Shift in Rockies: Nuggets climbing, Jazz sliding
By Marc J. Spears
Special to ESPN.com
The Utah Jazz had a press conference for re-signing reserve point guard Carlos Arroyo on Thursday. The Denver Nuggets had a press conference on Friday to announce the arrival of 2002 NBA assist leader Andre Miller.
The Jazz drafted little-known Serbian small forward Aleksandar Pavlovic with the 19th pick overall in the June draft. The Nuggets drafted the 2003 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player Carmelo Anthony with the third pick.
So what does this all mean?
While the Jazz have beat up on the Nuggets for over a decade now, there has been a jostling of position since the summer started in the Rocky Mountain region. Now, the new-and-improved Nuggets are an exciting young team and probably a player away from talking playoffs. As for the Jazz, devastating departures and a tough free agency could make them what the Nuggets have regularly been in recent years.
Since 1995, the Nuggets have been arguably the worst franchise in the NBA. Denver hasn't been to the playoffs since 1995. The Nuggets haven't had a regular-season record over .500 since going 42-40 during the 1993-94 campaign. When the playoffs come around each season, the joke around town is how many former Nuggets are starting for other playoff teams. Popularity in the Mile High City? A poll indicated last year that the Nuggets were definitely behind the Denver Broncos, Colorado Avalanche and Colorado Rockies and just a little higher than the Colorado Rapids. Yes, the Major League Soccer team.
Despite the polls, Denver is actually a hotbed for basketball with fans long awaiting something to cheer about. As bad as the 17-win team was last season, the Nuggets were still averaging 14,825 fans per home game.
Once the summer began, however, hope finally came the Nuggets' way with the arrival of Anthony.
While LeBron James has taken the nation by storm, Anthony has the attention of the basketball purist. The braid-wearing, head-banded Anthony instantly brought the Nuggets what they needed more than anything: scoring. He averaged 20 points per game in college as a true freshman and also averaged 20 points a game at the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league. He is bringing fans back to the Pepsi Center in a fashion that hasn't been seen in 10 years. And after scoring 34 points against some of the NBA's elite players in Magic Johnson's charity game last Sunday with James on the court, he caused fans to leave Staples Center wondering if the young Nugget should be the one getting all the attention instead.
"I'm not worried about anything right now," Anthony said. "(I'm) just coming in and just playing the way I've been playing. And hopefully some things will change."
Once free agency came, the Nuggets aimed real high with $18 million to spend. Names like Jason Kidd and Alonzo Mourning rolled off their tongues. Reality hit the Nuggets quickly as Kidd and Mourning basically said thanks but no thanks. Contract talks followed with then-Golden State Warriors free-agent guard Gilbert Arenas, who ended up in Washington.
General manager Kiki Vandeweghe started to hear the catcalls. But the Nuggets ended up recovering nicely on Thursday.
The Nuggets' biggest offseason need was point guard. They filled that void with Miller as the Clippers opted not to match his six-year, $51 million offer sheet. If the Nuggets had landed Miller two years ago after he led the NBA in assists with Cleveland, Nuggets fans would have done a back flip. But since he struggled with a Clippers team that was plagued by injuries, worried about their contract situations and had a change in coaches, some felt they went after damaged goods. But, as his college coach Rick Majerus of Utah put it best, Miller was "Clipperized." Expect a much happier and contractually secured Miller to be the Miller of old with the Nuggets and not the Clipperized version.
"I have a lot of expectations," Miller said. "My expectations haven't been met since I've been in this league. I need to go out and make something happen, be a leader, get guys going."
Not only did the Nuggets land Miller, but they landed one of their biggest nemeses, too, in Boykins. The 5-foot-5, 133-pounder has been killing the Nuggets for years and now will be playing for them over the next five seasons. Since the departure of Nick Van Exel and Avery Johnson via trade to Dallas on Feb. 21, 2002, the Nuggets have used Tim Hardaway, Kenny Satterfield, Arroyo, George McCloud, Chris Whitney, Junior Harrington, John Crotty, Vincent Yarbrough, Shammond Williams and Adam Harrington at point guard. But with the arrival of Miller and Boykins, there is now long-term stability at that position.
"He's a competitor," Miller said of Boykins. "In practice, we made each other better. Afterward, we shook hands, had fun and talked. He's a good guy, a competitor, and he wants to win."
San Antonio Spurs free-agent shooting guard Stephen Jackson visited the Nuggets on Thursday. The Nuggets also are interested in free-agent shooting guards Dion Glover of Atlanta, Voshon Lenard of Toronto, Detroit's Jon Barry, Dallas' Adrian Griffin and Minnesota's Kendall Gill. Right now, the Nuggets' starting lineup includes Miller at point guard, Rodney White at shooting guard, Anthony at small forward, a healthy Marcus Camby at power forward and Nene Hilario at center. Playoff team? Probably not. Team with hope? Definitely.
Twenty years ago, the Jazz finished with a 30-52 record. That was the last time Utah wasn't in the playoffs. Since then, Jazz fans have been spoiled. Two NBA Finals appearances. Stockton and Malone. Winning expectations.
While Jazz fans hated to admit it, it was inevitable that this good thing was going to come to an end. And abruptly this summer, it did. A teary-eyed Stockton announced his retirement just after the season. The Lakers took The Mailman. So what was left in cupboard? If the Jazz were to play a game tonight, their starting lineup would be hard for even one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time, Jerry Sloan, to put together.
The Jazz do have some quality swingmen in Andrei Kirilenko, Matt Harpring and DeShawn Stevenson. But after that, Utah is in trouble. The still developing Arroyo would fill the mammoth shoes left by Stockton. Jason Collins would probably have to play power forward while Greg Ostertag would play center. With that lineup, the Jazz would be doing well to get half of the 30-win mark it achieved 20 years ago.
But don't blame the Jazz for not trying to better itself. The problem is the Jazz has to compete with 28 other teams to do it, too.
The Jazz actually offered free-agent center Brad Miller a lofty $68 million in a sign-and-trade deal. But the NBA Finals hopeful Sacramento Kings offered the same amount. It's easy to see why Miller went where he did.
The Jazz did sign Clippers free-agent guard Corey Maggette to an offer sheet only to have normally frugal Clippers owner Donald Sterling keep Maggette by matching the contract.
The Jazz also made a run at Andre Miller, too. But although Miller was a star at the University of Utah, the college ties ended up hurting the Jazz instead of helping. Miller is a quiet and anonymous person. In Utah, basketball is it and he would have been recognized everywhere he went. In Denver, there are three other major professional sports teams. Miller can walk around downtown without people chasing him for autographs.
"I needed to be somewhere where I can focus and not have to worry about a lot of other things besides basketball," Miller said. "I don't know anybody in Denver, and I don't plan on knowing too many people. I just want to go out, work hard, help the team and do my part. Anything else would be good, but I'll be a lot more focused."
Right now, the Jazz are probably considering changing its name to the Blues. Utah isn't exactly a hotbed for marquee free agents, and there aren't really any serviceable free agents left. But with some creativity and fast moves, Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor still can salvage the offseason. The Jazz have shown some interest in Atlanta free-agent point guard Jason Terry.
"I think for the past 15 years, we always knew who our starting point guard was going to be," O'Connor said. "I don't think we know this year."
Jackson is also visiting the Jazz in Utah today. If somehow the Jazz can land the high-scoring Terry and the starting shooting guard for the NBA champion Spurs, their backcourt wouldn't be a bad one. The hard part will be finding someone to replace Malone. Unless some blockbuster trade comes through, that won't happen. Free agency has slim pickings left at power forward, but just because the Jazz don't make a move during the summer months doesn't mean they can't find a power forward before the season starts.
"It'll be tough, but we'll be alright," Stevenson said. "Anything's possible. Never give up."
Wow. In just one swift summer, the Nuggets are talking like the Jazz and the Jazz are talking like the Nuggets.
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.