As we continue to march through the lottery misses of the Denver Nuggets we've reached the point where there are no more years where Denver had the best chance of getting the first overall pick. However, in 1997 the Nuggets found themselves in desperate need of talent and had the third best shot of landing what would turn out to be the greatest power forward of all time. Instead what happened is the Nuggets ended up getting saddled with the fifth overall pick and drafting one of the biggest busts at power forward of all time.
The 1996-1997 Nuggets were an absolute mess of a roster. The early nineties heyday Nuggets were all but dismantled, with only a still struggling to get healthy Laphonso Ellis, Bryant Stith (who also was dealing with injury) and Tom Hammonds left from the roster that famously upset the Seattle Supersonics in the 1994 playoffs. In their place was an odd mixture of aging veterans like Mark Jackson, Dale Ellis and Ervin Johnson (no, not Magic) and the lone bright spot of the team, Antonio McDyess. In true late 90s Nuggets fashion, Denver dealt McDyess in the offseason and thus marched into the draft with no discernible big man talent (or talent in general really).
There of course was a very talented big man available in the 1997 draft who was a consensus #1 pick, Tim Duncan. Despite finishing with the fourth worst record, the Nuggets actually had the third best chance of receiving the first overall pick because the Vancouver Grizzlies were not allowed to receive the first pick. However, the San Antonio Spurs, a perennial playoff contender, had experienced a lost season due to David Robinson being injured and finished with the third worst record in the league and second best chance of getting the first overall pick. The Spurs = cashed in and ended up drafting Duncan and the rest was history but what really burns this Nugget fan is Denver's record that season was all of one victory better than San Antonio's. If Denver loses two additional games that season then who knows how much history would have been re-written.
To add insult to injury, the Philadelphia 76ers jumped ahead of the Nuggets to land in the second spot and the Celtics got third. Ultimately all the moving and shaking left Denver with the fifth overall selection where they drafted the infamous Tony Battie aka El Busto (they would later snag the 10th overall pick and take Danny Forston who's own bust status gets overlooked because of Battie). The big sting of this lottery loss was getting pushed out of the top where three very solid NBA players were drafted.
The Nuggets had a definite need for a big man and obviously Duncan would have been able to fill that role excellently, however second overall choice Keith Van Horn was a pretty good player in his own right. The sweet shooting power forward from the university of Utah made the all rookie first team and was a key staple in the late 90s early 2000s Nets teams who were a perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse. A good comparison to Van Horn would be Danilo Gallinari. Gallo is a little more athletic and a better ball handler but Van Horn had better strength and rebounding. Otherwise the two had very similar games.
Even if Denver had missed on Duncan and Van Horn and got the third overall pick they would have been in good shape as hometown hero Chauncey Billups was selected with that pick. The Nuggets found themselves in need of a point guard going into the 1997 season and ended up trading for rookie Bobby Jackson who did wind up having a decent career of his own (of course the Nuggets gave up on him after one season and traded him the following year...the late 90s were dark times) but no where near what Billups accomplished. Chauncey had an excellent career but one does have to question if he would have had the success he did if he spent his whole career in Denver. In his first stint with the team there were rumors of how many old friends came out of the woodwork looking for favors and that was detrimental to his development so if he had been drafted here out of the gate it could have been a disaster. Still, I'd wager they still get more out of him than they did Battie. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Below you'll find the updated lottery standings for 2016. Not a whole lot going on here. The Nuggets chances got slightly worse due to the fact they are no longer tied with the Bucks. There was a couple of teams swapping back and forth, most notably as of today the Phoenix Suns are back in the top 3 and the Boston Celtics (by way of the Brooklyn Nets) are back out. The biggest development by far though is the Dallas Mavericks now currently find themselves in the lottery and the Houston Rockets are now in the playoffs. Not much for most teams but for the Nuggets whether or not Houston gets in will determine if they get a first round pick (or anything at all) out of the Ty Lawson trade. Finally, you know you want some Van Horn highlights!
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.