Who knew that at the beginning of the '00s - with none other than Dan Issel in charge - that the Nuggets would end up having a successful and often thrilling decade? Here's a look back at the last 10 years of Denver Nuggets basketball...
At the conclusion of the 1990s, the Nuggets were in utter disarray. As documented in detail here at Denver Stiffs, this once proud and respected franchise had been turned into an NBA laughingstock thanks to a lethal combination of ineptitude, incompetence, and ignorance. Between 1990 and 1999, the Nuggets made the playoffs just twice and Nuggets fans were forced to endure seasons with win totals under 40 games eight times (including the lockout shortened 1998-99 season in which the Nuggets would likely have "won" about 25 games had an 82-game season been played out). We witnessed five seasons in which the Nuggets won less than 24 games, and in 1997-98 the 11-win Nuggets won less games than the Broncos that year.
Making matters worse throughout the 1990s, the Nuggets never caught a break. Even though they participated in eight NBA Draft lotteries, twice sported the worst record in the NBA (1990-91 and again after that infamous 1997-98 campaign) and had a bottom-four record five total times, the highest pick they were ever rewarded was third (which Issel promptly screwed up by drafting Raef LaFrentz over Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and Antawn Jamison). We missed out on all the game-changing draftees of the 1990s: Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Webber and Tim Duncan. And a freak knee injury sustained by rising star LaPhonso Ellis in 1994 would prove to be the undoing of the Nuggets only good team of the decade: the 1993-94 squad that had just stunned the NBA world by beating the number-one seeded Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs before taking the Utah Jazz to seven in Round 2.
But make no mistake about it, the Nuggets problems throughout the 1990s were self-inflicted. Cartoonish figures such as Peter Bynoe, Bertram Lee, the Comsat "Corporation," Paul Westhead, Bernie Bickerstaff, Allan Bristow and finally, Issel, made every wrong/bad decision possible, leaving the Nuggets organization in tatters until Stanley E. Kroenke rescued the franchise in 2000 with his purchase of the team. Upon arrival, Kroenke made it clear that he wanted to win and win now, and thus set in motion a series of events that produced one of the better decades in franchise history...
2000-2001 (40-42, no playoffs)
In an increasingly tough Western Conference, the Nuggets remarkably won 40 games but were still seven games off the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. While a 40-win season would normally be a good thing having come off a 35-win season, team "president", "head coach" and dictator Dan Issel had already mortgaged the Nuggets future by sending away numerous first round picks in order to build that 40-win team.
Non-Stiff of the Year: Antonio McDyess
Coming off a gold-medal winning performance in the Sydney Olympics, McDyess was a stud in 2000-01. The quiet, dignified power forward averaged 20.8 ppg, 12.1 rpg and 1.5 bpg and even made the All-Star team.
Stiff of the Year: Dan Issel
The aforementioned Issel had previously (and foolishly) traded away the Nuggets own first round picks for 1999, 2000 and 2001 - all lottery picks, mind you - and after an assortment of complicated, even more stupid deals, for those picks he essentially brought back Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Kevin Willis (on the very wrong side of his career), Voshon Lenard and Tracy Murray. But that was just off-the-court. On-the-court, Issel was a tyrant with his players and the refs. At one point, his players were so fed up with the way he was treating Raef LaFrentz (a draft bust of Issel's own making) and others, that point guard Nick Van Exel led a player boycott of practice.
2001-02 (27-55, no playoffs)
After years of overpaying for mediocre players and parting with valuable first round picks in exchange for nothing, the wheels finally came off the Issel Administration and the Nuggets fell apart in 2001-02, precipitated by a major knee injury to McDyess that caused him to miss all but 10 games of the season. Prior to the season starting, Kroenke - either sensing that Issel had too much power, was too incompetent or both - astutely hired Kiki Vandeweghe as GM to a five-year contract.
Non-Stiff of the Year: Kiki Vandeweghe
After Issel "resigned" the day after Christmas (more on that shortly), Vandeweghe gutted out the roster and made a controversial move that would put the Nuggets on the path of success they still enjoy today. Knowing the Nuggets were going nowhere with the expensive roster he inherited, Vandeweghe boldly shipped out Van Exel, LaFrentz, Abdul-Wahad and Avery Johnson (another overpayee thanks to Issel) to Dallas in exchange for Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, Donnell Harvey and a future first round pick. When the Nuggets eventually met the Mavericks in the 2009 playoffs second round, I detailed how that major trade actually brought the two once dormant franchises together.
Stiff of the Year: Dan Issel
"Go drink another beer, you Mexican piece of shit!" Those nine words - uttered by Issel towards a heckling Hispanic Nuggets fan after a December 10th loss to the Charlotte Hornets - were exactly what Kroenke and Vandeweghe needed to kick Issel out the door. Issel, a Nuggets legend as a player, had built up so much great PR in the community (he still has some...note Woody Paige's ludicrous suggestion that the Nuggets bring Issel back to the organization last year) that he would have been tough to fire otherwise. After serving a four-game suspension, Issel "resigned" on December 26th, 2001 and unfortunately for Issel, things haven't exactly worked out for him since.
Stiff of the Year Runner-Up: Tim Hardaway
Unlike Howard who - knowing playing in Denver would be a brutal, losing situation - accepted the trade to the Nuggets and behaved like a total professional during his time here (it helps when you're getting paid $18.8 and then $20.1 million per season!), Hardaway was a petulant, angry brat who never got over leaving Dallas where he was hoping to gravy train his way into an NBA Championship. After starting 14 games for the Nuggets, Hardaway unleashed his anger on a TV monitor by throwing it onto the floor and getting himself suspended two games.
2002-03 (17-65, no playoffs)
Entering the 2002-03 NBA season, Vandeweghe purposefully compiled the worst roster in modern NBA history in hopes of tanking enough games to win the first pick in the draft (knowing that on the horizon was one of the better drafts in NBA history). The Nuggets starting back court of Vincent Yarbrough and Junior Harrington couldn't crack a 14-man roster the following season, and the rest of the roster was littered with names you already don't remember. Armed with two lottery picks - thanks to a great trade that sent McDyess to New York in exchange for Marcus Camby and the Knicks lottery pick - Vandeweghe drafted Nene and some skinny kid from Georgia, and I'm not talking about the university (more on him shortly).
Non-Stiff of the Year: Jeff Bzdelik
In spite of being dealt the worst hand ever dealt a coach in modern NBA history, rookie head coach Jeff Bzdelik refused to make excuses, worked his ass off and was able to get 17 wins out of our Nuggets. I'd argue that was 17 more wins than they should have had and Bzdelik should have gotten Coach of the Year consideration. The Nuggets were awful talent-wise, but they played harder than their opponent almost every night.
Stiff of the Year: Nikoloz Tskitishvili
Drafted fifth overall out of the Republic of Georgia, "Skita" has since gone down in history as the worst fifth overall pick of all time (and believe me, there have been some bad fifth overall picks). Given ample opportunity to succeed in his first season, Skita - listed at seven-feet tall - shot 29.3% from the field as a rookie. At a game in Los Angeles against the Lakers, I once saw Skita shoot a wide open shot in which the ball hit the shot clock first before getting anywhere near the backboard or rim.
2003-04 (43-39, 1-4 in the playoffs)
A full 10 years after upsetting the Sonics in the playoffs, the Nuggets finally got their act together and Coloradoans cared about basketball again. Unable to shake the Nuggets streak of bad luck with the Draft Lottery, Vandeweghe got lucky nonetheless thanks to Detroit GM Joe Dumars' stupidly drafting Darko Milicic (i.e. Skita 2.0), leaving Syracuse star/stud Carmelo Anthony available with the third overall pick. And with Howard's giant contract coming off the books, Vandeweghe was finally able to spend Kroenke's money. Free agent signees Andre Miller, Jon Barry and Earl Boykins joined Melo, Nene and a healthy Camby. Under Bzdelik's stewardship, the Nuggets won 43 games and put up a respectable fight against the Timberwolves in the playoffs first round. As fans, we were happy just to be in the playoffs!
Non-Stiff of the Year: Carmelo Anthony
For the first time since Alex English last donned a rainbow jersey, the Nuggets had a perennial All-Star caliber player in Melo. As a rookie, Melo averaged 21 ppg and 6.1 rpg while giving fellow rookie phenom LeBron James a run for the Rookie of the Year Award. But more importantly, Melo led the Nuggets back to the postseason in a hyper-competitive Western Conference, whereas LBJ couldn't do the same in Cleveland in the weakened Eastern Conference.
Stiff of the Year: Rodney White
Playing for his next contract after his rookie deal was due to expire in two seasons, White gave the Nuggets next-to-nothing in 2003-04 even though he appeared in 72 games and received 14 minutes of playing time per game. Just a few years removed from being the ninth overall pick to Detroit (ahem...Joe Dumars again), White would be out of the NBA completely after the 2004-05 campaign. But hey, at least he was nominated for the Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame!
2004-05 (49-33, 1-4 in the playoffs)
Wanting to build upon the Nuggets newly found success (and at Kroenke's alleged insistence), Vandeweghe spent the entire 2004 offseason shopping for a big name free agent to bring to Denver. After being turned down by Manu Ginobili and Brad Miller, Vandeweghe panicked and got duped into sending three number one picks to New Jersey for Kenyon Martin in a sign-and-trade deal. K-Mart's price tag? $90 million over seven seasons. Under immense pressure to win more games, Bzdelik and the Nuggets floundered out of the gate, starting out 13-15 before Bzdelik got sacked and replaced by a former WNBA coach (Michael Cooper) who went 4-10 as coach of the team.
Non-Stiff of the Year: George Karl
Inheriting a 17-25 team loaded with talent but without any direction and big egos to boot, Karl's no-nonsense, "my way or the highway" approach immediately turned the Nuggets fortunes around. With only 40 games to work with, Karl guided the Nuggets to a 32-8 record (the best in NBA history after a mid-season coaching switch) and had the Nuggets playing the best basketball in the NBA down the stretch of the regular season.
Stiff of the Year: Kiki Vandeweghe
By acquiring K-Mart, Vandeweghe essentially panicked while throwing away all of the salary cap flexibility he had worked so hard and smartly to cultivate. But worse than that, Vandeweghe was eerily silent while Bzdelik was left to twist in the wind as the Nuggets struggled early in the season. Vandeweghe never publicly defended the one man willing to coach the dreadful 2002-03 roster that Vandeweghe had assembled, and Kiki made matters worse by bringing in Cooper to take over as head coach. The Cooper hire cost the Nuggets a higher playoff seed.
Stiff of the Year Runner-Up: Carmelo Anthony
Melo couldn't stay out of trouble in 2004. First, he was cited for marijuana possession at DIA that his cousin conveniently took the blame for (the old "that wasn't my pot!" excuse). Second, he feuded with Olympic coach Larry Brown in Athens and found himself benched on the 2004 Team USA that embarrassingly finished with a bronze medal. Third - and perhaps the worst/dumbest - Melo was caught on a "Stop Snitching" DVD in which alleged drug dealers explain what happens to people who cooperate with the police. Melo didn't improve much on the floor, either, and found himself (rightfully) in Karl's doghouse early and often.
2005-06 (44-38, 1-4 in the playoffs)
Unable to build off the team's incredible run under Karl to conclude the previous season, injuries ravaged the Nuggets and they limped their way to a 44-38 record. K-Mart and Camby missed 26 games apiece and most tragically, Nene succumbed to the Nuggets power forward curse and was lost for the season with an ACL and MCL tear after just one game. At the time, the Nuggets marketing and PR team spun the season as as success under the guise of "Northwest Division Champs" and that the Nuggets were a three-seed entering the postseason. But this was before the NBA properly seeded division winners who have mediocre records. The Nuggets were such a weak three-seed, that the Clippers purposely tanked games to face them in the first round...and when they got their wish, the Clippers clocked the Nuggets in five games. Oh, and that was the Clippers only playoff series win since becoming the Clippers in 1978. Overall, the season was a mess from from the top down (as chronicled in detail at the time by the Denver Post's Thomas George). Vandeweghe would be let go at season's end and was replaced by Mark Warkentien (and eventually Rex Chapman, too). Dysfunction, egos and injuries had set the Nuggets back a few steps.
Non-Stiff of the Year: (tie) Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller
Melo and Miller played in 80 and 82 games, respectively, and carried the Nuggets in 2005-06. Melo improved his scoring average by over six points per game and his field goal percentage went up, as well. Miller - the modern day NBA "iron man" even if he doesn't condition well in the offseason - was a steady hand as always, starting in all 82 games and dishing out over eight assists per game.
Stiff of the Year: Kenyon Martin
Recovering from microfracture surgery and frustrated by knee tendinitis, K-Mart was pretty surly for much of the season and was morphing into a locker room cancer. He allegedly didn't get along with coaches or teammates (according to George's article, K-Mart's teammates questioned his commitment to recovery and work ethic) and it all came to an ugly head during halftime of Game 2 at Los Angeles, when K-Mart went at it with Karl and several teammates. K-Mart was benched for the remainder of the game and eventually suspended for the duration of the series.
Stiff of the Year Runner-Up: Reggie Evans
As perhaps a microcosm of the dysfunction and lack of respect for the game that was taking over the Nuggets, "The Joker" grabbed Clippers center Chris Kaman's testicles while fighting for a rebound during Game 1 of the Clippers series.
2006-07 (45-37, 1-4 in the playoffs)
In spite of it being K-Mart's turn to succumb to the Nuggets power forward curse (he would play just two games all season) and losing their first three straight games by a total of five points, the Nuggets would win 12 of their first 21 games with Melo playing the best basketball of his career. That all changed abruptly on Saturday, December 16th, 2006. In New York facing the Knicks (who had embarrassingly beaten the Nuggets in Denver in Game 3 of the season), the Nuggets found themselves up 19 with 75 seconds to go. Karl - alleged by some to want to rub the victory in Knicks coach Isiah Thomas' face (Thomas had recently sandbagged Karl's good friend Larry Brown) - left his starters on the floor, prompting Thomas to send in his "goon squad" and make the Nuggets pay. What began as a hard, unnecessary, dangerous, around-the-neck foul on J.R. Smith by the Knicks' Mardy Collins erupted into a full-scale brawl...culminating with Melo's cheap shot punch on Collins. Melo would be suspended 15 games and Smith 10, prompting Nuggets management to attempt to salvage the season by bringing in super star guard Allen Iverson from Philadelphia in exchange for Miller, Joe Smith and two first round picks. Little did we know that the fun was just beginning.
Non-Stiff of the Year: Allen Iverson
Welcomed with open arms by Nuggets fans and his new teammates, Iverson made an immediate impact on the Nuggets (on and off the floor, in good ways and bad). But with Melo out 15 games, Iverson was able to keep the Nuggets afloat and competitive almost by himself. When Melo and Iverson finally got to play together for a long stretch, the Nuggets reeled off nine straight wins and 10 of 11 to finish out the season strong as the hottest team in the NBA.
Stiff of the Year: Isiah Thomas
In addition to sinking the Raptors as an incompetent vice president, sinking the CBA in a summer as an incompetent commissioner and sinking the Knicks as an incompetent president/coach/alleged sexual harrasser (hell, Isiah was an incompetent broadcaster, too), Isiah would sink the Nuggets season in one fell swoop by commandeering his players to take out the Nuggets starters in that game.
Stiff of the Year Runner-Up: (tie) Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith
Even though Isiah "started it," Melo and J.R. were unable to keep their heads cool and unnecessarily exacerbated an already ugly situation, ruining the Nuggets entire season as a result.
2007-08 (50-32, 0-4 in the playoffs)
Entering 2007-08, the Nuggets would finally have a training camp with their full roster participating from the get-go. With Melo and Iverson having ample time to play together, optimism in Denver was higher than it had been since entering the 2004-05 campaign. So high was the optimism, in fact, that Kroenke had over $83 million invested in the team's payroll (second or third highest in the league at the time) and Melo and K-Mart started floating out "60 wins" as a realistic goal. But even with Iverson appearing in all 82 games, Camby playing 79, Melo 77, K-Mart 71 and vast improvements seen in the games of bench players J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza, the Nuggets weren't able to secure a playoff spot (an eighth seed no less) until the 79th game of the season with a big win at Golden State. As an eighth seed, the Nuggets got worked over by the Lakers in an embarrassing four-game sweep: a series which saw Melo bark at Karl "don't just sit there!" and the benching of Iverson early in Game 3 that didn't go over well. Prior to the Nuggets final regular season game, Melo would get arrested on suspicion of a DUI. It became evident that the A.I. experiment was an expensive failure.
Non-Stiff of the Year: Nene
After being diagnosed with testicular cancer and undergoing surgery to remove his right testicle, Nene remarkably returned to play again on March 27th against the Mavericks, giving the Nuggets a much needed emotional boost that helped them secure a playoff spot down the stretch.
Stiff of the Year: George Karl
Stuck in an admittedly tumultuous and difficult situation, Karl spent much of the 2007-08 sitting on his hands during games while the Nuggets unraveled on the court. While the Nuggets head coach got called for just one technical foul all season (second to last in the NBA), his players finished in the top two in personal fouls, technical fouls, flagrant fouls and ejections. The inmates were running the asylum as Karl's coaching record in Denver got extended to a paltry 3-16 over four years. Karl would later admit to SI.com that "...the last couple of years, I was confused." Watching Karl's Nuggets routinely take nights off that season, so were we.
2008-09 (54-28, 10-6 in the playoffs)
Disappointed with his lack of return on investment, Kroenke gave an edict to management to slash payroll during the 2008 offseason. Camby would be shipped out to the Clippers in exchange for a trade exception, coach and fan favorite Eduardo Najera would not be re-signed, Iverson's contract wouldn't be extended and things were looking grim entering the 2008-09 campaign. But what loomed as a disaster instead became a season of reformation and rejuvenation. Karl came into training camp as "Fiery George" again, Melo won a gold medal with Team USA and learned a thing or two from Kobe Bryant on what an NBA work ethic really is and K-Mart, fully healthy, came into camp with an apology to his coach and teammates and a vow to work harder and play better. With former NBA castaways Chris "Birdman" Andersen and Dahntay Jones added for next-to-nothing (by NBA salary standards) and Nene in real basketball shape for the first time ever, the Nuggets were quietly confident that they had a special season on their hands.
The lone chink in the Nuggets newfound armor would be Iverson who, upset by not receiving a contract extension, showed up to camp out of shape and several steps slow. Remarkably, Nuggets management was able to pull off one of the great trades in Nuggets history by shipping Iverson to Detroit for Chauncey Billups. By adding Billups to a roster primed to take off, the Nuggets would shock the basketball world by tying a franchise record with 54 wins and going toe-to-toe with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Simply put, it was the greatest full season of Nuggets basketball since the 1984-85 Nuggets made it to the conference finals and hopefully a sign of more good things to come in the decade ahead.
Non-Stiff of the Year: Chauncey Billups
The Denver-born Billups - who had been cast off by Issel years earlier without ever given a fair hearing as a Nugget - immediately proved to be the perfect leader for the Nuggets. Coming off six consecutive conference finals appearances with the Pistons, Billups would make it seven when he led the Nuggets there.
Non-Stiff of the Year Runner-Up: (tie) Nuggets Management and George Karl
After years of placing talent over character, the Nuggets GM "troika" of Warkentien, Chapman and team adviser Bret Bearup had assembled a roster stocked with good character guys and also deserve credit for not panicking after the 2008 playoff debacle. Warkentien would be rewarded with the NBA's Executive of the Year Award, but it should have been shared by all three guys. Karl, meanwhile, turned in one of his finest performances as an NBA head coach while bridging whatever gap had existed between him and his mercurial stars Melo, J.R. and K-Mart.
Stiff of the Year: Allen Iverson
The NBA will soon be announcing their "All Decade Team" and it will be fascinating to see if A.I. makes the squad. One of the greatest players of the decade, Iverson ultimately proved to be a bad fit for the Nuggets and a bad influence on Melo and J.R. This became painfully clear when the Pistons imploded after bringing Iverson on board in exchange for Billups.
Overall, the '00s were a great decade for Nuggets basketball: six straight playoff appearances, two 50-plus win seasons, All-Star players and thrilling performances (how many game-tying and game-winning shots has Melo made?!). And while it would have been nice to see a few more playoff series victories prior to last season, the memories of the Bickerstaff and Issel Administrations are still prominent enough for me to appreciate what's been going on recently.
Fortunately for Nuggets fans, four of our best players - Melo, J.R., Nene and rookie Ty Lawson - still have many seasons ahead of them and hopefully will remain in a Nuggets uniform into the next decade. At the very least, we're guaranteed that the new decade starts out reasonably well and it will be fascinating to see where this franchise is standing in 2020.
Thanks for the memories and Go Nuggets!!
Photos courtesy of AP and NBAE/Getty Images