On Christmas eve of 1990, after a loss in Portland, Nuggets coach
Paul Westhead beckoned reserve guard Avery Johnson to a corner of
the locker room. Johnson figured that Westhead was going to wish
him a happy holiday. Instead, he told Johnson that he'd been
waived. "It was worse than coal in my stocking," says Johnson. "I
cried the whole plane ride back to Denver."
More than a decade later Johnson is back with the Nuggets, this
time under more secure circumstances. After the unceremonious end
to his first tour in Denver, Johnson became a reliable point
guard, compensating for his diminutiveness (5'11", 175 pounds)
with blinding speed, efficient playmaking and full-bore effort.
In 1999 he masterminded the offense of the NBA champion Spurs.
The Nuggets signed Johnson, a free agent, to a three-year, $15
million deal over the summer. "There was something in my spirit
saying Denver was right this time," says Johnson. "I guess you
could say I forgave and forgot."
Although he's 36 and filled a reserve role last season, Johnson
is in superb shape and is likely to play a lot. He'll either back
up point guard Nick Van Exel or start at the point, enabling the
offensive-minded Van Exel to move to shooting guard. However,
Johnson's real value is in his serial optimism, a necessary trait
for someone who went from being a scrub on his New Orleans high
school team--"the backup to the backup's backup," Johnson says--to
a 13-year NBA veteran. His first meeting with Dan Issel was
brief. "Coach said, 'Be yourself,'" Johnson says. "He told me to
show my leadership and don't be afraid to preach."
Team leadership has been a rare commodity in Denver. Van Exel is
too combustible to command much respect, and the Nuggets' best
player, power forward Antonio McDyess, is not only injured--he's
out until February with an injured left knee--but also too quiet:
His mates on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team called him Him because he
was reluctant to utter his name.
One of Denver's rare displays of unity in 2000-01 came in a
failed coup d'etat against Issel. To make matters all the more
volatile, first-year general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, upon
finding himself short of pop at shooting guard, made a Faustian
bargain, signing the noxious--but unquestionably talented--Isaiah
Rider to a one-year, $840,000 deal last month. Lord knows Denver
can use Johnson's fire and brimstone. "I can hear Avery in my
sleep already," says McDyess, who can deliver a dead-on
impersonation of Johnson's shrill-as-a-dog-whistle voice.
"'C'mon, Antonio! Get back on defense!' But he's been where we
want to be, so I'm going to listen."
Although they've improved their record four years running--from 11
wins in 1997-98 to 40 last season--the Nuggets have found the
postseason an elusive destination since 1995. It will be again
this season, despite the team's talented nucleus. The 27-year-old
McDyess is an exquisite power forward, capable of scoring at will
and, unlike many of his teammates, proud of his defense. Van
Exel, 29, quietly had the best season of his career and, though
he stands justly accused of shooting too much, finished third in
the league in assists. Raef LaFrentz is a versatile scorer
inside, and swingman James Posey can be an all-around
contributor. "I look around and see a lot of guys who can play,"
says Issel. "It's just a question of whether these guys truly
believe in themselves."
Johnson does. After Denver's first practice of the season the
Nuggets gathered at midcourt and yelled, "Hard work!" in unison.
Immediately Johnson ordered his new teammates back into a huddle.
"Hard work?" he said. "That's high school. How about we say,
'Playoffs!' because, never mind hard work, anything short of the
playoffs will be a disappointment."
COLOR PHOTO: GARY DINEEN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT EX-PLAYMAKER? To supply scoring in the Nuggets' new scheme, the 6'1" Van Exel will frequently slide over to shooting guard.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Nuggets
"Unless something totally unexpected happens, this team will be
the worst in the West until Antonio McDyess gets back in February
from his injured left knee. The Nuggets are going to get buried
early, and I'm not sure they'll be that much better after McDyess
returns. They don't guard the basket at all.... With Avery
Johnson and Nick Van Exel they seem to be following that trend of
using two smaller interchangeable guards, like the Rockets with
Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. Except these guys aren't as
good, and they're very small, at 5'11" and 6'1". The guess is,
they'll play Van Exel at two because he can break down defenses.
But who's he going to kick it to? Who's a threat? George McCloud?
James Posey? Van Exel's a threat, that's who. What, can he kick
it to himself? ...Plus, Van Exel is living proof of the old
adage that you can't change a zebra's stripes. He won't make you
better, especially now that he's thinking he's got to do more. He
may lead the league in bad shots.... The Nuggets have a ton of
O.K. point guards with Kenny Satterfield and Omar Cook to help
out Avery, but neither of them is ready to lead a team.... Raef
LaFrentz is fairly solid, but Dan Issel showed last year he
didn't like him at center, so he'll go with Kevin Willis. What
you can say about Willis is this: He's better than anyone else
they have. Aleksandar Radojevic will be ready some day, but right
now he's a stickman.... Issel is a good guy, but he's going to
miss John Lucas tremendously. He needs someone on the staff who
can step up to the plate, who could be a terrific head coach
himself, and that guy is gone.... What's it say when your best
off-season move is getting Isaiah Rider?"
2000-01 record: 40-42 (sixth in Midwest)
Coach: Dan Issel (third season with Nuggets)
PVR* 2000-2001 KEY STATS
SF Tariq Abdul-Wahad 3.8 ppg 2.0 rpg 0.48 spg 38.7 FG% 58.3 FT%
PF Raef LaFrentz 12.9 ppg 7.8 rpg 2.64 bpg 47.7 FG% 36.7 3FG%
C Kevin Willis 9.3 ppg 6.8 rpg 0.72 bpg 0.88 spg 44.1 FG%
SG James Posey 8.1 ppg 5.3 rpg 2.0 apg 1.13 spg 41.2 FG%
PG Nick Van Exel 17.7 ppg 8.5 apg 3.4 rpg 41.4 FG% 37.7 3FG%
PVR* 2000-2001 KEY STATS
G Voshon Lenard 12.2 ppg 2.4 apg 0.81 spg 39.7 FG% 38.5 3FG%
G-F George McCloud 9.6 ppg 2.9 rpg 3.7 apg 38.2 FG% 32.9 3FG%
G Avery Johnson  5.6 ppg 4.3 apg 1.5 rpg 0.60 spg 44.7 FG%
G Isaiah Rider 7.6 ppg 1.7 apg 0.40 spg 42.6 FG% 37.0 3FG%
F Antonio McDyess 20.8 ppg 12.1 rpg 2.1 apg 1.46 bpg 49.5 FG%
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 117)
"Van Exel won't make them better; he may lead the league in