Kelly Dwyer covers the NBA, alongside musical bits and comedy numbers.

Friday, July 13, 2018

When Denver lost Dikembe

It’s been five whole seasons since the Nuggets even made the playoffs, mediocrity hitting with routine in an Western Conference with no patience for the so-so. The franchise landed a stable of sensible players after Carmelo Anthony’s growing tensity forced a trade out of Denver in 2011, that barn grew and grew until the price of hay became too much.

It costs money to compete in this league and Denver could not see itself moving forward with its luxury taxes screaming so loudly, the club just sent Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur to the Nets along with a 2019 first-round pick (protected through spots 1-12). The move saves the club $43 million in combined salary and luxury tax costs, the Nuggets had to do it.

The team also decided not to be one of many that took a pass on Isaiah Thomas, a former All-Star that scored 29 points a game for a 53-win Celtics team in 2016-17. The Nuggets signed the 29-year old to a one-year, minimum contract to buttress the team’s backcourt.

Thomas is only in town to show that he can move again. Trying to set his hips straight in yet another contract season, partway through a career just about made up of the damn things.

Isaiah is 5-9 and his lower half doesn’t appear to agree with his top half at the moment, even at IT’s sturdiest his defensive shortcomings could crush a crew. Don’t let summer get in the way of what winter taught you.

It was past the midway part of a terrible season, more calamities than losses (but plenty of losses), and Nuggets general manager Bernie Bickerstaff had seen enough.

"I don't have a problem with losing to San Antonio because they're a better team,” the GM told reporters in the first week of March in 1996, after his club dropped a pair of back-to-back losses to the Spurs. Denver was 10 games below .500 with 14 left to play in the season.

Boss went on.

“But you've got to compete. I thought the group that was there at the end was the group that got us back in the game. If you work, you've got a chance to be in the basketball game (playing)."

Bickerstaff had crucial control over “the group that was there at the end” because Bernie was also his team’s head coach. He’d lifted center Dikembe Mutombo during the fourth quarter of the first of those Spurs losses, upsetting his center with both the dramatic benching and the followup comments about competition and effort.

Bernie’s two gigs were upending one another. Mutumbo was a free agent in the summer and his team’s chief contract negotiator had just sat Dikembe for a fourth quarter against David Robinson.

Dikembe was set to turn 30 in June and his scoring numbers had dropped in each season since his 1991-92 rookie campaign. He’d still lead the NBA in blocks in 1995-96 with over 4.5 a contest but Mutombo was unhappy with his role in the general manager slash coach’s offense.

"I was not allowed to participate in the offense, to touch the ball, to even set a pick," Mutombo acknowledged later.

"I was told to run down the floor and then go stand over there. What good is that?" The Nuggets needed a point guard in the worst way during 1995-96 and reportedly came close to securing a midseason deal for Portland’s Rod Strickland after the point man became disgruntled with Blazer coach P.J. Carlesimo’s approach.

Second-year Nuggets Jalen Rose and rookie Antonio McDyess were set to head to PDX in exchange for Strickland and stalwart forward Cliff Robinson, according to the Chicago Tribune the deal “fell apart in haggling.” 

Mutombo was happy to retain Rose as a teammate.

“Everyone says, ‘The Michigan boys have no respect,’ but Jalen comes here and shows respect.”

Jalen wouldn’t last much longer in Denver.

On June 13th the team shipped Rose and the No. 10 pick in the upcoming 1996 draft to Indiana, pulling back 31-year old point guard Mark Jackson, 36-year old scoring sub Ricky Pierce and the draft’s No. 23 pick in the process.

On the same day the team also dealt Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Denver’s leading scorer in 1995-96, to Sacramento for Sarunas Marciulionis. It was Sarunas’ 32nd birthday.

Denver was older, a lot older, and Dikembe wanted to hang around until he was older than anyone else around.

The free agent center wanted a 10-year deal, the sort of contract that would outlast any GM or coach or even GM/coach. The Georgetown product had representative David Falk working on his side in the same summer that saw Falk secure $100 million contracts for Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard, plus a $30-million single-season ink for Michael Jordan.

“David Falk and those guys, they tried to work with us because Mutombo, he wanted to stay,” Bickerstaff told reporters in 2015.

“Falk tried to work with us in terms of trying to acquire other players (to clear money). The organization at the time just didn’t have the resources. It’s that simple.”

In the years before Stan Kroenke’s fulgent toupee took over the top of the bidding in Denver, the Nuggets’ team ownership situation was rather unsettled. Like, for a decade.

The Nuggets were two years removed from charming the NBA with its dismissal of the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 playoffs, they wanted Dikembe in the middle of all that all over again, but for ten years?

“We tried,” Bickerstaff insisted.

“We offered it, but ownership didn’t want to go that far out, in terms of a 10-year deal. It’s like when Magic [Johnson] got that long deal, everyone was asking ‘Why would you do that?”

Besides Magic’s 25-year deal, the only other double-figure contract working at the time was Eric Montross’ lively 11-year, $20 million agreement with the Boston Celtics. This Nugget offer would run Dikembe Mutombo until he was 40, a ridiculous age to be playing pro basketball, committing to supplying Dikembe’s 2005-06 season at that perch appeared a little wild.

Then again, the guy wanted to stay in Denver.

“Of course” Mutombo would have re-signed with the Nuggets had the money been the same, Dikembe told the Denver Post in 2015. But the money wasn’t the same, the Nuggets could offer whatever they wanted, Atlanta found a way to offer more.

Falk convinced the Hawks to clear cap space, dealing longtime Atlanta forwards Grant Long and Stacey Augmon to Detroit for what turned into the No. 17 (Cal Bowdler) and No. 20 (Dion Glover) picks in the 1999 draft. The Hawks suddenly had enough room to offer Mutombo a five-year, $50 million deal and he happily accepted.

“It was time,” Dikembe said directly after, “to move on with my life.”

Denver responded by handing out a seven-year, $15 million contract to 29-year old center Ervin Johnson, who actually played the length of the contract plus three seasons more. Holdover Bryant Stith got five years and $22 million. The team signed 36-year old Dale Ellis, and 65-year old assistant coach Dick Motta.

Motta was made interim head coach 13 games into the 1996-97 season after Bickerstaff stepped aside as coach following a 4-9 start. Sarunas Marciulionis retired after 17 contests, Ervin Johnson managed 2.8 blocks and 11.1 rebounds but Denver dipped to 21 wins.

Bernie stepped even further aside midseason, leaving his post as Denver’s general manager to accept a head coaching job under Wes Unseld in Washington. Allen Bristow replaced Bickerstaff’s GM role.

Bickerstaff led the Bullets to the 1997 playoffs in his first half-season, with Rod Strickland at point guard: Washington managed to avoid the “haggling” that prevented Bickerstaff from pairing with Strickland in Denver, dealing Rasheed Wallace to Portland for the point guard on the same day Mutombo signed with Atlanta.

Mark Jackson was pacing the NBA in assists at 12.3 per game when he was dealt back to Indiana 52 games into 1996-97. Bristow only returned one game of Vincent Askew in exchange for an NBA stat leader, crushing the end of a deal that began with Bickerstaff’s decision to punt on a top-ten draft selection that could have turned into Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal or Peja Stojakovic.

But probably not Kobe Bryant. From Mark Kiszla, at the Denver Post:

During the weeks prior to the 1996 NBA draft, I lobbied Bickerstaff to take a chance on Bryant. Bickerstaff countered that he already had too many young Nuggets lobbying for shots, so why add the headache of raising the adolescent son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant?

Every draft has a story like that, with more misses on the lobs and lobbies than hits, but the crush of the collective was overwhelming for Denver. The Nuggets missed the postseason for eight campaigns.

The team limped and limped and limped again until 2003, when the Detroit Pistons had the good graces to get out of the way and let the Nuggets draft Carmelo Anthony. Teamed with free-agent signee Andre Miller and a healthy Marcus Camby, the Nuggets made the postseason in Anthony’s first year and for nine seasons to follow, topping the run with 57 wins in 2012-13, the most in its NBA history.

The Nuggets haven’t made the postseason since.

GET OFF YOUR ASS AND JAM

An unmitigated classic that Talking Heads went on to appropriate a few years later for their own wonderful devices.

(More to come.)

Kelly Dwyer covers the NBA, alongside musical bits and comedy numbers.