On May 7, 1994, Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo lay sprawled on the Hour of the Seattle Coliseum, cradling a basketball and weeping unabashedly over Denver's upset of the Western Conference's No. 1 seed, the Sonics, in the first round of the playoffs. His team, Mutombo tearfully exulted, had climbed all the way back from its nadir—a 20-win season in 1990-91.
Not so fast. A year ago, the Nuggets underachieved in the regular season—they went 41-41—and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Spurs. This season Denver, with a 30-41 record through Sunday, is in danger of missing the playoffs. That dubious achievement would make the Nuggets the NBA's biggest bust of 1995-96. "This has been a total disappointment," Mutombo said last week. "This is supposed to be a team on the rise. I was sure we would win at least 50 games. Basketball used to be fun. No more."
Denver has struggled because of inconsistency at point guard. The Nuggets have also suffered from the cumulative effects of off-season trades that sent two solid veterans, forward Rodney Rogers and center-forward Brian Williams, to the Clippers for, among others, heralded rookie Antonio McDyess; from complaints by forward LaPhonso Ellis about not starting; and from the controversy sparked by guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's refusal to stand for the national anthem. "Then there are the things you don't even know about," says Mutombo. "For four years, we worked on a particular defense, and this year? We come out with a new one. [ Denver has moved from straight-up coverage to switching off more.] Why? Why do we mess up the good things we have?"
While the trades of Rogers and Williams disrupted the Nuggets' short-term chemistry, McDyess's long-term potential is tantalizing. Yet Mutombo is irked that he was not consulted by management before the transaction. "When you work for the Denver Nuggets," he says, "you are not included."
Mutombo, a five-year veteran who will be a free agent this summer, has never been comfortable with general manager-coach Bernie Bickerstaff's vision of his center as a 7'2" rebounding and shot-blocking wizard whose offense should be secondary. Now Mutombo wonders if it's time to move on. "I know things will be good for me, if not in Denver, then somewhere else," he says.
Mutombo's agent, David Falk, insists his client is speaking out of frustration. "Unless something totally out of line happens in negotiations," says Falk, "I fully expect Dikembe to remain with Denver."
Although Mutombo is on course to lead the league in blocked shots for the third straight season (through Sunday he was averaging 4.59 a game), this has not been his finest year. His rebounding average (11.7), points per game (11.0) and field goal percentage (.501) are down from last season, and early last month Bickerstaff sat Mutombo for the final 14� minutes of a game against San Antonio. The following day Mutombo and Bicker-staff met privately for an hour. Both emerged declaring they were on the same page, yet Mutombo's unhappiness was bubbling to the surface again last week, and Bickerstaff didn't appreciate the timing.
"We all have to look in the mirror and collectively accept responsibility for this season," says Bickerstaff. "No one should escape that—not the coaches, not the players. What we need to do, Mutombo included, is ask ourselves, What can I do to get us in the playoffs?"
It's the time of year when teams with fading playoff hopes assume the tank position and slide to the bottom of the standings, angling for a better shot at a high pick in the draft lottery. But this season the Bullets, 4� games out of a playoff spot with 10 to play at week's end, don't have the option of packing it in. Washington, which hasn't been to the postseason in eight years, gave up its first-round pick when it acquired point guard Mark Price from the Cavaliers in September. Besides, the Bullets desperately want to make the playoffs because 1) the players guaranteed it in November, and the fans expect it; and 2) team officials are concerned that another letdown will affect ticket sales and marketing when the team moves to a new, $180 million downtown Washington arena in the fall of 1997.