The Denver Nuggets franchise traces its origins to 1967-68 in the American Basketball Association. A stable ABA franchise for nine years, Denver carried its winning ways into the NBA when the two leagues merged in 1976.
During their early NBA years the Nuggets boasted a deep and talented roster anchored by such superstars as David Thompson and Dan Issel. Although the franchise had its down periods, the team always retained its character as a freewheeling, high-scoring unit. After Alex English assumed the team's scoring mantle in the 1980s, the Nuggets played in the highest-scoring game in NBA history and established the all-time single-season record for scoring average. After another downturn the franchise again reloaded with young talent in the early 1990s, and in 1994 made history by becoming the first No. 8 seed ever to beat a No. 1 seed when they shocked the Seattle SuperSonics.When the NBA was formed in 1949, the original Denver Nuggets (who bore no relationship to the later franchise, aside from the name) played in the Western Divison. Their rivals included such franchises as Sheboygan and Waterloo. Denver, led in scoring by Kenneth Sailors with 17.3 points per game, struggled to an 11-51 record and met its own waterloo during the offseason when the club folded after just one year.
1967-69: Denver Once Rooted For The Rockets
The pro game resurfaced 18 years later in the Mile High City for the 1967-68 season, this time in the form of the ABA's Denver Rockets. The team played its first game on October 15, 1967, and defeated the Anaheim Amigos, 110-105. Under Coach Bob Bass, Denver went 45-33 in its inaugural campaign before being eliminated by the New Orleans Buccaneers in the first round of the 1968 ABA Playoffs. Larry Jones, a 6-3 guard with a deft shooting touch, registered a league season-best 52 points against the Oakland Oaks; Denver won the contest, 126-108.
In the Rockets' second campaign the team went 44-34 and finished in third place in the Western Division. Denver met Oakland in the division semifinals and stretched the series to seven games before losing. Walt Piatkowski, a 6-8 forward who averaged 12.2 points, was named to the ABA All-Rookie Team.
1969-72: Spencer Is Hired
In 1969-70 the Rockets signed 6-9 Spencer Haywood fresh from his sophomore year at the University of Detroit. As a rookie, Haywood turned in one of the greatest single-season performances in ABA history. He didn't waste much time making his mark in the Denver record books-on November 13 he pulled down 31 rebounds against the Kentucky Colonels, a franchise record that still stands more than two decades later.
Haywood scored 59 points in a 152-116 April blowout of the Los Angeles Stars, the highest single-game total in Denver's ABA tenure and second in team history to David Thompson's 73 against Detroit in 1978. For the season, Haywood averaged 30.0 points and 19.5 rebounds, was the ABA All-Star Game MVP, and won the league's Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards.Haywood's inspirational presence helped Denver capture the best record in the ABA's Western Division at 51-33. The Rockets defeated the Washington Capitols in the opening round of the playoffs but fell to the Los Angeles Stars in the division finals. The 1969-70 coaching duties were split between John McClendon, under whom the team stumbled to 9-19, and Joe Belmont, who took over and guided the club to a 42-14 mark the rest of the way. Under Belmont, Denver put together a franchise-best 15-game winning streak between December 20 and January 15.The great forward then jumped to the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics for the 1970-71 season, creating a legal stir that led the NBA to relax its guidelines prohibiting the admittance of college underclassmen. Haywood went on to play a dozen NBA seasons with Seattle, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Washington, earning four All-Star selections and two berths on the All-NBA First Team.Though Haywood was a one-year wonder in Denver, a fixture on the ABA-era Denver teams was 6-9 Byron Beck, who played his entire career with the franchise. Beck averaged 11.5 points and 7.0 rebounds before being waived by the team and retiring in 1977. A hometown favorite, he had played college ball in Denver, and his hardworking attitude was much admired by ABA fans. Beck's No. 40 is one of four uniforms retired by the franchise, the others belonging to the better known David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Alex English.Although Beck was a popular player, the real star of those teams was Larry Jones, who made the All-ABA Team three times. Jones averaged better than 20 points for three straight seasons starting in 1967-68.Without Haywood the Rockets came back down to earth. Under Coach Stan Albeck, Denver's 1970-71 record nose-dived to 30-54. Their collapse included an eight-game losing streak.Alex Hannum took over as head coach for the 1971-72 season, and the team went 34-50. Despite the subpar record the Rockets featured some good players and some strong performances. Ralph Simpson, a 6-5 guard, scored 27.4 points per game and made the first of his five consecutive ABA All-Star Game appearances. Larry Brown, who later became one of the most successful coaches of the 1980s and 1990s, set the franchise record for assists in a game, with 23 against the Pittsburgh Condors on February 20. The Rockets' losing record didn't keep them out of the playoffs, but the team made a quick exit at the hands of the Indiana Pacers.
1972-74: Julius Is A Big "Keye" To Rockets Success
The 1972-73 team improved to 47-37, playing steady ball for most of the season. Julius Keye, who made the ABA All-Defensive Team, blocked 12 Virginia Squires shots on December 14, a franchise record that went untouched for two decades until Dikembe Mutombo matched it in 1993. Simpson and Warren Jabali represented Denver in the 1973 ABA All-Star Game, and Jabali was named the game's Most Valuable Player. Denver made the playoffs but lost a first-round series to Indiana for the second consecutive year.
In 1973-74 Denver slipped to 37-47 and missed the postseason. Although center-forward Mike Green was named to the ABA All-Rookie Team and 6-10 shotblocking specialist Julius Keye repeated on the All-Defensive Team, the Rockets were going nowhere.
1974-75: From Worst To First
Carl Scheer was brought in as president and general manager before the 1974-75 season. Scheer, who had been with the Carolina Cougars organization, brought a whole Carolina contingent with him: Coach Larry Brown, Assistant Coach Doug Moe, All-ABA guard Mack Calvin, and Bobby Jones, a rookie from the University of North Carolina who developed into one of the greatest defensive forwards in the history of the game.
Within two years the Denver franchise was revitalized. The team was renamed the Nuggets for the 1974-75 season, with new uniforms and a new roster. Suddenly the Nuggets went from being one of the worst teams in basketball to the best team in the ABA, finishing at 65-19. They defeated Utah in the first round of the playoffs but fell in seven games to Indiana in the Western Division Finals. Larry Brown was named ABA Coach of the Year, and Bobby Jones made both the All-Rookie Team and the All-Defensive Team. Mack Calvin also had a sensational season, averaging 19.5 points.
1975-76: Thompson Turns Down NBA, Signs With Nuggets
The team's biggest coup was its signing of David Thompson, a three-time All-American and two-time College Player of the Year at North Carolina State. Thompson had been selected by the Atlanta Hawks with the No. 1 pick in the 1975 NBA Draft, and he had been picked No. 1 in the ABA Draft by the Virginia Squires. Virginia traded his rights, along with George Irvine, to Denver for Mack Calvin, Mike Green, and Jan van Breda Kolff. When Thompson opted to sign with the Nuggets instead of the Hawks, it marked the first time in nine years that a No.1 pick had chosen the ABA over the NBA. The ABA was still striving for legitimacy, and Thompson's affiliation brought major credibility.
Thompson averaged 24.1 points in his seven seasons with the Nuggets and earned two All-NBA First Team selections after the leagues merged. Although he had highly publicized personal problems, he was trouble-free on the court, accumulating fantastic numbers in spectacular fashion. The 6-4 Thompson's acrobatic maneuvers earned him the nickname "Skywalker." He played in an era when the game was evolving into an above-the-rim affair, and he and Julius Erving were major proponents of the new high-flying style. Thompson's uniform No. 33 was retired by the Nuggets after he left the game in 1984.
1975-76: Denver Rides Its "Horse" To ABA Finals
Anchoring the Nuggets' front line in 1975-76 was 6-9 Dan Issel, who had played five years with the Kentucky Colonels before coming to Denver prior to the season. Issel had first established himself in basketball circles at the University of Kentucky, where he set 23 school records including total points (2,138). As a senior Issel averaged 33.9 points. After turning pro Issel helped the Kentucky Colonels win the ABA Championship in 1975, his fifth season. Following that season Kentucky dealt Issel to the Baltimore Claws-a team that never played a game-and the Claws sent Issel to Denver in exchange for cash and Dave Robisch on October 8, 1975. Known as "the Horse," Issel was remarkably durable-in his 15-year pro career he missed only 24 games. Like Thompson, Issel had the honor of seeing his uniform (No. 44) retired by the Nuggets. He was also elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
With a talent-packed lineup of Thompson, Issel, Bobby Jones, Ralph Simpson, and Mack Calvin (all five starters averaged double figures in scoring), the Nuggets were a terror at home in the ABA's final season. They started winning at McNichols Sports Arena just after Christmas and didn't stop until three months later. The 28-game home winning streak was the longest in franchise history. After putting together a 60-24 regular-season record, the Nuggets eliminated Kentucky in the playoffs before running into Julius Erving and the New York Nets in the ABA Finals. The Nets took the series in six games.In each of the previous two seasons the Nuggets had won more games than any other team in either the ABA or the NBA, but they still didn't have a title to show for it. The consolation prizes were a repeat for Larry Brown as ABA Coach of the Year and David Thompson's selection as ABA Rookie of the Year.
1976-77: Nuggets Are Golden In NBA Debut
While Denver was flourishing, most ABA franchises were floundering. In June 1976 the league went out of business, and the Nuggets, Nets, San Antonio Spurs, and Indiana Pacers became part of the NBA after paying $3.2-million entry fees.
Although most of the new teams adjusted slowly to the NBA, Denver thrived right from the start. The Nuggets won their first eight games of the 1976-77 campaign, the all-time franchise record for a season-starting winning streak. They lost little momentum, posting a 23-10 mark by the new year and keeping the pressure on for most of the campaign. Denver finished with a 50-32 record, won the Midwest Division, and tied the Philadelphia 76ers for the second-best record in the league behind the Los Angeles Lakers' 53-29 mark. But the Nuggets faltered in the playoffs and were eliminated by the Bill Walton-led Portland Trail Blazers, the eventual NBA champions.Denver had stormed onto the NBA scene in more ways than one. The Nuggets led the league in attendance, averaging 17,150 fans per game. David Thompson ranked fourth in the NBA with a team-high 25.9 points per game, and Dan Issel added 22.3 points per contest. Slender 6-9 forward Bobby Jones was named to the NBA All-Defensive Team after having received the same honor the previous two years in the ABA. He finished the season with 186 steals and 162 blocked shots, both team records at the time. A valuable role player in every city he went, Jones was already demonstrating the hardworking, dependable character that would make him an integral part of the great Philadelphia teams of the early 1980s.
1977-79: "Skywalker" Vs. "The Iceman"
Denver finished the 1977-78 season at 48-34, good enough for a second straight Midwest Division title. With Coach Larry Brown at the helm, the Nuggets penetrated deep into the postseason. After winning a hard-fought seven-game series against Milwaukee in the Western Conference Semifinals, Denver drew Seattle in the conference finals. The Nuggets won the opening game of the series, then dropped the next three, eventually losing in six games.
That season's biggest drama was played out on the final day of the regular season, in one of the greatest displays of individual scoring pyrotechnics in NBA history. Heading into the final game, David Thompson and the San Antonio Spurs' George "the Iceman" Gervin were in a virtual tie for the NBA scoring title. In the Nuggets' last game of the regular season, on April 9 at Detroit, Thompson exploded for a team-record 73 points. It was the third-highest output ever in an NBA game; only Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 100 in one game and 78 in another, had racked up higher point totals.Unfortunately for Thompson, Gervin lit up the New Orleans Jazz for 63 points later that same day. It was just enough to give Gervin the scoring crown, 27.22 points per game to Thompson's 27.15, the tightest one-two finish ever.The 1978-79 Nuggets team went 47-35, but it was not a calm season. The team got off to a stumbling start, lost six straight in November, and was struggling with a losing record through December. Things began to turn around in January, but on February 1 Larry Brown abruptly resigned to take the head coaching job at UCLA. Donnie Walsh took over as coach, and the team responded with a seven-game winning streak in March.As usual, Thompson, the 1979 NBA All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, led the Nuggets in scoring, with 24.0 points per game. George McGinnis, who had come from Philadelphia in an offseason trade for Bobby Jones and Ralph Simpson, contributed 22.6 points and 11.4 rebounds per contest. Issel added 17.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
1979-81: Denver Acquires Fluent English
In 1979-80 the Nuggets slipped to 30-52. The team lost seven straight to begin the season, the worst start in franchise history. Things didn't get much better as the year progressed-the Nuggets never managed to win more than three in a row, and March proved to be their only winning month.
Despite the team's struggles, Denver made a major acquisition during the campaign that shaped the Nuggets' fortunes for years to come. In a February 1 trade with Indiana, Denver swapped George McGinnis for Alex English and a 1980 first-round draft pick. A sleek, 6-7 swingman in his fourth pro season, English would play 11 seasons for the Nuggets and become the team's all-time leading scorer, never averaging fewer than 23.8 points until his final campaign in 1989-90. In his 24 games with Denver in 1979-80, English contributed 21.3 points per game.David Thompson suffered a serious foot injury and played in only 39 games in 1979-80, marking the first time in his career that he had spent significant time on the sidelines. Thompson's absence dampened the team's firepower, although Issel, who led the Nuggets in scoring, ranked seventh in the NBA with 23.8 points per game.The 1980-81 version of the Nuggets improved to 37-45, starting the year under Head Coach Donnie Walsh but finishing it under colorful Doug Moe. Moe emphasized pressure defense, team cohesiveness, hard work, and a relentless motion offense, which he described as "playground ball with a little supervision."This entertaining Nuggets squad had little trouble scoring points, although they did struggle to prevent opponents from doing the same. For the season, the Nuggets poured in 121.8 points per game, the first of five consecutive years in which they averaged at least 120 points per contest. Unfortunately, Denver's defense gave up a league-high 122.3 points per game. On February 13 Denver set a new franchise single-game scoring mark with a 162-143 victory over Portland.David Thompson was back for the 1980-81 season. Averaging 25.5 points, he formed part of a high-scoring Nuggets triumvirate that also included Alex English (23.8 ppg) and Dan Issel (21.9).
1981-84: Vandeweghe Gives Team Another Scoring Threat
Thompson, English and Issel would enough firepower for most teams, but Denver wasn't satisfied. During the offseason the Nuggets sent two future first-round draft picks to the Dallas Mavericks for the draft rights to UCLA standout Kiki Vandeweghe, a potent offensive force, and a future first-round selection.
With Vandeweghe on board in 1981-82, Denver continued to improve, posting a 46-36 record. After a two-year absence from postseason play, the Nuggets returned to the playoffs but made a first-round exit courtesy of the Phoenix Suns.The team's brightest star was English, who appeared in the first of his eight consecutive NBA All-Star Games. Although he possessed a wide repertoire of offensive skills, English was not a flamboyant player. Instead, he was a smooth operator both around the basket and from the perimeter. But because his career paralleled that of Julius Erving, the Hall of Fame forward who redefined the game during that era, English was always obscured by Dr. J's shadow.With English leading the assault, the wide-open Nuggets offense scored an NBA-record 126.5 points per game, breaking the previous mark of 125.4 set by the 1961-62 Philadelphia Warriors. Denver became the first team in NBA history to score at least 100 points in every regular-season contest, at the same time setting the all-time high for most points allowed at 126.0 per game.For the second consecutive season the Nuggets had three players average more than 20 points, but David Thompson wasn't one of them. Instead, the scoring leaders were English (25.4 ppg), Issel (22.9), and Vandeweghe (21.5). Thompson missed 20 games with injuries during the early part of the season and was replaced in the starting lineup by T. R. Dunn. Thompson returned to play in 61 contests, starting only 5, and averaged just 14.9 points.After the season Thompson was traded to Seattle in exchange for a first-round draft pick and Bill Hanzlik, a 6-7 forward who gave the Nuggets eight solid seasons.Denver held steady in 1982-83 with a 45-37 record. After scoring at least 100 points in every regular-season game the year before, the Nuggets' jet-powered offense slowed just a bit-Denver had four games of fewer than 100 points in 1982-83. Still, the Nuggets not only had the league's top two scorers in English (28.4 ppg) and Vandeweghe (26.7), but they also had Issel, who contributed 21.6 points per game. English and Vandeweghe were the first pair of teammates to rank first and second in the league in scoring since the 1954-55 season, when the feat had been accomplished by Neil Johnston and Paul Arizin of the Philadelphia Warriors.Denver faced Phoenix in a best-of-three first-round playoff series and needed a 117-112 overtime victory in Game 3 to advance. The Nuggets then engaged San Antonio in a high-scoring conference semifinal series, but the Spurs had too much firepower. San Antonio averaged 132.8 points while winning the series, four games to one.Denver slipped in 1983-84, tumbling to a 38-44 record. They were mediocre in the win column but still featured an unrelenting offense. On December 13 Denver and Detroit staged the highest-scoring game in NBA history, a three-overtime, 186-184 victory for the Pistons. The Nuggets' 184-point total was easily the team's top single-game mark, surpassing the 162 chalked up against Portland in 1981. Only a month later, on January 11, the Nuggets put up their second-best all-time total by downing San Antonio, 163-155.Vandeweghe had 51 and 50 points, respectively, in each of the score-a-thons. He was Denver's representative in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season, and he averaged 29.4 for the year. English also had a solid season, contributing 26.4 points per contest.
1984-85: Nuggets Get "Fat" And Natt
In 1984-85 Denver arrested the previous season's slide and turned in a stellar season. Everything fell into place for the Nuggets as they finished 52-30 and contended for the Western Conference title.
Before the season even began Denver made a crucial move by engineering a blockbuster trade with the Portland Trail Blazers. The Nuggets sent Vandeweghe to Portland in exchange for Wayne Cooper, Lafayette "Fat" Lever, Calvin Natt (who made the 1985 All-Star Team), and two draft picks. The deal paid immediate dividends for the Nuggets. They got off to a 12-3 start, floundered a bit, then found their second wind, going 29-14 from January through March, including 20 straight wins at home.The team's momentum in the second half of the season carried over into the playoffs. Denver met San Antonio in the first round and engaged the Spurs in a postseason shootout for the second time in three seasons. This time the Nuggets prevailed, winning the best-of-five series in five games. Denver had an easier time in the conference semifinals, trouncing the Utah Jazz, four games to one. Their reward, however, was a matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers bounced the Nuggets in five high-scoring games on their way to the NBA title.For the season, Alex English scored 27.9 points per game, and 6-6, 220-pound Calvin Natt had the best of his five seasons for Denver, averaging 23.3 points. Two of Bobby Jones's team defensive records fell when versatile 6-3 guard Fat Lever recorded 202 steals and Wayne Cooper blocked 197 shots. Dan Issel retired after the 1984-85 season, having averaged 20.7 points over a 10-year Denver career and scoring 16,589 points for the franchise. All told, Issel scored 27,482 points in his ABA/ NBA career, ranking behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, and Moses Malone on the all-time ABA/NBA scoring list. At the time of Issel's retirement he owned most of the Nuggets' career offensive records, although he was later superseded by Alex English.
1985-88: Issel Gone, But English Takes Up The Slack
The 1985-86 Nuggets finished 47-35, posting a .500 record or better in each month until April. The team's consistent performance provided a backdrop for English's most productive season of his career. Always a prolific scorer, English averaged 29.8 points, the top mark in Denver's NBA history. His 2,414 points scored for the season was also a Nuggets NBA record. In both cases, his numbers were second in the franchise's combined ABA/ NBA history to Spencer Haywood's great ABA 1969-70 season, when Haywood scored 2,519 points for an average of 30.3 points per game. English capped his year with a 54-point performance against the Rockets.
Denver advanced to the 1986 NBA Playoffs but retained its also-ran status. The Nuggets had an easy time with Portland in a first-round series but then fell to Houston and its "Twin Towers," Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, in the Western Conference Semifinals.The Nuggets lost ground again in 1986-87, finishing with a 37-45 record. The team played .500 ball through the first month of the season, then slipped to just below the winning mark for the rest of the schedule. English continued to score, with 28.6 points per game, and Fat Lever cemented his reputation as one of the league's most versatile players. Lever set a team single-season record for assists with 654 (8.0 apg) and, at only 6-3, led the Nuggets in rebounding with 8.9 per game.The Nuggets were terrific in 1987-88. Coach Doug Moe's system clicked to the tune of a 54-28 record, the best in the club's NBA history. Denver played winning ball all season, highlighted by a 10-game winning streak in the final few weeks of the campaign. The Nuggets went 35-6 at home, second best in the franchise's NBA era. Despite high hopes entering the postseason, Denver lost in the Western Conference Semifinals to a high-powered Dallas Mavericks squad that included Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins, Roy Tarpley, and Detlef Schrempf.Doug Moe was named NBA Coach of the Year in 1987-88. Michael Adams, a 5-10 shooter acquired from the Washington Bullets, made 139 three-pointers, a Denver record that he improved on in each of the next three seasons. Fat Lever broke his own record for steals with 223, and six Nuggets scored 12.7 points per game or better, topped by Alex English's 25.0 average.
1988-90: Alex's Swan Song
The pendulum swung back in 1988-89 as the Nuggets fell to 44-38. Although Denver matched the previous season's stellar 35-6 home record, the team played only .220 ball on the road. A bad slump in January slowed some of the team's early momentum, and the team lost the final five games of the season. In familiar fashion, the Nuggets bowed out of the playoffs early, this time losing to the Phoenix Suns in a first-round sweep.
There were some notable individual efforts, however. On March 10 English scored 51 points but couldn't salvage a one-point Denver loss to Miami. Lever matched Larry Brown's 1972 franchise record for assists in a game when he dished out 23 against Golden State on April 21.Denver maintained a winning record in 1989-90, finishing 43-39. Walter Davis, acquired from Phoenix before the 1988-89 season, contributed 17.5 points per game and set a new team mark for free-throw percentage at .912 (later broken by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf). Lever (18.3 ppg) led eight Nuggets in double-figure scoring.English's scoring fell off to 17.9 points per game after nine years of averaging better than 20, and he left via free agency after the season to sign with the Dallas Mavericks for one final NBA campaign. In his 11 years with Denver, English averaged 25.9 points and became the club's all-time leader in games played (837), minutes played (29,893), total points (21,645), field goals made (8,953) and attempted (17,604), and assists (3,679).
1990-91: Denver Names New GM And New Coach
For 1990-91 former Seattle SuperSonics Coach Bernie Bickerstaff was named general manager of the Nuggets. Bickerstaff had 19 years of NBA experience, as an assistant coach with the Washington Bullets and then as the head man at Seattle. His 1986-87 Sonics had been a group of overachievers who ascended to the Western Conference Finals.
At Denver, Bickerstaff inherited one of the NBA's oldest rosters. He began by replacing Head Coach Doug Moe, who had piloted the Nuggets for more than nine seasons, with Paul Westhead, who had previously coached the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. At the time of his hiring Westhead was coaching at Loyola Marymount University, where he had implemented a wacky, wide-open offensive system that had made the Lions the highest-scoring collegiate team in the nation.Bickerstaff and the Nuggets set about rebuilding through judicious draft selections. Armed with the third overall pick in 1990, Denver selected Chris Jackson, a 6-1 guard from Louisiana State who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In his freshman season in college Jackson had averaged 30.2 points and had been named an All-American; as a sophomore he had scored 27.8 points per game before turning pro.The 1990-91 season saw Denver plummet to 20-62. The Nuggets lost seven games to start the season and never righted themselves. Westhead's philosophy was to pile up the points and hope the other team couldn't keep up; defense was an afterthought. Denver's resistance was particularly negligible during the first week of November, when the Nuggets logged three of the four most generous nights in franchise history.The top opponent scoring mark against Denver-186 points recorded by Detroit in a 1983 triple-overtime game-was not broken this season. However, the shelling in November 1990 was prolonged. On November 2 Golden State scored 162 points to top the Nuggets by four; on November 7 San Antonio scored 161 for an eight-point victory. Phoenix was getting the message, and on November 10 the Suns besieged the Nuggets for 173 points and a 30-point win.Denver's season record was an all-time worst both at home (17-24) and on the road (3-38). For the year, the Nuggets surrendered 130.8 points per game to opponents, shattering their own 1981-82 NBA record for points allowed. They missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade.For all the season's futility, some good young players were showing glimpses of promise. Chris Jackson scored 14.1 points per game, better numbers than any first-year Nuggets player had posted since the franchise had joined the NBA in 1976-77. With the roster in transition, the team's scoring leaders were Michael Adams (26.5 ppg) and Orlando Woolridge (25.1), both of whom had inflated numbers because of Westhead's offensive scheme.
1991-92: Denver Finds A Nugget In Mutombo
During the offseason the franchise selected center Dikembe Mutombo with the fourth pick in the 1991 NBA Draft. Mutombo, a 7-2, 245-pound center out of Georgetown, was a native of Kinshasa, Zaire, who spoke English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and five African dialects. His full name is Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo.
In 1991-92 Denver took baby steps in the right direction and finished 24-58. The Nuggets put up a valiant effort for much of the year, reaching 17-26 before reeling through a 6-24 stretch that doomed the season. The team saved the worst for last, losing 11 straight in March and April.Mutombo made the NBA All-Rookie Team and was the only rookie to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. For the season, he averaged 12.3 rebounds and finished runner-up to Charlotte's Larry Johnson for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Mutombo and Greg "Cadillac" Anderson were rugged on the boards. Anderson set a new team record for total rebounds with 941, erasing George McGinnis's standard that had survived since 1978-79. Mutombo was right behind him with 870 boards and would have eclipsed Anderson if not for a thumb injury that ended his season after 71 games.
1992-93: Local Hero Returns To Coach Nuggets
Paul Westhead was fired after the 1991-92 season, and the Nuggets brought back local hero Dan Issel as head coach for 1992-93. Issel, who had spent 9 of his 15 pro seasons with Denver, took over as coach in the same season in which he was also elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. With Issel in charge, the team improved to 36-46 by getting the most out of its young players. On the downside, the Nuggets set a new franchise mark for consecutive losses when they dropped 14 straight between December 5 and January 5. However, even that losing streak couldn't obscure the team's potential.
The best news for Denver was the coming of age of point guard Chris Jackson-who changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in July 1993-who enjoyed a breakthrough season. He posted career highs in every offensive category and won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. Jackson set a new team record for free-throw percentage at .935, erasing Walter Davis's 1989-90 mark. He also rained in 70 of 197 three-point attempts. Jackson led the team in scoring with 19.2 points per game, followed by Reggie Williams (17.0 ppg), LaPhonso Ellis (14.7), and Dikembe Mutombo (13.8).
Ellis, a 6-8, 240-pound forward, was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team after becoming the first Denver rookie to start all 82 games. Mutombo also had a stellar season. He pulled down a season-high 23 rebounds against Miami on March 15, and on April 18 he stymied the Los Angeles Clippers by blocking 12 shots to match the franchise record set by Julius Keye in 1972. Mutombo rewrote the Nuggets' NBA-era single-season rebounding records. He finished second in the NBA in offensive rebounds with 344, and grabbed a total of 1,070 boards for an average of 13.0 per game. (The club's all-time individual mark for most rebounds in a season in Nuggets franchise history, including the ABA years, belongs to Spencer Haywood, who in 1969-70 collected 1,637 boards for a 19.5 average.)
At the end of the 1992-93 season the Nuggets were clearly a team on the rise, and they were beginning to generate a new atmosphere of excitement and optimism in the Mile High City.
1993-94: Oh My! Nuggets Knock Off Sonics In Postseason
That optimism spilled over into 1993-94 in a big way. After a mediocre regular season the Nuggets embarked on a thrilling playoff run that made them the darlings of the NBA. Denver lingered around the .500 mark for much of the campaign before finishing at 42-40 to claim the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets' first-round chances looked slim against the swaggering Seattle SuperSonics, who had blitzed through the year with the league's best record. The Sonics won the first two games, but in Denver the Nuggets used the shotblocking presence of Dikembe Mutombo, along with career performances by Reggie Williams, Brian Williams, and Robert Pack, to win Games 3 and 4.Denver won Game 5 in Seattle to become the first No. 8 seed in history to defeat a No. 1 seed. The Nuggets then injected excitement into the conference semifinals. After losing three straight games to the Utah Jazz, Denver rallied with three straight wins to force a Game 7, in which Utah prevailed, 91-81.During the regular season the Nuggets were led once again by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who scored 18.0 points per game and on the last day of the campaign came within one free throw of setting a single-season record for free-throw percentage. He finished at .956, just short of Calvin Murphy's .958 set in 1980-81. Mutombo led the NBA in blocked shots with 4.10 per game and also set an NBA Playoff record with 38 blocks in the seven-game series against the Jazz.
1994-95: Injuries, Coaching Changes Dash Denver's Mile-High Hopes
Denver's 1994-95 season ended in less spectacular fashion than the previous year, as the Nuggets were swept in the first round of the playoffs by San Antonio. The loss to the top-seeded Spurs contrasted sharply with the Nuggets' first-round upset of the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in 1993-94.
Denver's run in the 1994 Playoffs had placed high expectations on the team for the 1994-95 season, but because of a number of problems the Nuggets couldn't match those forecasts. Forward LaPhonso Ellis, who had placed second on the squad in scoring and rebounding in 1993-94, injured his knee in the preseason and missed the first 76 games of the campaign. In addition, guard Robert Pack, who early in the season was among the league leaders in both points and assists, missed 40 games with a knee injury.Denver went through three head coaches in 1994-95. Dan Issel resigned with the team at 18-16. Assistant Coach Gene Littles was then named interim head coach, but when the Nuggets stumbled to a 3-13 mark under Littles, General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff took over on February 20 and guided the team for the remainder of the season. Denver finished at 41-41 and qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season with a dramatic win over the Sacramento Kings, with whom the Nuggets were battling for the final playoff spot.Dikembe Mutombo, who led the league in blocked shots (3.91 per game) and was second in rebounding (12.5 rpg), won NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors and played in the All-Star Game. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf again topped the team in scoring (16.0 ppg). The Nuggets were one of only two NBA teams to have seven players who each put up at least 10 points per outing. Rookie Jalen Rose showed promise in the backcourt, breaking into the starting lineup late in the season and averaging 8.2 points and 4.8 assists. At season's end he was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
1995-96: Mutombo and Abdul-Rauf Bid Farewell
Only one year removed from the playoff win over Seattle, Denver had reason to be optimistic about 1995-96. Building on a nucleus of center Dikembe Mutombo and guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the Nuggets acquired Antonio McDyess, who had been drafted with the second pick overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in the 1995 Draft.
McDyess, who averaged 13.4 points and 7.5 rebounds, was quickly an effective inside player, earning All-Rookie First Team honors. His success complemented the skills of Mutombo, a 1996 All-Star, who led the league in blocked shots (4.49 per game) and was fourth in rebounding (11.8). The front line, though, still suffered from the absence of LaPhonso Ellis, who missed the first 37 games of the season with an injury. The Nuggets got out of the gate at 1-8 and never recovered, finishing 35-47 and out of the playoff hunt. Denver was one of only a handful of teams to beat the Chicago Bulls, though, posting a 105-99 win at McNichols Arena on February 4.Abdul-Rauf, who once again led the league in free throw percentage (.930) and led the team in scoring (19.2), touched off a nationwide controversy by refusing to stand for the singing of the national anthem because of his Islamic Faith. After a one-game suspension on March 12, Abdul-Rauf relented, agreeing to stand and pray during the anthem. Not long afterward, an injury sent him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season.At the end of the season, Denver said goodbye to its top two performers. Mutombo signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Hawks, and a trade sent Abdul-Rauf to Sacramento, as Bickerstaff and the Nuggets looked to retool the team for the 1996-97 season.
1996-97: Close Losses Nip Nuggets
A quick glance at their 21-61 record belies the competitiveness of the 1996-97 Nuggets, a team which lost an astounding 18 games by four points or less, including 10 losses by one or two points.
Denver never recovered from a slow start. The team won only four of its first 13 games, prompting GM/Head Coach Bernie Bickerstaff to hand the coaching reigns to veteran Dick Motta for the remainder of the season. It marked the 25th season as a head coach for Motta, who ended the season trailing only Lenny Wilkens and Red Auerbach in all-time victories.Motta had some good young talent in his starting frontcourt, including center Ervin Johnson and forwards Antonio McDyess and LaPhonso Ellis. Johnson, a free agent signee from the Seattle SuperSonics, finished fourth in the NBA in rebounding (11.1 rpg) and fifth in blocks (2.77 bpg). McDyess averaged better than 18 points and 7 rebounds per game, while Ellis, returning from a severe knee injury, averaged a career-best 21.9 ppg, including a career-high 39 points against San Antonio. Alas, just as Ellis had re-emerged as one of the league's up-and-coming stars, he tore his right Achilles tendon on April 4, earning him another long summer of rehabilitation.Running the offense at the start of the season was talented veteran Mark Jackson. Jackson was leading the league in assists and enjoying a tremendous season when the Nuggets dealt him to the Indiana Pacers, beginning a youth movement. Bickerstaff also left the Nuggets midseason, to pursue a coaching opportunity with the Washington Bullets.His replacement as general manager, Allan Bristow, continued to turn over the Nuggets roster at the trading deadline -- by season's end, a franchise-record 23 players saw action. Bristow resumed his sweeping changes in the offseason, replacing Motta with former Nugget Bill Hanzlik. Trades netted the Nuggets a trio of first-round draft picks, including Tony Battie, the fifth overall selection in the 1997 NBA Draft.
1997-98: Searching for Silver Linings
The 1997-98 Nuggets are a team that sought long and hard to find silver linings following a 11-71 season in which they narrowly avoided the fewest single-season wins in NBA history. Bright spots could be found, if you knew where to look. For starters, there was the return to health of forward LaPhonso Ellis. After missing 150 games over the previous three seasons, Ellis was the picture of health. The congenial forward averaged 14.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg, and joined Johnny Newman in providing Denver with veteran leadership to tutor the next generation of Nuggets. Newman had his best scoring season in six seasons, scoring 14.7 ppg to pace the team in scoring.
The next generation includes four rookies; Bobby Jackson, Danny Fortson, Tony Battie and Eric Washington. Jackson, acquired on draft day from Seattle, and Fortson, a bruising 6-7, 260 pound forward, both represented the West in the Schick Rookie Game at All-Star Weekend, with Jackson scoring 15 points to lead the West. The youth movement also included the development of a pair of third-year guards, Anthony Goldwire and Cory Alexander, both of whom exhibited flashes of excellence.The preseason trade that sent Antonio McDyess to Phoenix, disabled the Nuggets in the short term, but netted three first-round draft picks in the next two years, and cleared salary cap room for the Nuggets to lure free agents during the offseason. Looking ahead, the Nuggets will also once again have the services of Eric Williams. A talented third-year player acquired by Denver in the preseason, Williams established himself as Denver's top scoring threat during the team's first four games before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that sidelined him for the remainder of the year.For VP of Basketball Operations Allan Bristow and coach Bill Hanzlik, the stay in Denver was a short one. Dan Issel replaced Bristow on March 25, and pledged to redirect the franchise back to the success it enjoyed while he was the star player, and during his brief tenure as coach, when the Nuggets shocked the NBA world with a first-round victory over the top-seeded Sonics. Hanzlik was relieved of his duties after the season.
1998-99: Welcome Back, Antonio
Antonio McDyess, who spent his first two NBA seasons with Denver, returned as a free agent after one year in Phoenix and became the centerpiece of a much-improved Nuggets team.
The Nuggets were only 14-36 during the lockout-shortened season. But, under first-year coach Mike D'Antoni, they posted more victories in 50 games than they did the previous season (11) in 82 games.McDyess, an All-NBA Third Team selection, posted career-highs with 21.2 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.46 steals per game. Point guard Nick Van Exel, a 1998 All-Star who was acquired in a trade with the Lakers, averaged 16.5 points and 7.4 points.Danny Fortson averaged 11.6 rebounds (fourth in NBA) and led the league with 4.2 offensive boards per game. Denver native Chauncey Billups returned home in a trade with Toronto and was third on the Nuggets in scoring (13.9 ppg).Denver's frontcourt was depleted by injuries to a pair of rookies. Starting center Raef LaFrentz averaged 13.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in the first 12 games before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Keon Clark missed the final 20 games because of a partially collapsed lung.The Nuggets played their final season at McNichols Sports Arena, their home since 1975. They would move into the brand-new Pepsi Center in 1999-2000.
1999-00: The Horse Returns to the Bench in a New Arena
Dan Issel, who led the Nuggets to their stunning playoff run in 1994, came down from the front office to try to rekindle that magic prior to the 1999-00 season. The Nuggets began play in the state-of-the-art Pepsi Center and immediately made their new home a tough place for opponents to play.
The offseason acquisition of Ron Mercer and the return of a healthy Raef LaFrentz gave the Nuggets a solid young nucleus along with Antonio McDyess and Nick Van Exel. The team was tough at home early in the year, winning 12 of its first 15 at home, including wins over the defending champion L.A. Lakers, San Antonio and Portland. However, they failed to find the same success on the road and teetered near the .500 mark for the first half of the season.Unable to reach an agreement with the free-agent-to-be Mercer, the club dealt him to Orlando on Feb. 1, along with Chauncey Billups and Johnny Taylor in exchange for Tariq Abdul-Wahad, Chris Gatling and a future No. 1 pick. The Nuggets won their first game after the trade to move their record to 21-22, but a back-loaded road schedule knocked them out of contention. The Nuggets finished the season with a sparkling 25-16 record at home, but a disappointing 10-31 mark on the road. Still, the team improved its record for the second-straight season.McDyess led the Nuggets in scoring (19.1 ppg) and rebounding (8.5 rpg). He also ranked ninth in the NBA in field goal percentage (.507). He scored 30 points and grabbed 21 rebounds against the L.A. Clippers on April 15. Nick Van Exel averaged 16.1 ppg and finished in a tie for second in the NBA in assists (9.0 apg).Raef LaFrentz came back from a torn ACL to average 12.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 2.22 bpg. He led the way as the Nuggets became the 10th team in NBA history to have three players record at least 100 blocked shots (LaFrentz, 180; McDyess, 139; Keon Clark, 114).
2000-01: Behind McDyess, the Improvement Continues
Antonio McDyess stepped onto the world stage by helping the United States earn a gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. He didn't stop there, averaging 20.8 ppg and 12.1 rpg en route to his first All-Star appearance.
Behind the play of McDyess and Nick Van Exel, the Nuggets finished 40-42, posting their most wins since the 1994-95 season. The Nuggets returned to dominance at home, finishing with a 29-12 mark, their best since '88-89. While it was a great season, it ended on a sour note. The Nuggets raced to a 26-18 record and benefited from playing six more home games than road games. However, in February and March, they went just 9-19 and played eight more road games than home games. After being in contention for their first playoff berth since 1995, the team faded down the stretch. McDyess led the team in scoring and rebounding. In addition, he posted a career-high 51 double-doubles, including a 40-point, 20-rebound game against Houston in November. Van Exel averaged 17.7 ppg and 8.5 apg to finish third in the league. Raef LaFrentz continued his improvement, averaing 12.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg and 2.64 bpg.
2001-02: Turbulent Season Ends on Positive
What started out as a promising season, quickly took a turn for the worse. Three days into training camp, Antonio McDyess injured his knee and went on to miss all but 10 games. Without his presence, the team fought hard early and managed a 6-6 start, but after another starter, Tariq Abdul-Wahad went down, things were never the same.
The month of December was marred by Nick Van Exel's trade demand and Dan Issel's resignation. Assistant Coach Mike Evans took over the reigns, but the Nuggets never got back into playoff contention. February brought with it a blockbuster trade as the Nuggets acquired Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, Donnell Harvey and a first round draft pick from Dallas in exchange for Van Exel, Raef LaFrentz, Abdul-Wahad and Avery Johnson. Once the newcomers became acquainted with the rest of the team, success followed. Although the Nuggets finished just 27-55, they did win their last six games at home and finished 8-8 over their final 16 contests.
Howard led the Nuggets in scoring following the trade, averaging 17.9 ppg and 7.9 rpg. Voshon Lenard averaged 11.3 ppg, primarily as a reserve and James Posey had career highs of 10.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 1.56 spg.
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