Westhead we go!
The Denver Nuggets of the 1980's heaved their last dying breath in April of 1990, after a three game sweep to the San Antonio Spurs, in the first round of the playoffs. The Nuggets new ownership (which had changed hands three times in the previous year and would remain in flux until 1992) wanted a change. So out the door went Hall of Famer Alex English in free agency, and point guard, heart and soul of the Nuggets, Lafayette "Fat" Lever was traded to the Mavericks on draft day.
And the changes weren't finished. After the Nuggets fired Doug Moe (he actually announced his own firing) in September of 1990 (before which, strangely, they let him conduct the draft that year, which featured Chris Jackson aka Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) new General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff made the curious choice to hire Paul Westhead as coach. Westhead, fresh from a run in the NCAA tournament with his Loyola Marymount team (featuring the late Hank Gathers) in SEPTEMBER of 1991, a mere month before the season began. Westhead was hired a mere day after firing Moe (just awful).
What followed could be called the most embarrassing period in Nuggets history, where not only did they lose, but they lost by huge margins and played zero defense (as was Westhead's style). Westhead's two year record of 44-120 will probably not be surpassed in its futility. Here is a video of the Westhead's 1990 Denver Nuggets which featured Orlando Woolridge:
Look at that THIRD QUARTER SCORE!
It's funny though. Brian Shaw is featured a bit in the above highlights. Maybe he remembered this game and assumed that the Nuggets were always like this? At any rate, that would come 22 years later. After this humiliating two year stretch of basketball the Nuggets turned to a legend to restore credibility.
In comes The Horse ... of course!!
Maybe the best move Bickerstaff made in his tenure, was bringing in Hall of Fame player, and Nuggets legend, Dan Issel in to coach. The Nuggets name was pretty much dirt around the league, and as we at Denver Stiffs have discussed before ... the decision to bring in Issel immediately provided credibility to a moribund organization. Issel recognized Bickerstaff's faults, brought in a strong coaching staff (Including former Nuggets guard Mike Evans and former Charlotte Hornets coach Gene Littles), and along with a strong 1992 draft (featuring fan favorites LaPhonso Ellis and Bryant Stith) the Nuggets ship started to turn around.
We've gone over the details before, however, we can't underestimate the decision to bring in Issel (lets ignore Issel version 2.0 that came back to Denver in 1998) that provided the impetus for one of the greatest moments in Nuggets history a mere season later. The Horse came in and made the Nuggets relevant again by understanding what THAT particular team needed. He understood that it needed structure and he provided that. My colleagues Andrew Feinstein and Nate Timmons, along with myself agree that the 1992-93 Nuggets team is one of our favorites in their history. Here is a brief snippet below
More than anything though ... Nuggets fans were reintroduced to "fun." A concept that had actually been missing since the 1987-88 team that won 54 games. Instilling a belief in a young Nuggets team is all they needed to set the stage for a spectacular and historic playoff run in 1994 (defeating the 63 win Supersonics, and taking the 53 win Jazz to seven games in Round 2). Knowing that this team needed to play to its strengths should be a key part of any breakdown of Issel's tenure in the early to mid 1990's.
Can Michael Malone do the same?
Things were ... bad, at the end of Brian Shaw's tenure as head coach. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't all the players' doing, and the Nuggets erstwhile coach did a masterful job of laying the "it's not my fault" groundwork prior to his departure. However, that is like putting a giant coat of white paint over a hole in the wall. The wreckage that Shaw and his destructive assistant coach Lester Conner left behind, was pieced together admirably by Melvin Hunt - and the Nuggets won some games. However, it is up to Michael Malone to get the team to believe in him.
Malone's job is to find a way to exist in the modern, uptempo NBA, while instilling a defensive mentality. The big issue right now: we don't know if Malone can coach an uptempo team. It's not something that we have any evidence that he can do, based on such a small sample size. At the same time, maybe Malone's biggest task is to reach his roster, and understand and PLAY to their strengths... much like Dan Issel did with the Nuggets in 1992.
If there is ever an organization that needs to repair its image, it's these Nuggets. Shaw's public complaining about the team both damaged the players and hurt the trade values of the players. While some players also played their part, the damage was done. This team needs Malone to be the anchor that steadies the ship. Can he be that?
I sincerely hope he can.