Founded as the Denver Rockets in 1968 as a charter member of the American Basketball Association, the Denver Nuggets found modest success, reaching either a tiebreaker or the playoffs every year while they were an ABA team, but this was more likely because of the ABA’s playoff system (eight of eleven teams reached the playoffs each year, and as the league began to contract, eight of ten teams made the playoffs). Of the nine seasons as an ABA franchise, the Rockets/Nuggets (the name changed in the summer of 1974 so as not to compete with the Rockets team name used by Houston) had a winning record in six seasons, and only won three playoff series, reaching the ABA Finals in the last year of the league’s existence. Led by Dan Issel, David Thompson, Bobby Jones, Marvin Webster, and coached by a very young Larry Brown, even after the team moved into the NBA, they were still successful, extending their tiebreaker/playoff streak to twelve.
But when Larry Brown left to coach UCLA, Denver struggled for a few seasons until they hired Doug Moe, who emphasized moving the ball around and a high scoring offense. The Nuggets became a high-scoring offense throughout the 1980s, scoring 100 points or more in 136 consecutive games (an NBA record) and averaging 126.5 points per game (another NBA record) in the 1981-1982 season (and beyond for the 100 points record). That’s a lot of Chalupas. The 1982-1983 season had three Denver players finish 1-2-3 in scoring: Alex English (28.4), Kiki Vandeweghe (26.7), and Kelly Tripucka (26.5). In the 1983-1984 season, the Nuggets had the dubious distinction of having the most points in a losing effort, scoring 184 in triple overtime and losing to the Pistons, who had 186 points. The combined score between the two teams (370) is a current NBA record. Moe coached the team to nine straight playoff appearances (1981-1990), but failed to advance beyond the Conference Finals.
Moe’s retirement after the 1989-1990 season led to the hiring of Paul Westhead, a similarly-minded coach who enjoyed high-scoring games. Denver would set scoring records under Westhead’s watch, but of the dubious variety. In the 1990-1991 season, for instance, the Denver Nuggets allowed 130.8 points per game (a current NBA record) and on one occasion, allowed 107 points to the Phoenix Suns in one half (still an NBA record). Despite leading the league in points per game (119.9), the Nuggets finished with only twenty wins. They drafted future-All Star Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo with the fourth pick of the 1991 NBA Draft, but despite Mutombo’s impressive season, Westhead’s second year as head coach only saw marginal improvement and he was fired.
Former Nuggets player Dan Issel took over as head coach to begin the 1992-1993 season, but Denver failed to make the playoffs. In the 1993-1994 season, the Nuggets, with Mutombo, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (née Chris Wayne Jackson), and LaPhonso Ellis (the fifth pick in the 1992 NBA Draft), had its first winning season in four years, making the playoffs as the #8 seed in the Western Conference. Facing the #1 Seattle SuperSonics, Denver became the first #8 team to defeat a #1 team in NBA history, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to pull off the upset in overtime in Game 5 (first round series were five games long at the time). In the next series, Denver faced Utah, taking the series to the full seven games, but lost. After a disappointing start the following season, Issel resigned as head coach, but the Nuggets persevered and finished the season at .500, qualifying them for the eighth seed in the West, only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
The next few seasons were far from spectacular. In the 1995 NBA Draft, Denver traded with the Los Angeles Clippers for the rights to Antonio McDyess, who would become a familiar face within the Nuggets franchise, as Mutombo left and Abdul-Rauf was traded in the 1996 offseason, while Ellis had injury problems. The Nuggets’ record sank lower and lower, until reaching rock-bottom after McDyess left for Phoenix in the 1997 offseason, tying an NBA record-low with only 11 wins over the entire 1997-1998 NBA season, also tying a single-season losing streak record with 23 consecutive losses. Fun Fact: the Nuggets had the same coach (rookie coach Bill Hanzlik) for the entire season. McDyess returned to Denver and the team slowly awakened, improving to 40-42 in the 2000-2001 season, but quickly regressed after McDyess injured his knee and was subsequently traded to the Knicks. In the 2002-2003 season, Denver’s record was 17-65, their eighth-straight losing record. However, their luck would change in the 2003 NBA Draft.
Drafting third behind Cleveland (LeBron James) and Detroit (Darko Miličić), Denver selected future-All Star Carmelo Anthony, fresh from college basketball’s most recent champion, Syracuse. Added to 2002’s acquisition of Nenê (née Maybyner Rodney Hilário) and Marcus Camby from the New York Knicks in exchange for McDyess and 2003’s free agent signings (Andre Miller, Earl Boykins, and Jon Barry), the Denver Nuggets made the playoffs for the first time since 1995, but lost to Minnesota in the first round. Denver kept returning to the playoffs over the next few years and kept coming back empty handed in the first round, losing to the San Antonio Spurs (2005) and the Los Angeles Clippers (2006). Even the addition of Allen Iverson to the Nuggets in the 2006-2007 season could not shake the downtrodden Denver team, as they lost to Spurs in 2007 and the Lakers in 2008, all in the first round. Iverson was traded to Detroit early last season for Chauncey Billups (and two other players) and the Nuggets had their best playoff run ever, defeating the Hornets and Mavericks, but ultimately falling to the eventual champion Lakers.
2008-2009 Record: 54-28 (10-6 in playoffs), 1st place in Northwest Division, 2nd place in Western Conference
Coach: George Karl
- Chauncey Billups, PG
- J.R. Smith, SG (while suspended during the next seven games, we predict Arron Afflalo will take his place)
- Carmelo Anthony, SF
- Kenyon Martin, PF
- Nenê, C
- Ty Lawson: Won’t be playing much in his rookie season, but look for this “point guard of the future” to do some damage in future years with the Nuggets.
- Aaron Afflalo: I called him a young underperformer in my Season Preview of the Detroit Pistons, as he was only netting five points a game in Detroit. I foresee the Nuggets using Afflalo more frequently than Detroit did, but will Denver be impressed or disappointed with his performance?
- Malik Allen: He’ll be used off the bench, but probably won’t play enough to make too much of a difference scoring-wise.
- Steven Hunter: Yes, I know he has since been traded to Memphis, but I only see gains from Denver’s perspective. Denver saves $3.67 million, they get a 2010 first-round draft pick, and Hunter missed most of last season with a knee injury and it is unknown if/how he’ll be able to rebound. Win-win-win.
- Dahntay Jones, Linas Kleiza, Sonny Weems: Less money, mo’ problems. With some payroll problems, Denver couldn’t afford to keep these guys around. I don’t doubt that they will be missed (Kleiza could score coming off of the bench), but the question is how much they will be missed.
“We got no shot to beat the Lakers.”
—Doug Moe, on whether or not his 37-45 Nuggets could defeat
the 65-17 Lakers in the first round of the 1987 NBA Playoffs.
[The Lakers swept the Nuggets on their way to
winning their tenth NBA championship.]