In the Summer of 1996 Nuggets Coach/General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff saw the handwriting on the wall of his time in Denver. He suddenly set about finishing the job of destroying a Nuggets team that was the most exciting in the NBA just two seasons before. In the year of 1995-96 the Nuggets fielded a lineup consisting of Dikembe Mutombo, Jalen Rose, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, Dale Ellis, Antonio McDyess and somehow managed to only win 35 games that season. It would get worse ... In the span of a month Bickerstaff:
- Traded Mahmoud Abdul Rauf to the Sacramento Kings for Sarunus Marciulionis and a 2nd Round Pick
- Drafted Efthimios Rentzias
- Let Dikembe Mutombo go in free agency for nothing on July 15th (a day before my 18th birthday ... yay!)
Jalen Rose has recently gone on record on his podcast as saying that, despite making the playoffs in his FIRST year in Denver (he says second on the podcast) that Bickerstaff deliberately went about deconstructing this Nuggets team because he knew that he was out the door. Another slimy move from the worst General Manager in Nuggets history.
All of this lead to the Nuggets amassing a 21-61 record, third worst in the NBA that season (after the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs). Things got so bad that there are legendary tales of players noticing interim coach Dick Motta so checked out that the veterans didn't bother showing up for practice. Mid way through the season Bickerstaff resigned as coach, and shortly after that was fired as General Manager by Ascent Chairman Charlie Lyons.
In short things were a dumpster fire in Denver, but the holy grail lay in wait. Tim Duncan, a 6-11 power forward from Wake Forest ... highly coveted by every single team in the NBA, was available. He was certainly going number one. What better time for the Nuggets to right the ship, and for new General Manager Allan Bristow to hit the ground running after Bickerstaff gutted the team.
As the story of the 90's Nuggets goes, things werent that simple. There was the draft lottery of 1997.
All Nuggets fans know by this point that the Nuggets "luck" in the NBA Draft Lottery is, well, sub par. In fact the Nuggets have never done better than their projected slot in any Lottery, and have, in fact, done worse 5 times. One of those times was 1997, where the Nuggets had the third worst record and ... picked 5th. The Nuggets ended up drafting Tony "El Busto" Battie and the rest of that decade is something I'd rather like to forget.
Yet, the Nuggets weren't the only team that was gunnin' for Duncan. The Boston Celtics made no bones about it and tanked the crap out of that season. Rick Pitino (incoming coach and Vice President) was counting on getting Duncan to reignite his second stint as an NBA coach. Well ... that didn't happen. They fell to third in the NBA Draft Lottery and drafted Chauncey Billups. Pitino hated Chauncey so much he traded him midway through his ROOKIE season. That draft essentially destroyed Pitino as an NBA coach. He left after three seasons.
The 76ers drafted Allen Iverson the year before. That would have been an interesting team. The Big Fundamental with the Answer. Who knows what that would have produced. Vancouver? Not a good franchise at the time and quite frankly had very little foundation to build on until the next season when they drafted Mike Bibby.
The San Antonio Spurs had, by leaps and bounds and miles and miles the BEST team of that draft lottery. Their 1996-97 season has been debate in the annuls of NBA history for 17 years. Did they tank? Did Gregg Popovich (who fired coach Bob Hill, who had lead the team to a 59-23 record the PREVIOUS SEASON and installed himself as coach) keep an injured David Robinson and Sean Elliot out in order to get the best draft pick possible? No way to prove it to be honest.
This leads to be the conclusion that, as LUCKY as the Spurs were to get Tim Duncan, Duncan was equally if not MORE lucky to be drafted by the Spurs.
Imagine Duncan in the dumpster fire that was the late 90's Nuggets? Would his career be wasted like Antonio McDyess' career was? Lets be honest, the Denver Nuggets were about to enter into a period where they would have Bill Hanzlik as head coach. The subsequent Nuggets team would win only 11 games and draft Raef LaFrentz with the third pick the following year (again...falling BACKWARD in the draft lottery). While the Nuggets subsequent record would have been better undoubtedly with Duncan on the team, it wouldn't have been much better. The team was about to enter into a period where they didn't know who their owner was, would go through a period where they had three owners at once in 1999 -2000 and was generally chaotic until Stan Kroenke purchased the team in July of 2000.
Tim Duncan wouldn't have ended up the player he became on the Nuggets. Nor the Grizzlies or the Celtics. Pitino wasn't cut out to be an NBA coach and pretty much destroyed Billups confidence. It took Kevin Garnett to lift Chauncey up again. The Sixers, as I said, would have been interesting. Not sure what to say about the combo of Iverson and Duncan.
However, the Spurs had David Robinson, one of the 50 greatest players in NBA History. They had what was to become a legendary coach in Pop. You had a still-viable Sean Elliot (before he became the single most annoying color analyst in broadcasting history) and a borderline GREAT team around him. Duncan benefited from the Spurs ability to develop him on a great team as much as Duncan lifted them up.
We can complain about the Nuggets and their missed opportunities. They exist and they are depressing but let us sit back and understand that ... Tim Duncan was LUCKY to have been drafted by the Spurs and not the Nuggets. His experience playing with The Admiral molded into the all-time great player he became after Robinson was no longer on the Spurs.
The Nuggets of today, if they Drafted a Duncan, would be much better equiped to handle and nurture a player of that caliber. Not in 1997. For that, we have Bernie Bickerstaff to "thank".