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Let's party like it's 2002! Nuggets should look to their past to rebuild their future

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Rebuilding the Denver Nuggets roster should be looked upon as an opportunity. And not something to fear.

Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard may have been Nuggets only briefly, but their acquisition put the franchise on a long term pathway to success.
Tim Hardaway and Juwan Howard may have been Nuggets only briefly, but their acquisition put the franchise on a long term pathway to success.
Tony Firriolo, NBA

Blow it up.

Blow the whole damn thing up.

On pace for an appallingly low 31 victories, the 2014-15 Denver Nuggets season has been a complete and utter failure. Just as the 2013-14 campaign was before it.

And thus, the time has come for an extreme makeover.

But have no fear, fellow Stiffs and Nuggets fans, as our beloved hometown team could find themselves back among the Western Conference's playoff participants sooner than we might think. Unfortunately, short term pain will be required for a shot at long term success.

Longtime readers of this site know that I often reference the 2002-03 Nuggets season as one of my favorites in recent franchise history. New-ish readers might wonder why. After all, before the 2002-03 campaign the Nuggets hosted open tryouts (read that again: OPEN TRYOUTS!!), proceeded to win just 17 games (sadly, not a franchise worst) and featured a starting backcourt of Junior Harrington (who?) and Vincent Yarbrough (who?!). After the season was over, Harrington appeared in just 58 NBA games and Yarbrough never appeared in another NBA game again.

And yet, I loved that team because it was the beginning of something better for Denver Nuggets fans.

Upon arrival before the season 2002-03 began, rookie head coach Jeff Bzdelik (under the guidance of then general manager Kiki Vandeweghe) developed a culture of effort and enthusiasm on the court. So while Bzdelik oversaw inarguably the least talented roster in NBA history, his Nuggets were remarkably able to squeeze out 17 victories. I even thought Bzdelik deserved the NBA's Coach of the Year ... how many coaches win 17 more games than they're supposed to?

At season's end, the Nuggets ended up with the third overall pick in the NBA Draft, selected NCAA Champion Carmelo Anthony and were able to carry that culture of effort and enthusiasm into the 2003-04 season and beyond. Until Brian Shaw arrived as head coach in 2013, the Nuggets hadn't missed a post-season since that 2003-04 season. From 2004 through 2013, the Jeff Bzdelik-turned-George Karl led Nuggets sustained the longest consecutive playoff appearance streak in the NBA other than the multiple champion San Antonio Spurs, including five 50-plus win seasons under Karl's stewardship.

But that decade's worth of success for Denver pro basketball could not have happened without the Nuggets being really bad really fast, and that story begins even before Bzdelik is hired during the summer of 2002.

Not unlike this current Nuggets season, the 2001-02 Nuggets season was a disaster that needn't be. Coming off a mediocre 40-win 2000-01 season and filled with a roster of decent but highly-priced (and certainly not great) players, the Nuggets were thinking playoffs in 2002. But it wasn't meant to be, almost from the get-go. Then head coach and team president Dan Issel (who it must be mentioned is an all-time great Nuggets player and did a phenomenal job when coaching the 1993-94 Nuggets to one of the greatest upsets in NBA Playoff history) guided the team to a disappointing 1-4 start and before bowing out 26 games into the season had presided over three separate four-plus game losing streaks. It was during the second of such streaks that Issel infamously called a belligerent Nuggets fan a "Mexican piece of shit" ... a one-time but most unfortunate thoughtless remark that eventually cost Issel his job as both team president and head coach. In Issel's wake, the generally positive Mike Evans (a former Nuggets backup guard and then-assistant coach) took over coaching duties for the remainder of the season.

Prior to Issel's departure, Issel and the Nuggets had hired another former Nuggets star - Kiki Vandeweghe - to join the team as general manager (reporting to Issel the president but, oddly, overseeing Issel the coach). So after Issel left, Vandeweghe, who had previously worked for the Dallas Mavericks' front office, had free reign to remodel the team with the support of new owner Stan Kroenke. And remodel it Vandeweghe did.

On the precipice of the NBA trade deadline in 2002, Vandeweghe made one of the biggest trades in Nuggets franchise history. On February 21, 2002 Vandeweghe traded starting point guard Nick Van Exel, starting center Raef LaFrentz and backups Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Avery Johnson to Vandeweghe's former employer in exchange for Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, Donnell Harvey and a future first round pick. By trading the team's top two scorers in Van Exel and LaFrentz - while simultaneously handing Western Conference supremacy over to Dallas - Vandeweghe made it brutally evident to Nuggets fans everywhere that the team was going to tank.

And tank the Nuggets did.

(Funny side note: Soon after the trade in 2002 I introduced myself to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban in Las Vegas and said "you're welcome" for our Nuggets making the Mavericks awesome overnight. Cuban responded by prophetically saying to me: "Let me tell you something. Kiki knows exactly what he's doing and you guys [the Nuggets] will be back in the playoffs in two years. I guarantee it.")

Not only did the Nuggets win just 18 of it's final 56 games to wrap up the 2001-02 season, but Vandeweghe - as noted above with the composition of the 2002-03 roster - ensured that the following season would be even more disastrous. In fact, the 2013 through 2015 Philadelphia 76ers have nothing on the 2002 through 2003 Nuggets when it comes to tanking.

But, as Mark Cuban himself guaranteed, it worked.

Entering the 2003-04 season, the Nuggets had amassed three top-seven lottery picks (two of which became Nene Hilario and Anthony, the third the all-time bust and Denver Stiffs Hall of Famer Nikoloz Tskitishvili) and enough cap space to sign free agents Voshon Lenard, Andre Miller and Jon Barry. And just a season-and-a-half removed from Vandeweghe's 2002 trade deadline roster demolition, the Nuggets were back in the playoffs where they remained for 10 consecutive years.

I don't have to stretch to point out all the obvious commonalities between the 2000 through 2002 Nuggets and the 2013 through 2015 version. Complete with player revolts, an ornery coach in over his head, mismatched talent, too much salary allocated to too many wrong guys, etc. The list goes on. But where many Nuggets fans see doom and gloom, I see opportunity.

I'm no fan of Brian Shaw as our head coach, as I made plainly obvious in my last column. And like Issel before him, it's probably time for Shaw to go in place of the much more positive Melvin Hunt (a longtime Nuggets assistant coach) to ride out the season. Losers of 12 of their last 13, the Nuggets need an abrupt culture change and it starts on the bench.

But I am a fan of Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly. Because while I didn't agree with most of Connelly's early moves (including giving up on Rudy Gobert for Erick Green, trading Kosta Koufos for Darrell Arthur, acquiring the cantankerous Nate Robinson and trading the solid veteran Miller for the useless Jan Vesely), from my vantage point he's three-for-three with his last three moves: the astute draft day deal of Doug McDermott for Jusuf Nurkic / Gary Harris, moving Timofey Mozgov for two future first round picks and the recent swap of Robinson for the veteran leader Jameer Nelson. And while the Evan Fournier-for-Arron Afflalo off-season trade looks bad in hindsight most Nuggets fans - including myself - were in favor of it when it happened.

I like Connelly because unlike most NBA GMs, Connelly still scouts. Having built up his NBA resume by running in global scouting circles for over a decade before landing the Nuggets job, Connelly's worldwide connections run deep. Connelly doesn't just watch video streams of the world's up-and-coming players, he actually gets on airplanes, hangs out in gyms in unknown locales and has a vast network of international scouts, coaches, camp advisors and so on that feed him information throughout the year. As I wrote in response to Connelly's selection of Nurkic in the last draft, the Nuggets must gamble internationally if they're ever to succeed among the NBA's elite. I mean, can you imagine Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Mitch Kupchak, Billy King or Ernie Grunfeld getting on a flight to Tuzla, Bosnia? (Lest we forget that former Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri - who himself still scouts even though he has ascended to president of the Toronto Raptors - recommended Connelly to be his successor.)

Connelly inherited a tough situation in Denver, and certainly exacerbated it with several of the moves noted in the previous paragraph in addition to the hiring of Shaw. But the nearly simultaneous departures of Ujiri and Karl, plus the departures of key role players like Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer and Koufos combined with major injuries to Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee left Connelly with a rough hand to play all last season. Now with the Nuggets currently plummeting to the basement of the Western Conference standings, Connelly won't have to apologize for making a coaching change while also putting the Nuggets roster through a teardown.

That starts with blowing up the current roster, whatever "blowing up" ultimately means.

It probably means trading Afflalo to a playoff team. Possibly trading starting point guard Ty Lawson, too, with the theory being that the overpaid McGee or the matador-defender J.J. Hickson can be combined in most Afflalo or Lawson deals. If possible, the Nuggets should look to move the oft-injured Gallinari (with apologies to Jeff Morton) and if they can somehow jettison Randy Foye, Arthur and even the newly acquired Nelson I'm all for it. Simply put, the Nuggets don't need mediocre veterans whose ceilings are already established.

Should a teardown take place, hopefully the Nuggets can keep fan favorites Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler as I'm confident that with the right coach both could thrive in a higher-paced system that benefits from Denver's altitude advantage. And I'm assuming - and hoping - that youngsters Nurkic and Harris stay put.

In the wake of all this, ideally the Nuggets end up with expiring contracts, young players, draft picks and cap space. And if the ping pong balls fall our way in the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery, the Nuggets could enter the 2015-16 campaign with a roster as hefty in upside as losses - just as we witnessed here in 2002-03.

If Connelly takes a page from his predecessor Vandeweghe's playbook and is honest about the situation, I'm confident that Nuggets fans will support a full rebuild. Here's what Vandeweghe said the day after his mega-trade with Dallas in February of 2002:

"I think it would be really more dangerous ... to not do anything, stand pat and continue the way we were continuing. The toughest situation for a team to be is in the middle of the road without a good draft pick and strapped financially. You're in a box and there is no way to improve under the rules of the (collective bargaining agreement).  You have to create something. You have to make a bold move. Obviously, you want to make a positive move. The inherent risk was not doing anything."

A year and a half removed from Vandeweghe's bold move, the Nuggets began the first of 10 consecutive playoff appearances in the brutally competitive Western Conference. I think we'd all be pretty damn happy if that happened here again.

So let's blow up the roster and party like it's 2002!