-season since.
The 2010 off-season wasn't bizarre so much for the transactions that took place but rather for what was happening surrounding the organization. Even though it feels like a lifetime ago, it was only three years ago that the Nuggets organization and its fans were enduring the summer-long Melodrama as Anthony - an unrestricted free agent-to-be after the completion of the 2010-11 NBA season - refused to sign a contract extension to remain in Denver, immediately fueling speculation that Anthony would be traded before training camp that fall.
Making matters that summer even more bizarre, the Nuggets didn't renew the contracts of their two-headed general manager duo of Mark Warkentien (who had won the NBA's Executive of the Year Award just a year earlier) and Rex Chapman, and opted instead to bring the largely unknown and untested Masai Ujiri on board to handle the Melodrama and its aftermath. In fact, the only substantive move made that off-season was when Warkentien overpaid for free agent Al Harrington (and his plantar fasciitis) before his own contract expired. Many people in NBA circles have joked with me that the Harrington signing was "Warkentien's revenge" given that Warkentien knew he probably wasn't coming back.
So there you have it. A quick rundown of some bizarre Nuggets off-seasons. Where exactly does the 2013 off-season rank? I'll let our fellow Stiffs decide.