Nuggets unified by boycott

Last month's boycott by Denver players over coach Dan Issel's coaching style hasn't divided the Nuggets, it has brought them together.

The Nuggets have won 12 of their last 15 games and are having fun doing it.

Now every struggling NBA squad may want to stage a similar mutiny.

"We may have started a trend, huh?" centre Raef LaFrentz said Tuesday with a laugh.

"Coaches around the league are going to be mad at the Nuggets."

It was no laughing matter on Dec. 11, when Issel and his staff called a practice and nobody came.

The Nuggets had just completed a winless, four-game road trip, arriving home on a delayed flight from Boston at about 3 a.m.

Issel scheduled a practice for eight hours later.

Unilaterally, the players decided they were tired and didn't need to practice, so they agreed to skip the workout and accept any consequences such as fines or benchings -- but without informing the coaching staff of their plan.

The following day at a shootaround, both sides tried gamely to put a positive spin on the boycott, with players insisting it was all a misunderstanding and Issel saying he at least was glad his players showed unity.

"That's probably the first thing we've done as a team this year," he said.

Although Issel and the players said they resolved some "issues" during a meeting before the shootaround, the overriding image was of a coach who had lost control of his team.

Specifically, the players admitted they were upset at Issel's tirade against LaFrentz after the latter's 0-for-7 shooting, five-foul performance in a 104-102 overtime loss to Boston.

LaFrentz had been in Issel's doghouse before, and he hadn't responded well to Issel's screaming tactics.

So in a home game that Tuesday night against Miami, Issel took his players' objections to heart and sat passively on the bench.

His players responded by playing passively in a 96-85 loss that dropped the Nuggets to 10-13.

"We had complained to Dan about his yelling, getting on guys," forward George McCloud said Tuesday. "And the day we needed him to yell, he didn't.

"Later that night, I had dinner with Antonio (McDyess), and I told him, 'We can't not allow Dan to be himself. If we don't allow him to coach the way he knows how, he's not giving us everything he can.'

"Dan never asks us to do anything out of character. But asking Dan not to yell or not to get upset, that's definitely out of character.

"So Dice and Nick (Van Exel) and I went to Dan the next morning and told him, 'We needed you to yell at us last night. You have to coach this team the way you see fit.'

"We told him we'd let everybody know that if he yells, it's not personal.

"Since that day, Dan has been coaching the same, yelling and getting involved emotionally, and we've been playing well. Everything is clicking right now."

Following the Miami loss, the Nuggets have not only gone 12-3, but also have won seven of their last eight games, knocking off San Antonio, Portland, Milwaukee, Utah, Charlotte, Sacramento and Seattle along the way.

At 22-16, they are six games over .500 for the first time since the 1989-90 season, triggering cautious talk about the playoffs, which Denver hasn't participated in since 1995.

"Without a doubt, the boycott brought us closer together," McCloud said. "It also helped that at that time, Mr. Kroenke (owner Stan Kroenke) came in and talked to the team and cleared up some things about Dan and his job security."

LaFrentz, now playing with renewed confidence, said the boycott could have had a different effect.

"As a team, we could go in two directions: either tear the team apart and continue the bickering, or make everybody a little bit closer and unify the team and the coaching staff so everybody is pushing for a common goal of winning basketball games," he said. "It's crazy how quickly and how dramatically things have changed."

Issel insists he hasn't changed his coaching style -- with one exception.

"I've changed in how I handle Raef," he said. "I realize that hollering and screaming at Raef doesn't motivate him.

"If anything, it shuts him down."

He remains free, however, to scream at everyone else, but adds, "When you win 12 of 15, there's not a lot of things to holler about."

By John Mossman