How things have changed…

In order to fully appreciate what happened in 2003, and the lucky break the Nuggets got in the draft that season, we must go back two seasons to find out how the Nuggets got to where they were. It all started with horrible luck and the knee of a rising star.

Dan Issel, new management and a torn patella tendon

In the 2000-01 season, the Denver Nuggets finished 40-42 … their best record since 1994-95 (41-41) and only the third time they reached the 40 win mark since the 1990-91 season (they finished with a 42-40 record in 1993-94). Coach/Team President Dan Issel was involved in all those 40 and 40+ win seasons (Issel resigned mid-way through the 1994-95 season). There was some promise heading in to the 2001-02 season and, for the first time in many seasons there was a twinge of optimism about the Denver Nuggets.

New owner Stan Kroenke (who purchased the Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche and Pepsi Center in July 2000) decided to replace Issel as team President with new Vice President Kiki Vandeweghe in August of 2001. Issel struggled to both clean up the abject wreckage that Bernie Bickerstaff left in the 1996-97 season (when he replaced Allan Bristow as team President in 1998) and was severely hampered by the constant ownership flux the team was under from 1997-2000. So after assembling a roster featuring the likes of Nick Van Exel (acquired in a trade with the Lakers), Antonio McDyess (acquired in a draft day trade with the Clippers, a former No. 2 overall pick) and Raef LaFrentz (a former No. 3 overall pick), despite the shakiness of the team, you felt relatively good entering the 2001-02 season … and encouraged that Issel would be concentrating on just coaching (although, infamously Van Exel led a boycott of practice after Issel, essentially, used practice as a punishment for members of the team not taking a four-game east coast road trip seriously).

Ten games into the somewhat promising 2001-02 season, McDyess blew out his patella tendon. Possibly the worst knee injury you can suffer. From that point on everything changed. Issel's demeanor (which was sharply different from the affable, classy man who both played for and then coached the Nuggets years earlier) became more and more dour as the losses piled up. McDyess was on the rise as a star in the NBA and things came crashing down with the injury (he averaged 20.8 points and 12.1 rebounds during the 2000-01 season). Just 16 games later … with a record of 9-17, Issel yelled and used racial epithets at a (perhaps drunken) fan after his last loss at home as coach. Issel was caught by a local TV camera crew saying the words and a week later (after being suspended) Issel decided it was best to resign.

The rest of that season Mike Evans coached the team, and the Nuggets finished with a 27-55 record (just 18-38 under Evans). The full on tank job was well in progress.

Kiki, Skita and the Buzz Man

When it was clear that Issel was gone and the hopes of resurgence without the injured McDyess were remote, Kiki Vandeweghe began tanking for draft picks. It started February 21, 2002 at the trade deadline when Kiki traded Van Exel, LaFrentz, Avery “Little General” Johnson, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad to the Dallas Mavericks for cheap/expiring contracts (including Tim Hardaway, Donnell Harvery, Juwan Howard, and Dallas’ 2002 1st Round Pick).

The 2002 NBA draft was both great and awful for the Denver Nuggets. Since they finished the season so bad, they ended up with the 5th pick in the draft. With that pick they selected Nikoloz Tskitishvili – who will remain right at the top of all-time Nuggets draft pick busts (along with “El Busto” himself Tony Battie who was also selected with the 5th pick, but in 1997). Skita, as he was then dubbed was great in Summer League, unfortunately he was awful in actual games that counted. He could never shoot straight in games and led to him never getting off the bench and he was out of the league a handful of years later.

However, that same draft Kiki pulled off what was a great trade for the Nuggets, trading the injured Antonio McDyess and Frank Williams (25th pick acquired in Dallas trade) to the New York Knicks for the draft rights to Nene Hilario, Marcus Camby and Mark Jackson (as discussed here). Tremendous value for, essentially, a player (McDyess) whose knee injury relegated him to a role player for the rest of his (admittedly long) NBA career. The Knicks took an enormous risk on McDyess considering the severity of his injury, but the Nuggets also took on a risk by acquiring the oft-injured Camby.

On the coaching front, Kiki hired heretofore unknown Miami Heat assistant coach/scout Jeff Bzdelik. Coach Buzz was an assistant under Pat Riley in Miami and was a bit of a dark horse to coach a very young and mostly talentless team. Predictably, a team featuring Vincent Yarbrough, Camby, Junior Harrington, Skita, Nene and John Crotty was doomed to be a basement dweller in the NBA.

My colleague Andrew Feinstein has argued that Coach Buzz did a great job in getting the team to a 17-65 record (tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for worst record in the NBA) with that talent bereft roster. I tend to think that’s probably about where this team would have ended up anyway. It pales in comparison to the train wreck that Bickerstaff foisted upon the Nuggets in 1997-98 (even though Bristow gets credit for that awful 11-71 team) and as later history proved, Bzdelik’s wandering eye and unreasonable expectations got the best of him on multiple subsequent occasions.

However, the Nuggets were set up in prime position in one of the most loaded drafts in NBA history. All they needed was some ping pong luck to bounce their way and they could select the most highly touted player to come into the NBA in many years … LeBron James

2003 Draft and how Joe Dumars saved Kiki Vandeweghe from himself

The Nuggets historic string of bad luck in the NBA draft lottery continued in 2003. Despite being tied for the worst record in basketball, the Nuggets … once again, lost out on the top spot. Instead the first pick in the draft went to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the second went to the Detroit Pistons (who, despite appearing in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before had a lottery pick from what was then the Vancouver Grizzlies – acquired in a trade that featured Otis Thorpe) and the third pick went to the Nuggets. This was a stacked draft, featuring the likes of the aforementioned James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and David West. Despite the continued draft lottery bad luck, the Nuggets were fortunate that they were bad in such a great draft.

Before I proceed, let me pose a hypothetical. Stay with me now … envision the 2003 Denver Nuggets featuring a lineup of Andre Miller, Voshon Leonard, Rodney White, Nene and Darko Milicic. It very nearly happened, and we have Joe Dumars to thank for saving Vandeweghe from himself and adding yet another bust to his Nuggets executive resume.

After James was predictably taken with the first pick by the Cavs it was expected that Joe Dumars, the GM of the Pistons, would take the next best player available … Carmelo Anthony. Seemed like a no-brainer. However, in a moment that shocked everyone, Dumars took Milicic … a 7'0" center from Serbia. Kiki had gone on record many times before the draft saying how much he liked the Serbian Center, and there was a feeling in Denver that when (not if) Darko fell to the Nuggets … the Nuggets head man would take him.

Dumars surprised everyone in the NBA when he took Darko with the second pick in the draft. Therefore Vandeweghe had no choice but to select Melo with the third pick (remember, at the time Wade was not as highly touted … and Melo was coming off a National Championship with Syracuse) and that set in motion what was to come for the next 10 seasons. When you look at the alternative "intended" pick, despite what everyone thinks of Melo right now, the history of this franchise could have been much, much different.

How a single draft pick changed the culture of losing in Denver

We can sit here and debate the actual tangible talent of Carmelo Anthony until the cows come home. My argument is that the very fact the Nuggets picked Melo, someone who was anointed a superstar ever before he set foot on an NBA court, changed everything for the Denver Nuggets. While the Nuggets roster was augmented with the likes of a younger Andre Miller, Nene and Camby (as well as Jon Barry) you can’t escape that the REASON there was a buzz around the city of Denver was directly because of Carmelo.

I will never forget the first game of the 2003-04 regular season. The Nuggets unveiled new uniforms (powder blue and yellow) and each member of the Nuggets, when introduced, came out from the Pepsi Center crowd. Unbelievable energy that had not been seen in Denver since the 1994 playoffs. Additionally the team upset the defending NBA champions San Antonio Spurs 80-72 that night. The magic returned to Denver.

That season the Nuggets finished with a 43-39 record, their best since the 1989-90 (also 43-39) season and one of the biggest single-season record turnarounds in NBA history. Melo finished with an average of 21 points and 6.1 rebounds a game (where did THOSE rebounds come from?) and probably SHOULD have won rookie of the year over LeBron, considering the Nuggets ended up in the playoffs for the first time since 1994-95 – while the Cavs failed to make the post-season. While the Nuggets lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves (Kevin Garnett’s best season as a pro), the groundwork was laid for future success.

Suddenly, the Nuggets were appearing on nationally televised games again. People were talking (albeit not as much as other teams) about the Nuggets. From that moment on, the Nuggets have never missed the playoffs, have won over 50 games five times, gone to the Western Conference Finals and won a franchise record 57 games in the 2012-13 season. While the success of that standard is not what we as fans want in terms of actual playoffs success, considering the Nuggets previous 12 seasons were (outside of three 40 win seasons) abject failures … well, it's amazing to see the transformation of this organization. It all began June 26, 2003.

It's funny to think though … if Antonio McDyess never blew out his knee 10 games into the 2001-02 season, how much different would this Nuggets team and organization be? What would they look like right now? It's safe to say that if McDyess remained healthy, Issel would not have blown a gasket at that drunk fan and he would have remained coach for the remainder of that season. What happens next? No Skita no McDyess trade for Camby and Nene, probably no Melo. Would the Nuggets have remained a mediocre team? It is amazing that a player altering his career forever also affected the Nuggets so profoundly.

It's amazing how much luck can change your future.


Twitter: @jmorton78!/jmorton78

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