Maybe it’s a symptom of our gentle nature out here in the fly-over time zone that mainstream media seem to be giving our local pro basketball franchise a pass for its second major blunder since last spring. The net effect of these missteps has been to cost the Nuggets two of their top three players — one permanently, the other for much longer than would otherwise have been necessary.
The first, of course, was losing Andre Iguodala to free agency and getting nothing in return. This is not to disparage Randy Foye, acquired in a face-saving, after-the-fact, three-team trade, but, hey, he’s Randy Foye. No team in its right mind, even the Nuggets, would have made that trade voluntarily.
You can blame Iguodala for his decision to defect, but it is the job of the smart front office to gauge such risks and the Nuggets’ front office gauged this one poorly, as its remarks at the time demonstrate.
The second, disclosed this week, was that forward Danilo Gallinari’s new-age approach to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee — “healing response,” dude — didn’t work. I’m told the team’s medical and training staff warned management that this was the likely outcome. They were ignored.
Who pushed for it? Gallo did, through his agent, Arn Tellem. The Nuggets’ weak front office acquiesced.
So, nine and a half months after tearing his ACL in a game against Dallas on April 4, 2013, Gallinari underwent reconstructive ACL surgery, the usual treatment, earlier this week. Coincidentally, the gap between then and now is roughly how long it took Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to recover from an ACL reconstruction and return to the field.
That is not to say Gallinari would have recovered from the standard procedure that quickly — Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose took considerably longer — but certainly he would be well on his way to returning to the floor by now. Instead, the clock has started all over again and the Nuggets’ substantial regression from last season is pretty much set in stone. Starting the clock over again now, he could easily miss the beginning of next season, too.
The impetus for this “healing response” solution came from Gallinari and doctors not affiliated with the Nuggets. A minor procedure was performed last spring to repair cartilage damage, followed by new-age stimulation methods to get the ACL to repair itself. Gallinari was so excited about this that he told his fans all about it in a video he posted on Facebook in June:
“Hello everybody. I wanted to update you all about my situation of the knee and what they did on the surgery. It’s good news because I still have my ACL. My ACL wasn’t torn, it was just partially torn, and so they were able to keep my ACL doing a special treatment called the healing response, where basically you give the chance to the ACL to naturally come back and heal, and that’s what we did. So right now the scenario for the future is completely different. I will update you all about that in the future. But for now, is very good news. I’m very happy. I hope you’re happy, too, all my fans around the world, and I’ll talk to you soon.”
The suggestion of a “completely different” timetable from traditional reconstructive surgery was intended to convey that it wouldn’t take nearly as long for Gallo to return. There were giddy projections that he might be back on the court early this season. By November, Gallinari had come around to the realization that this was not going to happen and noted something Nuggets management should have had in mind last spring — that he is far from a medical expert.
“As you are able to see, it was the thought of a guy who had this injury for the first time,” he told the Denver Post’s Christopher Dempsey. “I had no experience with this injury, this rehab. That was just my prediction. But as you can see, I was completely wrong. It’s day by day, week by week. You cannot really predict. You’ve got to just listen to your knee.”
In fact, Gallinari was experiencing continuing instability in the knee, which, of course, is what happens when you tear your ACL. It would take another two months for him to come around to the need for traditional reconstructive surgery, performed, finally, by the Nuggets’ orthopedic surgeon.
So let’s review the last 10 months:
- April 4, 2013: Gallinari tears his ACL in a game against Dallas.
- April 17, 2013: Nuggets complete regular season with 57 wins and 25 losses, the best record in their NBA history.
- April 30, 2013: Gallinari undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his left knee at the Steadman Clinic in Vail to repair cartilage damage. “After a short-term rehabilitation, a date will be scheduled for Gallinari to undergo surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee,” the Nuggets say in a news release. That surgery never happens, and the Nuggets never say why. Gallinari fills in the blanks with his Facebook video in June.
- May 2, 2013: Nuggets are eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, four games to two, by the Golden State Warriors.
- May 7, 2013: Coach George Karl is named NBA coach of the year.
- May 9, 2013: General manager Masai Ujiri is named NBA executive of the year.
- May 31, 2013: Toronto Raptors announce they have hired Ujiri to run their basketball operation.
- June 6, 2013: Nuggets fire George Karl.
- June 17, 2013: Nuggets hire Tim Connelly to replace Ujiri.
- June 21, 2013: At press conference introducing Connelly, team president Josh Kroenke is asked if he is confident Iguodala will re-sign with the club when he becomes a free agent July 1. “One hundred percent,” he says.
- June 25, 2013: Nuggets hire Brian Shaw to replace Karl.
- July 7, 2013: Iguodala agrees to a four-year deal with the Warriors worth $48 million.
- July 10, 2013: Nuggets acquire Foye as part of sign-and-trade deal sending Iguodala to Warriors.
- July 11, 2013: Nuggets sign free agent forward J.J. Hickson.
- July 26, 2013: Nuggets sign free agent guard Nate Robinson.
- Sept. 30, 2013: The Nuggets’ web site publishes a story on the eve of training camp headlined, “Expectations remain high as Nuggets open new era.”
- Oct. 1, 2013: The Nuggets’ web site publishes a story on the first day of camp headlined, “Gallinari upbeat as Nuggets go through first practice of camp.”
- Jan. 2, 2014: Nuggets suspend guard Andre Miller for two games for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
- Jan. 3, 2014: Nuggets rescind suspension of guard Andre Miller, saying he will take time off with pay for personal reasons.
- Jan. 21, 2014: Gallinari undergoes reconstructive knee surgery.
The Nuggets are currently 20-20, three games out of the Western Conference playoff bracket. A year ago through 40 games they were 24-16, on their way to winning nine of their next 11. They have lost nine of 20 home games after losing three of 41 last season. The debate among the chattering class is now whether they should tank the season in hopes of getting a good draft pick to add to the pick they are due to receive from the New York Knicks in a promising 2014 draft. In other words, whether they should start over.
(Correction: The sentence about the draft picks was poorly written, as several readers have pointed out. The Nuggets must surrender the lower (worse) of their two 2014 picks to Orlando as part of the trade to acquire Iguodala in August 2012. As I understand the argument from those who advocate tanking the season, the Nuggets missing the playoffs would give them two chances at a high lottery pick, assuming the Knicks also miss. They will not end up with both picks.)
Longtime Nuggets fans are extremely familiar with this strategy. They saw it in 1990, when Doug Moe was fired and his aging team of the 1980s dismantled. They won 20 games. They saw it in 1996 and 1997, when the team that upset the Seattle Sonics in the 1994 playoffs was dismantled. They won 21 and 11 games in consecutive seasons, missing the NBA record for fewest wins in an 82-game season by two in 1997-98. And they saw it in 2002, when Kiki Vandeweghe dismantled the team from Dan Issel’s second go-round. They won 17 games.
Arguably, it worked twice. The dismantling of 1990 delivered a series of high draft picks that turned into Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Rodney Rogers, Jalen Rose and Antonio McDyess. Pre-McDyess, it had its moment in the sun in the 1994 postseason, but poor decisions and devastating injuries to Ellis and McDyess short-circuited that generation of Nuggets.
The dismantling in 2002 delivered the third pick of the 2003 draft, which became Carmelo Anthony. When Karl was hired as coach in the middle of the 2004-05 season, the Nuggets began the best run in their NBA history, winning 50 or more games five times.
But tanking was hardly the plan when Kroenke blew up the management team that won all those awards last year. When I asked him last spring if he was lowering expectations for this season after making those changes, this was his reply:
“Not at all. Not by any means. But do I think that 57 wins is within our range? Of course. Do I think that we will get there? I’m not sure. I can sit here and I can plan for the next number of years, but the one thing you can’t plan is injuries. We are starting the year and we are going to be without one of our leading scorers [Gallinari] for a significant portion of the year.
“I have a contractual situation this summer with Andre Iguodala. Andre and I know each other very well; I have had good conversations with him over the last week and I think Andre knows the direction that I want to take the team. I think that he is excited about it and that is going to be a big piece to our summer as well.
“For next year I am not lowering expectations at all. I am going to try to win every game that we can but also implementing a long-term vision on how to get to the ultimate goal of getting to the NBA Finals and winning an NBA championship.”
The confidence Kroenke expressed that his relationship with Iguodala would lead him to return to the Nuggets turned out to be misplaced. The confidence he placed in Gallinari, Tellem and their outside doctors, the ones who recommended the “healing response” treatment, also turned out to be misplaced. There are those around the association who believe the Nuggets’ front office was intimidated by Tellem, one of the game’s most powerful agents, and feared a confrontation over treatment of Gallinari’s injury.
As a result, Kroenke’s answer to the question about lowering expectations for this season turned out to be inaccurate. The Nuggets are nowhere near the team they were a year ago. As Kroenke pointed out, the injury to Gallinari was going to take a toll in any event, but had the standard medical response been taken at the time, he would now be in his 10th month of rehab from ACL surgery rather than his first week.
After all this, Nuggets fans can be forgiven for asking, as they have many times over the past 24 years: Do the people in charge of this boat have any idea what they’re doing?