01 October 2008

Confessions of a Denver Native (or, What's Up With the Denver Nuggets?)

I wasn't alive (or aware of basketball) during the 1980s heyday of the Denver Nuggets; the Doug Moe, run-and-gun years, the years where, try though they might, they could never muscle their way past the Showtime Lakers. My dad's told me stories about games, though, so at least I have more than a passing familiarity. The biggest thing I've taken away from his stories is the fact that those Nuggets didn't have to win championships to be a fun team to watch, a team worth supporting (a common theme among Colorado sports teams before we got spoiled watching them win Lombardi Trophies and Stanley Cups). Oh, for the days when support for your team wasn't defined by their proximity to their last championship trophy...

Sorry, I didn't mean to get sidetracked. My clearest first Denver Nuggets-related memory is of them clinching the playoff berth that led to the historic Sonics upset (sorry, Seattle fans, don't mean to bring up painful memories, I'm just telling it like it is); maybe it was the new uniforms, or the fact that everyone in the city lost their minds after the overtime victory, or the fact that, like a lot of the best times my dad and I shared during my youth, he and I watched the game together, cheering all the while (that's probably the single-best Nuggets-related time we ever had – most of those basketball bonding nights were spent watching the Jazz take on the Bulls. I'm really tearing open some old wounds today, aren't I?).

That was sort of the high-water mark for my time with the Nuggets. Most everyone remembers the decline: the trades (why, Dikembe?), the losing streaks, the awful records, Dan Issel getting carried out of the locker room on a rail... Maybe that last one didn't happen. It sure felt like it, though. While the Nuggets didn't become irrelevant during this ebbing period, they certainly didn't call to me, or our city, in the same way that they had used to. When we went to games (“we” being me with either my friends or my family), it was typically to see the marquee players from the other team, and certainly not our guys.

Fastforwarding (memory allows you to do that, you know) to 2003, and the Carmelo Anthony draft. Miraculously, the Nuggets became fun to watch again almost overnight (though, really, it was the result of nearly two years of hard work behind the scenes by former Nuggets star turned current Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe). Nene, Boykins, Camby, Miller, Melo... Denver finally had a basketball team with players whose names were worth remembering. I wasn't much of a fan of the new uniforms (powder blue and yellow? Still looks like the color scheme you'd expect of a WNBA franchise), but that was a fairly small price to pay if there was NBA basketball in Colorado that was worth watching.

We thought the turnaround was complete with the return to the playoffs, or certainly with the inclusion of George Karl to the position of head coach (and the eventual addition of the much-revered Doug Moe to the staff); at least the Nuggets would be fun to watch again. They'd be competitive (playoffs 2 years in a row!), and play like they cared (putting up a fight in the losing playoff series, putting up an actual fight against the Isiah Thomas-coached Knicks). The question about whether or not they'd ever be able to get over that playoff hump might not have even been a question; Denver was, for a time, happy with a basketball team that was interested in actually playing basketball.

However (in a fairly ham-fisted transition), the question would receive an Answer, whether we liked it or not. Allen Iverson, inarguably one of the best pure players of his generation, made his way to the Nuggets on December 19, 2006. With the arrival, a month later, of Steve Blake from the Bucks, it was clear that the people running the show intended to make a real push for some level of dominance in the Western conference. Iverson, Melo, Blake, Camby, Nene, K-Mart... players whose names really were worth knowing. Or, so I thought.

Everything should be lining up. A solid Nuggets team that can compete with the best in the league, that plays adventurous, seat-of-your-pants basketball, packed to the brim with personality. Why, now, after the seeming resurrection of the classic, run-and-gun Nuggets, do I (along with many of my fellow Coloradans) find myself less than compelled by them? Is it the trade that sent Marcus Camby away for... nothing in return, is it because it's clear that Coach Karl really doesn't have the fire to get his team to the next level (despite the fact that he's only missed the playoffs once in seasons that he's finished with a team), let alone ride his superstar players hard enough to get them, if not to play actual defense, then to play with the other members of their team, or is it because, as commissioner David Stern might fear, the “thug” image of the team's principal players puts me, a white guy, off just enough that I can't commit my loyalty to the team?

Well, the third part of that question won't get us anywhere; there are plenty of scary things in this world, but basketball players are not really among them. Also, I haven't been intimidated by tatoos, or the way a person dresses, since high school. It has nothing to do with that. The two other parts of the question, well, they're really symptoms. A better front office could've organized a better trade (and put together a better team after Kiki left – great teams push each other above and beyond, and this Nuggets team is categorically incapable of doing exactly that), and better management could've found a coach more committed to, you know, coaching (and not wasted Melo's career, minus the Olympics, up to this point).

It's like the 80's again (deficit's up!), up to and including the fact that they're surrounded by teams that, sure, they can compete with, but can't consistently beat. The great thing for basketball fans is that team in the West decided to get good pretty much at the same time; the bad thing for Nuggets fans is that the team's just not good enough. They're not even really a team, at this point, but a bunch of guys out to score as many points as they can every night. I don't have a solution, aside from blowing the team and the coaching staff up and starting fresh, but that argument would work better if I had names of players and personel to target. Even then, I don't know if I'd care.

Photo of Rocky the Mountain Lion by Garrett W. Ellwood.

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