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NO.5 DENVER NUGGETS

Dean Garrett played for Bob Knight on Indiana's NCAA
championship team in 1987. He played in Italy for seven years
and spent another year in Greece, an expatriation that almost
made him quit basketball. He reached the NBA, with the
Timberwolves, last season at age 29, only to find himself stuck
behind a stiff, Stojko Vrankovic. But after Jan. 20, when
Garrett became a starter, he blossomed into one of the league's
biggest surprises, averaging 10.6 points and 9.0 rebounds over
Minnesota's last 44 games. As a result, he got one of the NBA's
biggest percentage raises, from a minimum salary of $247,500 to
almost $3 million a year over four years. Garrett has seen the
good and the bad of basketball.

As the new center for the Nuggets, now he'll see the ugly. "I
feel sorry for [rookie coach] Bill [Hanzlik],'' Garrett says.
"He has the hardest job. They're throwing us to the wolves
without any weapons. They're throwing him out there with
nothing."

When the Nuggets traded their best player, power forward Antonio
McDyess, to the Suns in a three-way deal on Oct. 1, they
guaranteed that they would be in a highly competitive race for
the worst record in the NBA. McDyess wanted a six-year, $100
million contract to stay in Denver, which may have been
unreasonable. But management's having gotten no solid player,
only draft choices and an undisclosed amount of cash, in
exchange for McDyess may prove to be unforgivable. One Western
Conference coach rolled his eyes in disgust and said, "The
Nuggets must know about someone in next year's lottery that no
one else knows."

Denver is stockpiling draft choices and conserving cap room to
sign free agents after this season, which means that this year's
Nuggets won't even match the anemic win total (21) of last
year's team. Without McDyess, Denver is puny up front. It has
little perimeter shooting, and its primary point guard is a
rookie, Bobby Jackson. On opening night, the Nuggets' best
player, forward LaPhonso Ellis, was on the injured list because
of a torn right Achilles tendon. Denver started the season with
four first-year players, including first-round picks Jackson and
forwards Tony Battie and Danny Fortson. Hanzlik's only hope is
that his young team will embrace his up-tempo, pressing style.

"The good part is that our young guys will get a quicker look at
the league than other rookies," says Garrett. "But Tim Duncan,
because he has great players around him, won't have the pressure
on him with the Spurs that Bobby and Danny will. I mean, they're
throwing these guys out there real quick."

One of the few bright spots for the Nuggets was the signing of
Garrett because it spared us having to watch journeyman Joe Wolf
start at center. Moreover, it allows Battie to ease into the NBA
at power forward, not in the pivot. That should benefit Battie
because he's probably closer to 6'9" than his listed 6'11".

After banging around Europe for eight years praying for an NBA
job, the 6'11" Garrett got one as what he calls "a favor" from
Minnesota coach Flip Saunders, who had scouted Garrett when the
latter played in junior college. "If it weren't for Flip and
Kevin [McHale, the T-Wolves' vice president of basketball
operations], I don't know where I'd be," says Garrett. He loved
playing with All-Star forwards Tom Gugliotta and Kevin Garnett,
and point guard Stephon Marbury. Plays weren't run for Garrett;
he just picked up the passes and missed shots the stars left for
him. While he wanted to explore the options free agency
presented, Garrett acknowledges that "I thought I'd be going
back to Minnesota." The Timberwolves offered him a three-year,
$9 million pact, but Garrett, who'll turn 31 on Nov. 27, opted
for the Nuggets' longer-term deal.

Now, with no stars to surround him, Garrett might be asked to do
more than he did with the Timberwolves. Can he? "Those guys in
Minnesota were the Big Three," says Garrett. "Maybe I'll be one
of the Big Three on this team...except we don't have a Big
Three. It's time for Denver to establish some superstars."

That could take years.

--TIM KURKJIAN

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH AFTER NETTING A HEFTY RAISE, GARRETT BECAME THE MAN IN THE NUGGETS' MUDDLE [Dean Garrett dunking basketball]

COLOR PHOTO: SAM FORENCICH/NBA PHOTOS [Bobby Jackson]

BY THE NUMBERS

1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS Record: 21-61 (fifth in Midwest)

SEASON AVERAGES

Points Rebounds Turnovers
per game FG pct. per game per game
(rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

Nuggets 97.8 (13) .439 (23) 42.0 (8) 16.6 (25)
Opponents 104.1 (26) .467 (22) 43.2 (26) 12.9 (29)

FEEBLE FINISHERS

"Quit while we're ahead" could have been the motto of last
year's Nuggets. Twenty-nine times Denver led at the end of the
first half but won only 15 of those games. No other NBA team
last season had as poor a rate of converting halftime leads into
victories; on a leaguewide basis, teams won 82% of the games
they led at the half.

LOWEST WINNING PERCENTAGE AFTER LEADING AT HALFTIME

LEADING AT HALF OVERALL
DIVISION
W-L PCT. W-L PCT. FINISH PLAYOFFS

Nuggets 15-14 .517 21-61 .256 Fifth No
Mavericks 12-10 .545 24-58 .293 Fourth No
Celtics 11-9 .550 15-67 .183 Seventh No
76ers 16-9 .640 22-60 .268 Sixth No
Nets 22-12 .647 26-56 .317 Fifth No

NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND

Rookie point guard Bobby Jackson (right) is probably closer to
5'11" than the 6'1" he is listed at. Plus, he's not really a
point guard; he was essentially a shooting guard at Minnesota.
Learning a new position in the NBA is hazardous, especially when
it's the point. (Ask the Hornets' Tony Delk, a shooting guard at
Kentucky who has been trying to acquire point guard skills.) But
the 24-year-old Jackson was the oldest player taken in this
year's draft. He's mature and he's skilled. He'll establish
himself at his position by January.

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1996-97 STATS
Coach: Bill Hanzlik (first season with Denver)

STARTERS

G PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG% FT% 3FG%

PG Bobby Jackson (R)[*] 35 15.3 6.1 4.0 2.11 0.23 .441 .786 .320
SG Bryant Stith 52 14.9 4.2 2.6 1.15 0.38 .416 .863 .385
SF Eric Williams [*] 72 15.0 4.6 1.8 1.00 0.18 .456 .752 .250
PF Tony Battie (R) [*] 28 18.8 11.8 0.8 0.93 2.54 .579 .656 .375
C Dean Garrett [*] 68 8.0 7.3 0.6 0.59 1.40 .573 .696 0 att.

RESERVES

G Anthony Goldwire 60 6.5 1.4 3.7 0.55 0.03 .397 .782 .418
F LaPhonso Ellis 55 21.9 7.0 2.4 0.80 0.75 .439 .773 .367
F-G Johnny Newman [*] 82 8.7 2.3 1.4 0.89 0.21 .450 .765 .347
F Danny Fortson (R)[*] 33 21.4 9.0 1.1 0.61 0.45 .621 .772 .000
C Priest Lauderdale[*] 35 3.2 1.2 0.3 0.03 0.26 .551 .565 .000

[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college stats)