Soon after the Nuggets decided to suspend (then rescind, sort of) veteran point guard Andre Miller for two games following a Wednesday night bench tirade aimed at head coach Brian Shaw, I once again harkened back to that bizarre Nuggets' season of 13 years ago. Longtime Nuggets fans certainly remember how that season went down, when then-Nugget Nick Van Exel led an all player practice boycott in December and was fined over $90,000 in April 2001 for insubordinate behavior, spelled out in a letter by then-head coach and team president Dan Issel that included this highlight (courtesy of the Denver Post's Mark Kiszla who obtained the letter at the time):
"On several occasions, you have failed to attend practices, shootarounds and mandatory appearances. This behavior is detrimental to the Team and is unacceptable."
And while I don't think Shaw is drafting any letters for Miller, his comments throughout this past week pretty much sum up his thoughts on the longtime veteran point guard - i.e. a divorce is in order (Chris Dempsey reports the Nuggets have Miller on trade block).
Like this season's Nuggets - who were sitting at 14-9 just a few weeks ago before getting themselves embroiled in an eight-game losing streak - the 2000-01 squad showed us glimmers of hope when they started out 24-16 through 40 games (hat tip to Nate Timmons for pointing that out). But after that impressive start, the 00-01 Nuggets lost 26 of their remaining 42 games and finished 40-42. Far far off from a playoff seed in a season when the 10th-seeded Seattle Supersonics missed the post-season despite winning 44 games (the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference that year, Indiana, finished at just 41-41 ... things sure haven't changed, have they?).
We can nitpick the assortment of reasons why the 2000-01 Nuggets team missed the playoffs and why the 2013-14 Nuggets could potentially be on a similar path, but to me there's a larger issue here that both teams eerily have in common: they lack a defining personality.
Say what you want about the recent Nuggets teams of yore and their myriad of first round playoff exits (or altogether playoff misses), but many of those teams had a defining personality. Whether it was George Karl's post-Carmelo Anthony collection of sub-stars who ran opponents off the court every night, or Karl's overly tattooed, often misbehaved, supremely egotistical yet supremely talented "Thuggets" from 2005 through 2010, or Jeff Bzdelik's collection of irrepressibly hard-working also-rans from 2001-02 whose no-name roster rivaled that from The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, or Issel's young but fearless 1992 through 1994 Nuggets who were on the precipice of a decade of NBA success, or Doug Moe's famous run-and-gun Nuggets from the 1980s, or Larry Brown's high-flying Nuggets from the late 1970s that were a precursor to Moe's, pro basketball teams in Denver have been filled with character and characters making the home team a pleasure to root for.
But what defines the 2013-14 Nuggets? What makes this team special?
Like that 2000-01 Nuggets team, this season's Nuggets squad has a bit of everything: could-be stars (Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov), a young power forward with unrivaled athleticism (Kenneth Faried), a crotchety aging veteran (Andre Miller), a few stat-stuffers (J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye, Nate Robinson), unbelievably young youngsters (Evan Fournier, Quincy Miller), cantankerous personalities that can erupt at any time (Andre Miller, Robinson) and a knucklehead big man with huge upside (JaVale McGee).
But what that 2000-01 team didn't have was a defining personality. No one in the 2000-01 NBA season was afraid of playing Denver. (With apologies to Jeff Morton who just loves that team!) And as evident with the 2013-14 Nuggets' 137 point explosion against the Lakers on Sunday night, this year's Nuggets have the potential to be a very scary opponent when they come at you with a balanced, energetic attack.
If it were up to me, I'd re-brand the 2013-14 Nuggets as a young, balanced, energetic team in transition with huge upside - kind of like the 1992-93 Nuggets (one of my favorite all-time Nuggets teams, and the last to wear the rainbow uniforms) and this season's Phoenix Suns and Philadelphia 76ers. I'm frankly in awe of what they're doing in Phoenix and Philly right now, with two rookie coaches overseeing casts of young talent and young nobodies but winning games because they routinely out work the competition. After all, a young team has no excuse not to at the very least play hard.
With that said, I'd look for ways to give Lawson, Chandler, Faried, Mozgov, Fournier and Jordan Hamilton the lion's share of minutes while trying to find a way to move veterans like Andre Miller, Foye and Robinson elsewhere (Robinson's inspiring performance against the Lakers notwithstanding). Regarding the Andre Miller situation, my gut feel is that the durable veteran is furious that he's losing playing time to the likes of Robinson and Fournier (remember, it was Miller who just a season ago complained about backing up Lawson - but Karl was able to keep Miller's sizable ego in check by playing him alongside Lawson routinely in fourth quarters).
In hindsight, in the wake of the Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer off-season departures the Nuggets' decision to bring in Foye and Robinson to fill out the back court might have been a mistake. I'd rather the Nuggets take their chances on the development of Fournier and Hamilton, especially since Shaw's specialty has historically been the development of young players, as evident from his work in Indiana with the likes of Paul George and Lance Stephenson.
And while I'm not sure where Hickson fits into all of this, isn't it interesting to see Portland excelling with the less-talented-but-more-team-oriented Robin Lopez anchoring the center position in place of Hickson who delivered a double-double in virtually every game last season?
With the Nuggets suddenly becoming a below- or barely-.500 outfit, maybe we're finally seeing why Andre Miller (six teams in 14 seasons), Robinson (six teams in eight seasons), Foye (five teams in seven seasons) and Hickson (four teams in five seasons) have been moved around so much in their careers. They might be good guys off the court (as I've heard from several reliable sources), but are they good teammates? There's a big difference sometimes.
As long as the Nuggets have this odd mix of players - forcing Shaw to spoon feed minutes to veterans at the expense of youth development - they will struggle to define the personality that they so desperately need.
Play the youngsters, amp up the energy and the wins will come. Just ask the Lakers.