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Monday, January 26, 2004
Updated: February 1, 8:26 AM ET
Rebuilding the right way

By Scott Howard-Cooper
Special to ESPN.com

They're a success story, a sign of hope for everyone looking for that first chance, an unexpected playoff contender as the season reaches the midpoint, a player again in their crowded home market. Most of all, though, they're a benefit.

Because now you know how the Chicago Bulls were supposed to turn out.

Da Nuggets are many things -- for starters: back -- but unconventional is high on the list. In the toughest division of the toughest conference, Denver is in the NBA again because of intelligent decisions, but most of all through guts in choosing to build with youthful shoulders as the scaffolding. Ask the Bulls how that can turn out.

Chicago even tried it as a marquee franchise with fan support, a championship tradition and a proven personnel boss in Jerry Krause. Denver started with, um, well, as far as recent basketball success went, it was a hell of a football and hockey town.

Marcus Camby
Marcus Camby has been healthy enough to be the Nuggets' presence in the middle.
And now look. Or, in Chicago's case, don't. The Bulls are 5½ seasons into the plan and still leaning into a mighty wind. The Nuggets haven't even hit Year 2 -- from when the rebuilding officially began with the deal that headlined Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz going to Dallas for Juwan Howard in a move that would provide cap relief much sooner -- and are already rattling windows as they pass.

It's not so much the contrast to the Bulls as proof of how easily this path could have blown up in Denver's face. Acquiring proven players and then using the draft picks initially in supporting roles, allowing them to grow at a reasonable rate, would have been the alternative. In reality, it became the opposite. The children shall lead them.

"Some of the things that we did were unconventional at the time," Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said. "People thought we were a little nuts for doing them. Basically within two months of getting here, we traded away the bulk of our team. Yeah, it was very risky. There's no guarantee of success on that at all, but we were either going to get very bad or we were going to get good. We just weren't going to stay in the middle. It's not our personality to do that. We talked to the owner about it. We said, 'Look, if you want to just kind of stay where you are, we're the wrong guys for you because we're not going to be satisfied and we'll be bugging you all the time. So let's give this a shot and see what we can pull off.' "

They got draft picks and cap space. They got three first-rounders the last two summers, to be exact, and started there, drafting Nene and Nikoloz Tskitishvili in 2002 and Carmelo Anthony in '03. Nene turned into a starter and Anthony turned into a star in the making, with an explosive first step on the court and a quick break from the gates as a rookie. Skita remains largely as when he arrived: an unproven prospect slow in developing.

It was the established players that filled in around Nene and Anthony, not in front of them. There were the free-agent signings of Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard, Earl Boykins and Jon Barry for the backcourt. There was the return to health for Marcus Camby, the overlooked factor in the Nuggets' surge from 17-65 last season to playoff consideration this season. They can be more than a supporting cast, but none of this happens without Anthony living up to the considerable expectations and Nene progressing.

Nuggets on the rebound
Player '02-03 stats '03-04 stats
Marcus Camby 7.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks in 29 games 8.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.6 blocks in 41 games
Voshon Lenard 14.3 ppg, .402 FG, .365 3FG 15.8 ppg, .428 FG, .388 3FG
Andre Miller 13.6 ppg, 6.7 apg, .406 FG 15.8, 6.3 apg, .463 FG
The plan to rely on youth isn't close to being over, either. Using this season as an 82-game tease for what could be, Denver could have as much as $23 million in spending power in the summer, depending what options they pick up and where the salary cap is set, and the lure of being a franchise on the come. Suddenly, it's a hot place to be. Not only that, the Nuggets have No. 1s coming from the Clippers (protected to No. 15 this summer, to No. 14 in '05 and unprotected from there) and the 76ers (protected to eight in 2005, to three in '06 and unprotected after that) while also retaining their own picks those years, so youth will continue even as they build upward.

Naturally, they've put faith in the newcomers. Jeff Bzdelik had never been a head coach in the NBA -- or anywhere since those pressure-cooker days at Maryland-Baltimore County in the 1980s -- when the Nuggets hired him. Vandeweghe had never been a personnel boss, anywhere, when the Nuggets hired him. So everyone was open to criticism even before they started relaying on the players without experience.

Vandeweghe, in fact, had never held a higher basketball office than two seasons as assistant coach and director of player development for the Mavericks. Little else about Vandeweghe, however, was open for debate. His basketball success was nothing compared to his intelligence, a Rhodes Scholar finalist with a UCLA enconomics degree, so just maybe he could figure out how to manage a salary cap. He was a passionate worker, soft-spoken, polite and dignified, except that you'd need a wrecking ball to get him out of the gym.

Tireless, competitive and smart is a good place to start. Already having a good name in town, with four of his 13 seasons in the NBA having been spent in Denver, and three of those while averaging at least 21 points a game, didn't hurt either, unless that maybe it was that people had so tuned out pro basketball that more wrong moves would have been greeted with shrugs. Forget experience. These Nuggets didn't have a following.

So they charged through the brush together, the new general manager and the new coach and the new players, some fresh in the league entirely and some even transitioning to the United States for the first time. Land of opportunity. That's Denver.

The place where they got it right.

Scott Howard-Cooper, who covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.