#10 Denver Nuggets No franchise in the league was more in need of a makeover --and it got one. How does it look? Well, better

February 08, 1999

"We're cutting guys who would've started for us last year,"
declared a Nuggets official during training camp. That could be
the team's advertising slogan.

The Nuggets won 11 games last season. They weren't the worst
team ever, but they were truly bad enough--sort of like Magic
Johnson's talk show. "I was mentally drained from being
ridiculed and humiliated every second of every day," says guard
Bryant Stith, the longest-serving Nugget after six seasons in
Denver. "But during the lockout my spirits were rejuvenated. Now
I feel like a totally different person."

That's primarily because he's surrounded by new teammates. The
Nuggets acquired point guard Nick Van Exel in a draft-day trade
with the Lakers. Van Exel then helped recruit his friend, power
forward Antonio McDyess, from Phoenix back to Denver, for a
franchise-record $67.5 million over six years. The No. 2 pick in
1995, McDyess averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds a game in
two seasons with the Nuggets before they dealt him to the Suns
in October of '97. His rare combination of strength and speed
will take some heat off of slim rookie Raef LaFrentz, the No. 3
pick, who will start at center after four years of playing
forward at Kansas.

The Nuggets have gone to great lengths to create a new attitude.
For instance, they traded two players and a No. 1 pick to
Toronto for guard Chauncey Billups, a high school legend in
Denver and a star at Colorado before going third in the 1997
draft. "I'd call home last season and talk to the guys, and the
Nuggets were like a joke in town," says Billups. "There's a real
sense of rejuvenation now. I think the biggest thing is we're
going to be exciting to watch."

New coach Mike D'Antoni wants the Nuggets to run and press, to
camouflage their lack of muscle with a blur of fast breaks.
Before experiencing the horrors of last season as a Denver
assistant, D'Antoni spent 20 years as a player and coach in
Italy. He's determined to let the players know he believes in
them, even at the risk of creating expectations that could make
his NBA debut more difficult.

"I think we're one of the top eight teams in the conference,
talentwise," D'Antoni says bravely. "We have a couple of the
Utah ingredients--a power forward and a great point guard."

Will McDyess become a franchise player? Can Van Exel, maligned
in L.A., make the most of a fresh start? Can Eric Williams
return from last season's knee surgery to give D'Antoni 15 to 20
points a game at small forward?

"If I can get through the year and we can be fairly successful,
I think next year we're going to have a heck of a team,"
D'Antoni says. "We've got 50 games this year for seasoning the
team, seasoning me."

Stith made the most promising move of all. In the first week of
camp, he asked that McDyess and Van Exel join him as
tri-captains. Last season was hell. Stith wants desperately to
experience the opposite.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Big assist Van Exel (31) helped the Nuggets mine McDyess, the mother lode of the free-agent market.


Starters PVR* 1997-98 Key Stats

SF Eric Williams[1] 127 15.0 ppg 4.6 rpg 1.8 apg 45.6 FG%
PF Antonio McDyess[+] 25 15.1 ppg 7.6 rpg 1.67 bpg 53.6 FG%
C Raef LaFrentz(R)[+] 98 19.8 ppg 11.4 rpg 1.50 bpg 54.8 FG%
SG Bryant Stith 167 7.6 ppg 2.1 rpg 1.6 apg 33.3 FG%
PG Nick Van Exel 53 13.8 ppg 6.9 apg 1.00 spg 38.9 3FG%

Top Reserves Bench Ranking (out of 29 teams): 12

G Chauncey Billups[+] 137 11.2 ppg 3.9 apg 1.34 spg 37.4 FG%
F Danny Fortson 189 10.2 ppg 5.6 rpg 1.0 apg 45.2 FG%
G-F Monty Williams[+] 211 6.3 ppg 2.5 rpg 1.2 apg 44.8 FG%

1997-98 Record: 11-71 (seventh in Midwest)
Coach: Mike D'Antoni (first season with Nuggets)

[+]New acquisition (R) Rookie (1997-98 statistics at Kansas)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 68)
[1]1996-97 statistics

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)