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Loss Leaders Bad breaks, a weak roster and a decision to sacrifice the season have Denver lurching toward the worst record in NBA history

Jan. 26, 1998
Jan. 26, 1998

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Jan. 26, 1998

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Faces In The Crowd

Loss Leaders Bad breaks, a weak roster and a decision to sacrifice the season have Denver lurching toward the worst record in NBA history

It's a cruel experiment, this Nuggets season. It's a controlled
environment of defeat--one demoralizing loss scheduled right
after another. How much losing can a man take? What happens to
him as he's prodded toward basketball infamy? What does he do as
he's enveloped in shame? Is he ruined beyond repair by the
experience? The whole thing reminds you of some horrible
biosphere, a dome of disaster that we can all peek into from the
outside.

This is an article from the Jan. 26, 1998 issue Original Layout

At the moment, this lab study in catastrophe may be careening a
little bit out of control. Denver's mad scientists, the
management that boldly decided to throw this season away in
hopes of laying the groundwork for a championship team, have
without doubt engineered their team into lottery land, if not
NBA history. (Bad luck helped, too.) But in doing so, they may
have exceeded their subjects' capacity for embarrassment. By
Sunday night, after a 94-82 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers,
the Nuggets were 2-35, and their normal air of surrender, more
or less mandated by the team's front office, was beginning to
give way to a seething anger, one that could yet blow up in
ownership's face.

Watching Denver walk through a 99-74 home loss to the Cleveland
Cavaliers last Friday was poor entertainment, to say the least.
The Nuggets, whether they are only the worst team in the league
(uncontested) or in history (to be determined), are not even
amusing in their incompetence. However outmanned they may be
(struggling rookies, CBA veterans and a couple of bona fide role
players dominate the roster these days), they do not bumble or
otherwise offer comic relief; they maintain, if only in spurts,
the pretense of professionalism and are all the more pathetic
for that. But the really uncomfortable part of the spectating
experience, which is not shared by all that many (at week's end
the team's average home attendance, 11,658, was the third lowest
in the NBA), was witnessing the players' growing resentment over
their part in this little plan--this "strategy," as they call it.

Suddenly, sulky looks were beginning to be exchanged between
teammates, between players and coaches. Fingers were being
pointed afterward, destinies understood. It was as if the
players, good company men up to this point, have finally
recognized that as a condition of their employment, they had
been made to incorporate into their personalities a willingness
to suffer ritualized defeat.

"It's hard to see an end to this," says Dean Garrett, the team's
center, who joined Denver as a free agent last September after
playing with the rising Minnesota Timberwolves. "Seeing guys
come down, dunking on you and giggling, taking these beatings
night after night. It's not good. I can't watch SportsCenter
anymore, I'm so embarrassed." At week's end Denver hadn't won
away from McNichols Arena (the Nuggets are not a good road team)
and had lost 20 straight, getting killed--killed--by teams like
the Dallas Mavericks. "Sooner or later," Garrett warns,
"somebody's going to get pissed off."

Garrett's already there. In late December he caused a ruckus
within the team by telling reporters, "There's a lot of
selfishness in this room." After Friday's loss to the Cavs he
was going off on his teammates' continued lack of effort. "It
would be nice if all 12 guys left the room knowing they'd played
as hard as they could," he said. "But they can't."

This is the kind of talk that tears teams apart, but Garrett was
not likely to be chided for it. In a room nearby, first-year
coach Bill Hanzlik, whose decency could yet be consumed by this
experience, was pointing his own finger, identifying only three
players who that night had given an NBA effort: veterans Garrett
and forward LaPhonso Ellis, and rookie point guard Bobby Jackson.

The 6'7" Hanzlik, a beloved figure in Denver who as a hustling
Nugget in the 1980s put up heroic defensive struggles against
bigger and better players, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and
Patrick Ewing, had lit into his players after the game and was
now showing an uncharacteristic impatience with them. The man
for whom the refs have had to recalibrate their tolerance for
profanity downward--a "jeez Louise" out of Hanzlik's mouth will
get him T'd up--was lacing his postgame talk with "dang," and it
was not pretty to hear.

"It's beating me down, too," he finally admitted, his
ever-present smile fading, if only for a few seconds.

It's not going to get better, and even if Hanzlik can smother
the anger that's flaring here and there, it will most likely get
a lot worse. Despite the anticipated February effect--other bad
teams throwing in the towel on their own dismal seasons,
starting to roll over, allowing Denver to pick up a few
wins--the Nuggets have a very good chance of surpassing the
Philadelphia 76ers' benchmark for futility, the 9-73 record that
has stood for a quarter century (box, page 57). Fred Carter, who
had the dubious distinction of being the MVP on the NBA's worst
team ever, expressed some unseemly confidence in comments to the
Los Angeles Times recently. "Not only are they going to break
the record," said Carter, "they may shatter it."

With that as their fate, the players have begun to wonder if the
season is being conducted with more regard for the science of
systematic humiliation than the playing of basketball. They
don't really get it. Jackson, something of a find as a low
first-round pick, can't quite get used to the idea of these
regular whippings. A year ago he was instrumental in getting
Minnesota into the Final Four. "I mean, high school on up, I
always won," he says. "This is tough."

Of course, in such a situation rookies get the benefit of
increased playing time and are usually slow to appreciate their
circumstances anyway. The veterans, however, are taking the
harshness of this new life a bit harder. "Three years ago this
was an up-and-coming team," says Ellis, one of the few quality
players left and one of the two (guard Bryant Stith is the
other) remaining from the 1993-94 team that reached the Western
Conference semifinals. "As a young guy I saw myself competing
for a championship by the time I was 27. I'm 27." Ellis is a man
given to an easy smile and enormous faith. But, thinking about
what is and what could have been, he has begun to entertain a
certain doubt. "Management has bought into this strategy," he
says, "but we're the guys living it, night after night."

The strategy is a daring one, and whether or not it destroys the
franchise, it will very likely be talked about for some time. It
was born, everybody agrees, before last season, when then
president and coach Bernie Bickerstaff let All-Star free-agent
center Dikembe Mutombo leave rather than meet what Bickerstaff
considered an outlandish contract demand. Mutombo was probably
not popular with Bickerstaff anyway--he was always asking for
the ball and wondering why he wasn't being consulted about team
decisions--but his $11 million-a-year request was summarily
rejected, even though he was the backbone of the team.

Had the Nuggets paid him the money, Mutombo would be regarded as
one of the NBA's better values today. Instead he departed for
the Atlanta Hawks, and without him Denver became an instant
third-tier team, finishing 21-61, 14 games worse than the season
before.

Last February, Bickerstaff left to coach the Washington Bullets
(now Wizards). Allan Bristow, persuaded to succeed Bickerstaff,
decided along with Charlie Lyons, chairman and CEO of Ascent
Entertainment Group, which owns the Nuggets, that the bravest
thing to do was to not attempt to field a patchwork team that
might, if all went well, return to .500, but instead to make
room under the salary cap and acquire draft picks that would
enable the team to move back among the elite.

That meant dealing away the Nuggets' best athlete, third-year
forward Antonio McDyess, who was demanding a six-year, $100
million contract and would be a free agent at the end of this
season. In a three-way trade that also included the Cavaliers,
Denver traded McDyess to the Phoenix Suns for three No. 1 and
two No. 2 picks instead of proven players. Bristow did acquire
third-year forward Eric Williams, a good player who averaged
19.8 points in the season's first four games and might have
slowed the team's descent. Alas, Williams tore the anterior
cruciate ligament in his right knee in game four and is likely
to be out for the year. The solid Stith also went down for at
least three months after surgery in December to remove a bone
spur in his left ankle.

So the team was left with five rookies--sometimes starting three
of them (Jackson, forward Tony Battie and guard Eric
Washington)--plus the oft-injured Ellis, Garrett and 7'4" center
Priest Lauderdale, who is at best a project. "This," says coach
emeritus Doug Moe, "is an untalented team. They've got guys
[starting] who should be playing short minutes. They're support
players."

But Moe, though he's no longer with Denver, defends the
strategy. "What did they wash out? This team wasn't going to be
much once they got rid of Mutombo."

An .054 team, though? "Let me stress, and I cannot stress this
enough," says Bristow, "that we never, never thought it would be
this bad. We knew it would be a rough year. We knew we had to
get worse to get better, to rid ourselves of some contracts. We
knew we'd have a lot of young players. We knew we wouldn't have
the talent, but we never figured on two wins."

Still, he is not apologetic. Bristow, a former NBA player and
coach of the Charlotte Hornets, says, "I've seen teams try to
get by, and it doesn't work. We maybe could have made different
moves, have seven wins, and nobody would be talking about us,
but we'd still be 25 games out. We're trying to build a
championship team, not have a mediocre bunch of veterans."

The way it works out--just as designed in the strategy--the
Nuggets will have $15 million (saved under the salary cap) to
spend next summer, enough for one genuine superstar or perhaps
two regular novas. They also will have three first-round picks,
maybe two of them in the lottery. If Denver's front office
handles these moves right, the Nuggets could be immediately
transformed. The Cavaliers, for example, are riding high after
getting just one great player, Shawn Kemp, and surrounding him
with kids like center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and guards Brevin
Knight and Derek Anderson. It could work.

Or it might not. It could turn out that superstars would just as
soon not play on a team that has just set the record for losses.
Do you think Scottie Pippen will decide to end his career by
trying to turn Denver around? But the Nuggets insist that, greed
being what it is--especially in the NBA--their money will
conquer all. "If we really want somebody," Hanzlik says, "we can
now overpay him." They will almost certainly have to.

The strategy is a dramatic one, and possibly the right one. This
might even be the best time to get away with it. The city is
currently preoccupied with a certain football team, and even
after everybody's back from San Diego there will be the
Avalanche, a Stanley Cup contender, to cheer for. About the time
Hanzlik's club is closing in on the 76ers' record and attracting
film crews from CNN, the sold-out Rockies will be in spring
training.

For the players who have been left to sacrifice their
competitive instincts for the good of the organization, though,
these next few months will represent a test of character few
people have ever taken. Probably half of them won't be here next
season but will languish instead in history, picking up the
phone 20 years from now, answering questions every time a team
comes anywhere near their infamous desperation. The other half
could be redeemed by the strategy--what a sweet story that would
be--but could become marked forever by the sheer perversity of
this season.

Even if Hanzlik and his squad can somehow agree to get through
this with no more than quarrels over who's playing hard and
who's not, damage will certainly have been done. This could be
the final finding of this little experiment: It might be that
nothing lays greater waste to an athlete's pride and spirit than
the permission to lose.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH As Anthony Goldwire (losing ball) and Garrett know too well, the Nuggets often can't get out of their own way. [Eddie Jones, Anthony Goldwire and Dean Garrett in game]COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO/NBA PHOTOS The constant losing has taken the bounce out of most of the Nuggets, including team mainstay Ellis. [LaPhonso Ellis in game]