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Getting Stiffed: the Denver Nuggets historic loss in the 1998 NBA draft

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1998, a year that should live in infamy for the Nuggets and virtually everyone who ended up in the top three of the draft that year.

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Last week I teased that the 1998 draft lottery was the biggest stiff job the Denver Nuggets ever received. Well, not only is it that but statistically speaking it is the biggest draft lottery stiff job OF ALL TIME. Several factors went into it. First and foremost, the Nuggets were coming off an 11 win season; second, because of the rules surrounding recent expansion teams, the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies, Denver's chances were even greater of getting #1 overall; finally, the Nuggets had additional ping pong balls because of a trade with Milwaukee from a couple seasons earlier.

The 1998 Denver Nuggets were abysmal, and I do mean ABYSMAL. The eleven wins and seventy-one losses they recorded is the third worst record of all time (no I'm not counting the six win 1948 Providence Steamrollers who played a forty-eight game season), they won five fewer games than anyone else that season and were in desperate need of talent, any talent. After about four years of offloading anyone who could play basketball, the team relied on a shell of his former self Laphonso Ellis, a trio of young players (Bobby Jackson, Tony Battie and Danny Fortson) and a guy who really needs his day in the Stiffs Hall of Fame in Dean Garrett. To sum it up, they were really really bad.

That roster bereft of talent guaranteed the Nuggets the most ping pong balls but because the league recently expanded Denver actually had more ping pong balls than any team in any draft...ever. The expansion rules made it so the Raptors and Grizzlies were ineligible to receive the first overall pick in the draft for their first three years following expansion. They were both still far from contention and thus were part of the lottery but because they were ineligible for #1 overall Denver's pick alone had a whopping near 36% chance of securing the first overall pick. To date no single pick has had a better chance of being #1 overall. However, Denver didn't have just a single pick, they also would have received Milwaukee's pick if it had won the lottery which meant their odds of getting the first overall pick were roughly 38%.

Of course in typical Nuggets fashion they not only would not get the first overall pick (that wound up going to the Los Angeles Clippers) but because of the expansion restrictions the Raptors and Grizzlies actually had a greater chance to secure the #2 overall pick than the Nuggets and Vancouver ended up winning that which left Denver in the #3 slot. Falling two spots in the top three doesn't happen a lot but for the Nuggets it happened twice in just five years (2003).

Now, the big groan you'll hear from Nuggets fans when it comes to the 1998 draft is that they took Raef Lafrentz instead any one of a handful of perennial all stars who were drafted after him. However, there's a bit of revisionist history with that line of thinking. Lafrentz was arguably the best player in college playing on arguably the best team in college. He was in fact an absolute beast during his time at Kanasas. However, two major factors effected Lafrentz's ability to translate his game to the NBA. First, the NBA would lockout the season until January. Second, once the Nuggets got rolling on the shortened season it took just 12 games for Lafrentz to blow out his knee. Alas, he was never the same. Now, this is not to say that he would have been as good as Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce or Vince Carter (or even a 13 year old me's dream selection Antawn Jamison) but he definitely got the deck stacked against him early on.

In the end, losing out on the first pick wasn't all that bad in 1998. Michael Olowakandi, regarded by many as one of the biggest busts of all time and believed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to be uncoachable, wound up going to the Clippers #1 overall and I imagine had Denver got the first overall pick they would have selected him as well (or taken Lafrentz #1). The #2 pick was Mike Bibby who did end up having a very nice career but he really didn't hit his stride until after the Grizzlies had sent him to the Sacramento Kings. Given all the turmoil and turnover the Nuggets faced in the five years following the 1998 draft it's quite possible they would have unloaded Bibby at some point during that time period as well.

Alas, it is what it is. Below you'll find our updated lottery odds for the 2016 draft. In about two weeks the Nuggets have slid 4% in their chances of securing the first overall pick, largely due to their successful home stand. Meanwhile the Kings keep on losing which is increasing the Philadelphia 76ers odds of winning the lottery. The New Orleans Pelicans have also jumped ahead of Denver while the Washington Wizards jumped ahead of the Utah Jazz. The top five still remain in their respective slots.

Footnotes:

1. The Philadelphia 76ers own the rights to swap first round picks with the Sacramento Kings (11-30 protected).
2. The Boston Celtics own the rights to the Brooklyn Nets 1st rd pick.
3. The Denver Nuggets own the rights to swap first round picks with the New York Knicks.
4. The Toronto Raptors (via the Knicks) and the Sacramento Kings both have a very very minute chance of scoring either the 2nd or 3rd pick in the draft. The Raptors would need both the Nuggets and the Knicks picks to land in the top three, the Kings would need both their pick and the 76ers pick to land in the top 3. Suffice to say neither chance is very good.