What was supposed to be a landmark season for the Nuggets, a
young team that had fallen one game short of the Western
Conference finals in 1994, turned into a landslide of bad luck,
bad feelings and bad basketball last year. The lowlights
included a season-ending knee injury to star forward LaPhonso
Ellis in September, the resignation of coach Dan Issel in
January, the resignation of forward Reggie Williams as team
captain in February and constant bickering throughout the first
half of the season.
Denver didn't hit bottom until it lost to the woeful 76ers on
Feb. 18. With the team 20-29, Nugget president and general
manager Bernie Bickerstaff took over for interim coach Gene
Littles, who returned to his assistant coach position. Under
their third coach of the season, the Nuggets made a dramatic
turnaround, going 21-12 the rest of the way and sneaking into
With Bickerstaff back on the bench this year, Denver might
finally fulfill its promise. As one of the most powerful
personalities in the NBA, Bickerstaff should be able to minimize
player grievances. But even he can't help Ellis, whose physical
ailments will keep him on the sidelines for most of the season.
A cyst similar to the one that caused a stress fracture of his
right kneecap last fall was found on his left kneecap in May,
requiring Ellis to endure his second bone graft in a year. "I
guarantee I'll be back sometime this season," says Ellis, who
has dropped 25 pounds to lighten the load on his knees.
Still, the Nuggets can't count on him, which is why they went to
great lengths to secure Antonio McDyess--the No. 2 overall draft
pick, out of Alabama--who was originally selected by the
Clippers. On draft day Bickerstaff acquired the 6'9", 220-pound
power forward from the Clippers along with backup point guard
Randy Woods and center Elmore Spencer in exchange for Rodney
Rogers, Brian Williams and Brent Barry, whom the Nuggets had
taken with the 15th pick. "Everything was driven by LaPhonso's
situation," says Bickerstaff. "When would we have another
opportunity to come close to replacing a player like that?"
McDyess, who has a terrific attitude and work habits to go along
with his soft hands and 47-inch vertical leap, should get plenty
of playing time up front, regardless of Ellis's situation. If
Ellis does return, he'll probably replace Williams at small
forward, which could give the Nuggets one of the most athletic
front lines in the league.
Though McDyess is being touted in some quarters as a rookie of
the year candidate, Bickerstaff isn't laying any pressure on
him, at least not publicly. "I have no expectations of him,
other than work ethic," says Bickerstaff. "I just expect him to
come in, work hard and learn the ropes. The one thing I do know
is there will be a demand defensively on everybody."
To that end, Bickerstaff has brought in former Seattle assistant
Bob Kloppenburg, the mastermind of the Sonics' trapping press.
Stepped-up defensive pressure will lighten the load on NBA
Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo, who led the league
in blocked shots (321) and rebounds (1,029) last season while
logging 3,100 minutes, the highest single-season total in Nugget
history. Mutombo should get further relief from the 7-foot
Spencer and 7'1" Rastko Cvetkovic, 25, who signed with Denver
after spending eight seasons with the Yugoslavian national team.
Defensive stalwart Bryant Stith and potent scorer Mahmoud
Abdul-Rauf will continue to rotate at shooting guard. This year
Bickerstaff doesn't expect any complaints about playing time
from Abdul-Rauf, whose feud with Issel last season contributed
to the coach's sudden departure. "We're both on the same page,"
says Bickerstaff. "I want him to do what he does best, and his
teammates do too. That's how you win."
Meanwhile, second-year point guard Jalen Rose has apparently
learned from his rookie mistakes, which ranged from launching
ugly shots to wearing ugly suits. He says the garish
red-and-white-pinstriped outfit he wore the night he was drafted
"is history." As for his on-court style, Rose spent much of the
summer polishing his game in the gym at his high school alma
mater, St. Cecelia's, in Detroit. "I'd just shoot until I got
tired," says Rose, who estimates he fired about 700 shots a day.
"I wanted to improve my outside shooting and my ball handling. I
wanted to improve everything. I want to be a guy who helps the
team a lot of different ways."
After last year's debacle, the Nuggets can use all the help they
COLOR PHOTO: WILL HART/NBA PHOTOS Iron man Mutombo will get a little more rest--and maybe a few more points. [Dikembe Mutombo]
BY THE NUMBERS
1994-95 TEAM STATISTICS
PPG (Rank) FG% (Rank)
OFFENSE 101.3 (13) .479 (7)
DEFENSE 100.5 (11) .456 (8)
A NEGATIVE INFLUENCE
Six active NBA centers with a scoring average of 20 points per
game or better have started at least five games against Denver's
Dikembe Mutombo; of them, only Charlotte's Alonzo Mourning has
shot better and scored more points per game against the Nugget
center than against the rest of the league's centers.
Field Goal Pct.
Starts vs. Against
Mutombo Mutombo Others Diff.
David Robinson 19 50.0 51.9 -1.9
Hakeem Olajuwon 17 49.7 51.9 -2.1
Patrick Ewing 8 46.5 50.5 -4.1
Brad Daugherty 6 53.3 55.0 -1.6
Alonzo Mourning 6 52.1 51.2 +0.9
Shaquille O'Neal 6 52.9 58.2 -5.3
Points per Game
Mutombo Others Diff.
[David Robinson] 25.9 27.7 -1.8
[Hakeem Olajuwon] 26.8 27.3 -0.5
[Patrick Ewing] 22.6 24.7 +2.1
[Brad Daugherty] 18.3 20.4 -2.1
[Alonzo Mourning] 22.7 21.9 +0.8
[Shaquille O'Neal] 23.5 28.0 -4.5
PLAYER TO WATCH
If there is one Nugget who typifies the kind of hustle and
defensive mentality coach Bernie Bickerstaff seeks in his
players, it is fourth-year shooting guard and team captain
Bryant Stith. The 6'5", 210-pound Stith, a starter until Jalen
Rose was shifted to point guard and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was moved
to shooting guard last February, has developed a reputation as a
stealthy and unflappable defender: In his 202 professional
games, he hasn't fouled out once. And if the end of last season
is any indication, Stith, who averaged just 11.2 points in
'94-95, is on the verge of an offensive explosion. Starting for
an injured Abdul-Rauf against the Suns on April 14, Stith scored
a season-high 27 points, showing off the midrange jumper he had
been working on since the previous off-season. He knows how to
score; he averaged 19.2 points per game in his four years at
Virginia. With another summer's worth of work behind him, Stith
may become as dangerous this season on offense as he is on
STARTERS 1994-95 KEY STATISTICS
SF Reggie Williams 13.4 ppg 4.4 rpg 3.1 apg
PF Antonio McDyess Rookie; 2nd overall pick, from Alabama
C Dikembe Mutombo 11.5 ppg 12.5 rpg 3.91 bpg
PG Jalen Rose 8.2 ppg 2.7 rpg 4.8 apg
SG Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf 16.0 ppg 3.6 apg 88.5 FT%
G Bryant Stith 11.2 ppg 3.3 rpg 82.4 FT%
G Robert Pack 12.1 ppg 6.9 apg 1.45 spg
G-F Dale Ellis 11.3 ppg 2.7 rpg 40.3 3FG%