In June of 2003, the Detroit Pistons made a decision that forever changed the face and future of the Denver Nuggets. By selecting Darko Milicic with the No. 2 pick, it allowed Denver to finally secure a franchise player in Carmelo Anthony with the next selection.
Since that evening in the Garden, the Nuggets have only gotten better. Business the prior season though, pre-Melo, was anything but exciting for the city of Denver. The 2002-2003 squad, which featured a younger Juwan Howard, ultimately rotated through 21 players and 65 losses. The Nuggets finished the year with 17 wins and found themselves 43 games behind the division-leading and eventual NBA Champions, San Antonio Spurs.
Going into the ’02-’03 season, hopes were high in Denver. The organization had put their faith behind a promoted scout-made-head coach, Jeff Bzdelik, who they tagged as their coach of the future. Bzdelik only made it a little over two seasons with the club and after getting the axe, made his way south to coach the Air Force Academy and is currently up north with the Colorado Buffaloes in Boulder.
The team relied upon a heavy rotation of energy players and an influx of newly untested talent to offset their lack of veteran leadership. The Nuggets had essentially assembled a team where the crowd favorite was a second-round hustle player out of Iowa and half of its roster belonged in the D-League.
They even had the NBA record for fewest points in the first quarter, with three, in a game against the Spurs in November of 2002.
So where are the 2002-2003 Denver Nuggets now?
Of the 21 players used during the season, only seven are still in the NBA, with two being on the Nuggets. The Nuggets that remain through the rubble are a pair of weathered big men in Nene and the Birdman, Chris Andersen.
Nuggets still in the NBA: James Posey, Marcus Camby, Andersen, Nene, Howard, Devin Brown and Ryan Bowen.
Notable Nuggets gone from the League: Shammond Williams, Rodney White, Donnell Harvey, Kenny Satterfield and Junior Harrington.
When your notable team members include Harrington, a D-II product who played in all 82 games, I guess the best you can hope for is 17 wins.
Howard has most recently caught on with the Blazers, Camby is with the Clippers, while Posey and Brown are still finding minutes with the Hornets.
The biggest surprise still in the League, besides the Birdman for obvious reasons, is Bowen. An everyman from Iowa, Bowen has found a niche in the NBA as an unselfish energy guy for nine seasons. The quiet and hardworking guy started 31 games for Denver in ’02-’03 and is currently in camp with the Thunder.
It’s also hard to discuss the state of the ’02-’03 Nuggets without mentioning its most notable mistake.
The 2002 NBA Draft may not have had the depth of talent as its 2003 brethren did, but it did produce some solid players. In a draft that featured Amar’e Stoudemire, Caron Butler and Yao Ming, the Nuggets had the fifth pick.
It’s embarrassing to rehash any discussion involving the Nuggets selection of Nikoloz Tskitishvili with that fifth pick, whose career high coming into the draft was 15 points. Still, in his rookie season, he was named the starter midway through the year. Fast-forward three years from his draft selection and Skita couldn’t even find a home in the NBA.
The current verdict is still undecided on the Nuggets, but they have come a long way since 2002-2003. With a Western Conference Finals appearance under their belt and almost the entire team making a return, Denver has a lot of upside this year.
It has been rumored that then-General Manager, Kiki Vandeweghe, was so enamored by Darko in ’02, that he was ready to make him the Nuggets’ selection if given the opportunity. Now imagine a frontcourt anchored by Tskitishhvili and Milicic in Denver. The fans in the Mile High have to be thanking Detroit to this day for believing in Tayshaun Prince over a young man from Syracuse.
Come to think about it, the city of Denver should also be thanking Detroit for giving back their hometown hero Chauncey Billups in exchange for Allen Iverson. So, in retrospect, this article should have been written as a thank you note from Denver.
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