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Getting Stiffed: the Denver Nuggets and the 1991 NBA Lottery

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The one time when getting stiffed was a good thing

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Three times in the lottery era the Denver Nuggets have been at least tied for the best chance of securing the #1 overall pick. All three times they didn't win. We've covered the 2003 loss and the ridiculous 1998 loss, this week we'll dive into the 1991 loss. A loss which, for all intents and purposes, is about as good of a loss as you can have.

The 1990-1991 Nuggets were ridiculous. If you talk to our own Jeff Morton about that team you're likely to cause him to gray a few hairs and lose a few others. The reason? Paul Westhead. Westhead had this crazy run and gun system that involved no defense and resulted in the Nuggets allowing over 130 points a game and a 20-62 overall record which was good for dead last in the Association. For the first time in franchise history the Nuggets found themselves with the best chance at getting the first overall pick.

They got the fourth overall pick instead. That's right, not one but THREE teams jumped them (something that has happened a surprising number of times since the lottery's inception in 1985). The Charlotte Hornets ended up securing first overall, the New Jersey Nets took second and the Sacramento Kings got third, leaving Denver with number four. Ironically, this actually ended up benefiting the Nuggets. When it was all said and done Denver selected Dikembe Mutumbo with their pick and he is undoubtedly the best player to come out of that draft.

However, that's not to say they would not have benefited from winning the lottery either. The Hornets selected Larry Johnson with the first overall pick and he was a superb player. For our young readers, the best way I can describe Johnson's game is a more athletic version of Paul Millsap. He was a rebounding and dunking machine but had a very good back to the basket game and developed range that stretched out to the three point line. He was also an underrated ball handler and passer.

Johnson's career was cut short by injury but he was part of a core of players (Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry and Alonzo Mourning being the other parts) who made the Hornets very competitive in the early nineties, or at least as competitive as any Eastern Conference team could be during Michael Jordan's heyday. Outside of Mourning, its hard to argue there's a better player to ever don a Charlotte jersey than Johnson. Had Denver landed the #1 overall pick they likely take him and the ripple effect is they then likely do not take Laphonso Ellis the following year and instead take any one of the numerous busts that came after him (save for a personal favorite of mine, Tom Gugliotta).

So in the end, this time getting stiffed worked out the best for Denver. They ended up getting the best player in the draft who also happened to be one of the greatest defensive players of all time, something the Nuggets desperately needed. They avoided spending the first overall pick on a player who would be beset by injuries and they were also able to avoid picking up a bust on the following season. Not a bad haul. Still, Johnson in a Nuggets uniform would have been very intriguing and there was definitely a couple of years where he was one of the best players in the league. Alas, it was not meant to be.

As always, we've got our updated odds for this year's lottery below (I also threw in some Johnson highlights for the kids). The key changes this week (beyond Denver's latest win worsening their odds even more) is the Boston Celtics (by way of the Brooklyn Nets) have jumped into the top three ahead of the Phoenix Suns and the Chicago Bulls find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in so they have taken the Detroit Pistons spot as the team with the least likely chance to get the top pick. The biggest change as far as Denver is concerned though is the Utah Jazz are now in the playoffs which means the Houston Rockets are currently out and thus their first round pick would not convey to Denver. Here's hoping that changes.

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 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 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.