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Can Nuggets meet Mile High expectations?

7/19/2004 - Denver Nuggets

The last time the Denver Nuggets went to the second round of the playoffs was in 1994. The last time the Nuggets went to the Western Conference finals was in 1985. The last time the Nuggets made it to the Finals? That was in 1976 when they fell to the New York Nets in the ABA Championship.

While talking NBA Finals is a little much for the Nuggets, conversations about changing playoff history have been rampant in Denver since the arrival of All-Star forward Kenyon Martin in a sign-and-trade last week. And considering where the Nuggets came from, general manager Kiki Vandeweghe loves this new and heavily pressured way of life.

"At least we got some pressure," Vandeweghe said. "It's better than not having any. A couple of years ago, you couldn't say that."

For years, the Nuggets were the butt of jokes and a lottery regular. It was just two seasons ago that Denver had a roster that many billed as one of the worst in NBA history, out of which coach Jeff Bzdelik wrenched 17 wins. The Nuggets' rebuilding process lasted about 10 years and results of one poll during the team's return trips to the lottery revealed that the franchise's most popular member was SuperMascot Rocky.

But after the hiring of Vandeweghe on Aug. 9, 2001, the GM made aggressive moves that led the franchise to evolve into its new status as a contender in the West.

In just a relatively short time, the Nuggets went from doormat to a 2004 playoff team to a team that owner Stan Kroenke believes can compete with anyone in the NBA.

"Now if you come in [to Denver] and you're one of the best teams, we can beat you," Kroenke said. "Last season, we thought we could beat you. This season, we're going to strap it on. … I think we're one of the top three teams in the West. You can make that argument."

With the owner's expectations, pressure will be the strongest on three Nuggets in particular in Martin, Carmelo Anthony and Bzdelik.

For Martin, the Nuggets need more from him than just an intimidating, intense, shot-blocking, dunking and fast-breaking force. The Nuggets also badly need him to be a leader. Denver was devoid of a strong vocal presence last season and when things went bad there were no firm voices to step up. Andre Miller and Voshon Lenard tried, but they're quiet by nature. Melo was just too young. In Martin, the Nuggets got someone who won't be scared to rip teammates, if needed (ask Keith Van Horn) and also has a Hulk Hogan-like enthusiasm before tip-off that will get a relatively mild bunch hyped. Plus, his two trips to the NBA Finals and his All-Star appearance last season give him instant respect and an open ear from every one of his new teammates.

Martin wanted the maximum contract and came quite close to it with a seven-year, $92.5 million deal. Nuggets fans and NBA critics will hold that contract over his head and expect him to be an All-Star in a Western Conference loaded with star power forwards like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber and Dirk Nowitzki.

"It's a challenge," said Martin, about playing power forward in the West. "They're great players. I've played against those guys before. ... At the same time, I'm not a walk in the park, either. I'm sure they're thinking the same thing. It's a two-way street."

While Martin has the big deal and will become the leader in the locker room, this Nuggets squad is still Melo's.

Melo had the best rookie season for a Nugget since David Thompson's debut, averaging 21 points per game. While Melo is unstoppable offensively, there are two areas he can improve on: moving without the ball and defense. Playing for stern teacher and coach Larry Brown with USA's Olympic basketball team will help Melo improve. Moreover, the experience in Athens will not only aid his development but also bring him into training camp in tip-top shape.

But of all the Nuggets, no one faces more pressure than Bzdelik.

Anthony and Camby have given Bzdelik credit for leading the Nuggets to the playoffs last season. But management and Bzdelik didn't seem to be on the same page. He wasn't even a certainty to continue being the head coach until recently. With the addition of new assistant Michael Cooper, who signed a three-year deal, Cooper could be next in line if Bzdelik suffers a lengthy losing streak.

Having had nothing come easily to him in his coaching career, Bzdelik seems to be up for another challenge.

"That's what we're in this business for," Bzdelik said. "We're in this business to win and win big. It's my job to get this team to play at it's fullest potential. I embrace this opportunity. That's my job."

Will the Nuggets end up being like the Detroit Pistons, who went to the mountaintop after adding a major piece to an already talented squad with the Rasheed Wallace trade? Or will they be more like the Sacramento Kings or Dallas Mavericks, both rags-to-riches teams that haven't figured out a way to take that next step? Only time will tell. But the Nuggets aren't concerned about the pressure. As Kiki said, they are just happy to have some.

"I haven't played with them yet," said Martin, about the Nuggets' potential to be an NBA power. "But with our makeup, that's what it's looking like. But I can't get a gauge until I play with those guys. I'm excited. ... They had a great season last year, and I can only help."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for The Denver Post, is a contributor to ESPN.com.