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Not a lost cause

Nuggets could make playoffs, with or without J.R.

Posted: Wednesday October 03, 2001 11:41 AM

By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated

DENVER -- The Denver Nuggets couldn't open training camp on their home court at the Pepsi Center Tuesday, because the circus was in town. But when the team convened for the first time this season on its practice court, a sideshow worthy of Barnum & Bailey was already afoot. In the NBA's permutation on "Who shot J.R.?" players, coaches and the media joined in a parlor game of "Where is J.R.?"

In what might charitably be described as a bold personnel move, new Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe last week signed serial truant Isaiah (J.R.) Rider to a one-year contract. The Nuggets are willing to gamble with Rider's highly checkered past and his disdain for punctuality -- and endure an inevitable spate of Mile High jokes -- in hopes of tapping into his vast talent and unrealized potential.

Rider's Mr. Hyde persona, however, didn't stay suppressed for long. He failed to show up for the team's media day. After a purported flight delay, he missed the first practice so he could take a physical. The absence was hardly excused. "He was supposed to be here and he wasn't, so as far as I'm concerned, this is a missed practice," said Denver head coach Dan Issel, choosing his words with painful precision. "We hope he can make it, but we can't give him one chance after another. If he shows up and plays hard, he'll be here. If he doesn't, he won't. It's that simple."

Atlanta Hawks exec Pete Babcock, who nearly lost his job over acquiring Rider in 1999 (he waived Rider a year later), once remarked, "With Isaiah, there's always a 'but.'" The same could be said for the Nuggets. The team has improved each of the past four seasons and has shown signs of being a franchise on the make. But they have failed to reach the postseason since 1995. They won 29 of their home games last year, but they managed just 11 victories on the road. They averaged 96 points a game, but they gave up 99, third most in the NBA. They have a number of talented players, but they showed more unity and effort in their failed attempt to oust Issel than they often did on the court.

Despite the "buts," hopes are high that this will be a breakthrough season for the Nuggets. Dream Teamer Antonio McDyess is a bona fide star, a reliable 20/10 threat. "He might be the best power forward in the game," says Clyde Drexler, who recently joined Denver's management team as a consultant. Guard Nick Van Exel quietly had his best year as a pro. While Denver didn't land a blockbuster free agent in the offseason, the addition of vocal point guard Avery Johnson will pay dividends.

The question is, which of the other members of the troupe will, as they say in circus-speak, step right up. Shooting guard Tariq Abdul-Wahad signed a $43 million contract last year but played in just 29 games and asked, to no avail, for a trade. Voshon Lenard has a fine outside stroke. Period. Young forward James Posey has a versatile game and is poised for a breakout, but he tends to lose confidence easily. "It's a great opportunity for any of these young guys," says Johnson. "We have our two stars [McDyess and Van Exel]. Who wants to be great with them?"

Bottom line: The Nuggets won't be the Greatest Show on Earth by any stretch this season. But if they can eliminate a few of the "buts" and a find third scoring threat, the eighth playoff spot in the West is an attainable goal. Where Rider will be by then is anyone's guess.

Worth noting

Drexler made an appearance at the end of Tuesday's practice to observe his new players. Has he been tempted to be like Mike and attempt a comeback at age 39? Hardly. "I think of that and my body aches," he says. ... The curiosity of camp was 7-foot, 290-pound Chinese Olympian Menk Bateer. ... Issel has never been known for holding grueling practices, but after a series of wind sprints, forward Zendon Hamilton yielded the contents of his stomach. ... Taking a page from the XFL, players had nicknames on the back of their practice jerseys. Said Johnson: "I was thinking of 'HE HATE ME,' but I thought that wasn't the right spirit, so I deciced to go with 'A.J.'"

Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com.


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