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Denver Nuggets Summary
The Denver Nuggets came into existence as one of the original ABA franchises for the 1967-68 season before being one of four teams from the league to join the NBA in 1976. The Nuggets have never made it to the NBA Finals, though they’ve been one step away three times, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers each time.
The Nuggets enter the 2021-22 campaign with the reigning NBA MVP in center Nikola Jokic, but without one of their top players in Jamal Murray, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered near the end of last season. Still, with Jokic leading the way, Denver has to be considered a contender for the Western Conference crown.
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Denver Nuggets History
The Denver franchise was formed as the Denver Larks before switching the name to the Denver Rockets for the first seven seasons of existence. The team was successful early on, making the playoffs in five of its first six seasons but winning just one postseason series in that span.
In anticipation of a potential move to the NBA, Denver switched from the Rockets to the Nuggets to avoid trouble with the NBA’s Houston Rockets. The final two seasons in the ABA were some of the most successful for the squad, with young star David Thompson being added to Bobby Jones and Dan Issel in the team’s lineup. They won a playoff series in 1975, then advanced to the ABA Finals in 1976, falling to the New York Nets in the last games played in the ABA.
Denver was a playoff contender even with the move to the NBA, advancing to the postseason in each of its first three seasons in the new league. Behind high-scoring forwards Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe, the Nuggets were a consistent playoff team throughout the 1980s, advancing to the Western Conference finals in 1985 before falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Coach Doug Moe liked a fast-paced offense, and the Nuggets would run and get shots up at a pace rarely seen in the NBA. It was very successful during the regular season, but the team couldn’t consistently win in the postseason.
A nine-year postseason run ended in 1991, but the team was rebuilding with young players Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson), Dikembe Mutombo, and LaPhonso Ellis. A return to the playoffs in 1994 brought one of the most memorable comebacks in NBA postseason history as the Nuggets rallied from a 2-0 deficit against the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics to earn the first-round upset.
The success didn’t last, though, as the Nuggets missed the postseason for eight straight seasons from 1995-96 to 2002-03. The 2003 NBA Draft brought No. 3 overall pick Carmelo Anthony to the team, though, and the team was back in the postseason in his rookie campaign. Coach George Karl was brought in during the 2004-05 season, and by 2009, the team was back in the Western Conference finals, though another loss to the Lakers ended their run.
The Nuggets made 10 straight playoff appearances, but the 2009 team was the only one to win a series. Denver returned to the postseason in 2018-19 behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, then had a memorable run in the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the Orlando bubble, rallying from 3-1 series deficits twice to defeat the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers and advance to the Western Conference finals. Facing the Lakers in the West finals for the third time in team history, the Nuggets lost to Los Angeles for the third time as well.
Championships Won by the Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have yet to win a league title in either the ABA or the NBA. They came their closest in the final season of the ABA, reaching the championship series before falling to the New York Nets in six games. Denver reached the Western Conference finals in just its second season in the NBA but lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1978.
The 1984-85 Nuggets also made it to the Western Conference finals, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. Nearly the same scenario happened 24 years later, as the Lakers topped the Nuggets in six games to advance to the 2009 NBA Finals.
Denver and Los Angeles squared off again in the 2020 Western Conference finals, with the Lakers again coming out on top, winning the series in five games.
The Nuggets have won 11 division titles over the history of the franchise, starting with a pair of Western Division titles in the ABA. The team won the Midwest Division in the first two seasons of its NBA membership, then won it again twice in the 1980s. Denver now resides in the Northwest Division and has come out on top five times.
Important Team Events
The inclusion in the four-team group that moved from the ABA to the NBA was obviously crucial to the Denver franchise’s survival. The Nuggets had had some successful years in the ABA and had a flashy superstar in David Thompson, so it made sense that the NBA would want to include them in the set of new teams to the league in 1976.
The selection of Carmelo Anthony with the No. 3 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft – above players like Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade – ended up being a very good selection for the Nuggets. Anthony spent seven-plus seasons in a Denver uniform, becoming the third-leading scorer in franchise history and leading the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals in 2009.
Denver took a chance on a 19-year-old Serbian in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft, and Nikola Jokic is looking better and better as a pick every day. Jokic impressed so much that the Nuggets traded away another 2014 draftee, center Jusuf Nurkic, in just his third season, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to supplant Jokic in the pivot.
There are a lot of great players in the history of the Nuggets, but one of the most popular and successful in the franchise’s history was center Dan Issel, who played for the team for the last 10 years of his professional career. Issel finished as the franchise’s all-time leading rebounder – a spot he still holds – and scorer, though he’s dropped to second on the latter list now. Issel helped the team stay successful with the jump to the NBA, then coached the team for five seasons over two stints after his retirement.
The man who supplanted Issel atop the Nuggets’ all-time scoring list was Alex English, who had a magnificent career with Denver lasting 10-plus seasons. English was the league’s leading scorer in 1982-83 at 28.4 points per game, and his only season averaging under 20 points for the Nuggets was his last in Denver at age 36. English made eight straight All-Star Game appearances for the Nuggets from 1982 to 1989 and finished as the NBA’s leading scorer for the decade of the 1980s.
His career is still ongoing, but Nikola Jokic gave the Denver franchise something they’d never had before: An NBA MVP winner. Jokic has established himself as one of the most versatile player in the game, ranking in the league leaders in scoring, rebounding, and assists nearly every season over the last three years. Jokic continues to build his legacy in a Denver uniform, and any team success he’s able to contribute to will only move him up in the eyes of Nuggets fans in the franchise’s all-time greats.
He wasn’t without his detractors, but Doug Moe was able to guide the Denver Nuggets to more regular-season wins than any other head coach in franchise history. Moe came on as head coach in the 1979-80 season, bringing his up-tempo style that helped Denver lead the league in scoring in six of his 10 seasons on the sideline. Moe had the Nuggets in the postseason in nine straight seasons, including a run to the Western Conference finals in 1985, and he won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award in 1987-88.
George Karl had a very successful run with the Nuggets from 2004-05 to 2012-23, winning 423 regular-season games and tying for the second-most playoff wins in franchise history with 21. Karl was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2012-13 and took the Nuggets to the 2009 Western Conference finals.
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Denver Nuggets FAQs
Alex English scored 21,645 points in his 10-plus seasons with the Nuggets, the most in franchise history.
Two players have won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award while playing for the Nuggets: Dikembe Mutombo (1994-95) and Marcus Camby (2006-07).
Denver has played in the league championship series just once, losing to the New York Nets in the ABA Finals in 1976, the final season for that league before it merged with the NBA.
Doug Moe won 432 regular-season games during his time coaching the Nuggets, the most in franchise history.
Denver’s highest pick in the NBA Draft was the No. 3 pick, which the team has had three times, selecting Chris Jackson (1990), Raef LaFrentz (1998), and Carmelo Anthony (2003).