No team west of Houston has had a rockier start than the Nuggets, who had been projected by many (including SI) as San Antonio's top competition in the Western Conference. Instead, injuries to its trio of imposing big men and bizarre defensive breakdowns have turned Denver (17-18 at week's end) into the league's most disappointing team. The low point came in a 114-112 loss to the visiting Mavericks last Friday, when, on an inbounds play, Dallas guard Devin Harris broke loose for an uncontested layup with 2.2 seconds remaining in overtime. "We've had so many games like that," says G.M. Kiki Vandeweghe, noting that his Nuggets have blown 11 leads in the fourth quarter or OT.
If the Nuggets don't turn it around soon, Vandeweghe may pay the price. He is in the final year of his contract, having failed to come to terms on a new deal last summer, when his adviser, Warren LeGarie, infuriated owner Stan Kroenke by speaking publicly about the negotiations. Far from playing the part of the lame duck, Vandeweghe has vigorously pursued Ron Artest for the last month in an effort to resuscitate the franchise. Through interviews with several league sources SI was able to piece together the following scenario: The Denver G.M. offered Kenyon Martin and Voshon Lenard to the Pacers last week for Artest and 6'11" backup Scot Pollard. Indiana rejected that deal, unwilling to add the six years and $81.3 million remaining on Martin's contract to their bloated $79 million payroll. The Pacers did, however, provide Vandeweghe with a list of players, including Hawks forward Al Harrington, Lakers forward Lamar Odom and Grizzlies guard Mike Miller whom the Nuggets could acquire from a third team and then relay to Indiana for Artest. Denver spent last Friday trying to get Harrington, but Atlanta rejected an offer of Nené and two first-round picks.
Vandeweghe's aggressiveness reflects the win-now attitude of Kroenke, a multisport owner whose other teams have rewarded him with rings (the 2000 St. Louis Rams and '01 Colorado Avalanche) while the Nuggets have failed to earn even a division title since he bought them in 2000. Never mind that over the last four years Vandeweghe and the assistant G.M. duo of Jeff Weltman and Dave Fredman have, after boldly gutting the roster, rebuilt the Nuggets into a franchise with 50-win talent. Rival teams point to the off-season hiring of Mark Warkentien as Denver's player-personnel director as a sign of Kroenke's ambition. In Portland and Cleveland, Warkentien developed a reputation as the league's top draft evaluator (he is credited with discovering Jermaine O'Neal, among others) as well as a skilled evaluator of potential trade bargains.
If his bid for Artest fails, Vandeweghe will explore minor trades involving Lenard and backup point guard Earl Watson. Or he will wait until his team's long list of injured stars return. Martin has been hampered by soreness in his surgically repaired left knee; center Marcus Camby (broken right pinky) is expected to be back by the end of the month; and, according to a team official, the 6'11" Nené has "an excellent chance" of returning from ACL surgery by April, in time for the postseason. Vandeweghe's assertion that the Nuggets, when healthy, are "one of the five most talented teams in the NBA" is not without merit. Given the sorry state of the Northwest Division, a patient approach might ultimately be the best one.
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Their Stock Is Rising
As the Feb. 23 trading deadline approaches, here are some trade candidates who could fetch far better value than they would have at the start of the season, according to front-office cognoscenti.
Bonzi Wells, G-F, Kings Averaging 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds; he's been lauded for his toughness by the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal; will be in demand when he returns from a groin injury next month.
Ricky Davis, G-F, Celtics Though still high maintenance at times, he's been a reliable scorer (20.3 points on 46.1% shooting) and an improved passer (5.1 assists).
David West, F, Hornets Dismissed earlier in his career as undersized and unathletic, he's averaging 16.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 51.4% shooting in a breakthrough third season.
BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES; GARRETT W. ELLWOOD/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (INSET)
KMART SHOPPING Vandeweghe (inset) offered Martin (6) to the Pacers for Artest.