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"We're cutting guys who would've started for us last year," declared a Nuggets official during training camp. That could be the team's advertising slogan.
The Nuggets won 11 games last season. They weren't the worst team ever, but they were truly bad enough—sort of like Magic Johnson's talk show. "I was mentally drained from being ridiculed and humiliated every second of every day," says guard Bryant Stith, the longest-serving Nugget after six seasons in Denver. "But during the lockout my spirits were rejuvenated. Now I feel like a totally different person."
That's primarily because he's surrounded by new teammates. The Nuggets acquired point guard Nick Van Exel in a draft-day trade with the Lakers. Van Exel then helped recruit his friend, power forward Antonio McDyess, from Phoenix back to Denver, for a franchise-record $67.5 million over six years. The No. 2 pick in 1995, McDyess averaged 15.8 points and 7.4 rebounds a game in two seasons with the Nuggets before they dealt him to the Suns in October of '97. His rare combination of strength and speed will take some heat off of slim rookie Raef LaFrentz, the No. 3 pick, who will start at center after four years of playing forward at Kansas.
The Nuggets have gone to great lengths to create a new attitude. For instance, they traded two players and a No. 1 pick to Toronto for guard Chauncey Billups, a high school legend in Denver and a star at Colorado before going third in the 1997 draft. "I'd call home last season and talk to the guys, and the Nuggets were like a joke in town," says Billups. "There's a real sense of rejuvenation now. I think the biggest thing is we're going to be exciting to watch."
New coach Mike D'Antoni wants the Nuggets to run and press, to camouflage their lack of muscle with a blur of fast breaks. Before experiencing the horrors of last season as a Denver assistant, D'Antoni spent 20 years as a player and coach in Italy. He's determined to let the players know he believes in them, even at the risk of creating expectations that could make his NBA debut more difficult.
"I think we're one of the top eight teams in the conference, talentwise," D'Antoni says bravely. "We have a couple of the Utah ingredients—a power forward and a great point guard."
Will McDyess become a franchise player? Can Van Exel, maligned in L.A., make the most of a fresh start? Can Eric Williams return from last season's knee surgery to give D'Antoni 15 to 20 points a game at small forward?
"If I can get through the year and we can be fairly successful, I think next year we're going to have a heck of a team," D'Antoni says. "We've got 50 games this year for seasoning the team, seasoning me."
Stith made the most promising move of all. In the first week of camp, he asked that McDyess and Van Exel join him as tri-captains. Last season was hell. Stith wants desperately to experience the opposite.
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