The Denver Nuggets stand as testament to just how quickly a team can fall off a cliff after looking so promising and shocking the world.
Mention the Nuggets in the ’90s and the first thing that comes to mind is Dikembe Mutombo, on his back, holding the ball over his head like Rafiki holding up young Simba in “The Lion King”, after Denver upset the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in 1994.
Well, four years later, and after a first-round exit in ’95, Denver had fallen all the way to 11-71, tied with the 1993 Mavericks (about whom we talked yesterday) for the worst 82-game record by a franchise not named the Philadelphia 76ers and third-worst 82-game campaign in NBA history.
At least the Nuggets had the courtesy to their fans to play slowly, unlike that Dallas team that turned “suck faster” into a way of life.
Let’s look at just how bad this team truly was, then trace their rise, gradual though it may have been, toward an eventual 10 straight playoff appearances after the turn of the millennium.
The On-Court Record
Terrible start? Check. The Nuggets started 0-12 and didn’t get their first win until November 28.
Seemingly eternal losing streak? Check. The Nuggets lost 23 in a row to drop to 2-38 near the halfway point of the season, then barfed out a 16-game skid to drop to 5-58.
Avoiding worst-ever status by winning meaningless games? Yup. Denver went 2-4 to close the season and ensure they’d get to 11 wins.
They checked every box on the Bad Team Bingo card. They also posted a league-worst minus-13.1 Net Rating, played at a glacial 89.1 pace, and as such averaged just 89 points a game on offense while allowing an average of 100.8.
Nothing like going to a game as a fan and watching your team lose 101-89. This is the stuff that “going to the game because you’re a fan of the other team and they’re in town” is made of…and as a guy who went to plenty of Celtics games in the mid-90s for just that reason, there’s a certain pleasure in that. It’s a quiet, contemplative sort of way to experience live NBA basketball.
Seriously. These guys were bad with a capital Bad.
The Featured Players
After the 1994 season, one could be forgiven for thinking that Denver had something resembling a core to build around.
By 1998, the only guys left from those heady days were LaPhonso Ellis, who posted a wretched .025 WS/48 and minus-0.1 VORP, and Bryant Stith (minus-.018 WS/48, minus-0.4 VORP). Mutombo was gone, Robert Pack was on a foundering Mavericks team still a couple of years away from getting good, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf had run himself out of the league with his political controversy (think Colin Kaepernick but 20 years ahead of his time), and Reggie Williams was out of the league.
That’s your six biggest minutes guys from the ’94 squad. One gone to greener pastures, three with their careers effectively over, the other two stinking out the joint on their old team.
The new guys weren’t much better.
Danny Fortson stunk as a rookie (.051 WS/48, minus-1.4 VORP), Dean Garrett led the team in minutes but contributed just 1.4 Win Shares (.041 per 48), and Anthony Goldwire (who?) was actually Denver’s best player.
And let’s just say Anthony Goldwire ain’t exactly LeBron James.
This is what happens when your roster is composed entirely of who-dats and nobodies. You run a G-League team onto an NBA floor, 11-71 is really about as good as you’re ever going to get.
Don’t you just love when a guy finally gets a chance to show what he can do and then fails so spectacularly that he’s never seen or heard from again?
Well, don’t tell that to Bill Hanzlik.
Hanzlik was an assistant who’d spent six years in Charlotte and Atlanta building his credentials and waiting for his spot.
Then Denver hired him. It was the last time he’d be a coach in any capacity in the NBA ever again, as despite being just 40 years old, the door was permanently closed to him.
You have to be all kinds of bad to not even be able to go back to being an assistant after holding a top job while still relatively young, but Hanzlik pulled it off.\
Denver stunk for another five years, winning 14 games in 50 tries in 1999 then resuming their 82-game journey with win totals of 35, 40, 27, and 17 between 2000 and 2003.
And that 40-win season wasn’t a near-miss; the 8-seed Minnesota Timberwolves were 47-35 in a stacked Western Conference that year, and 40 wins were good for just 11th overall in the West for Denver.
Under coach George Karl, they made another eight straight playoff appearances, even reaching the conference finals in 2009.
But six years is a long wait, especially when you’ve risen from rock bottom to almost respectable only to tumble all the way back to 17-65.
At least they got Melo, even if he and Allen Iverson never won anything together.
And hey, at least now they’ve got Nikola Jokic and…ummm…they’ve got Nikola Jokic.
NEXT: Detroit Pistons. Wait…wait…that’s Dick Vitale’s music! It’s awesome, baby! (trust me, this will make sense tomorrow.)