Editor’s Note: The modern era of the NBA is generally accepted to have begun with the 1979-80 season, the advent of the 3-point line in the NBA. The lists to follow—one for each of the NBA’s 30 teams—will only consider seasons since 1979-80. We continue the series today with the best of the Denver Nuggets.
The Denver Nuggets haven’t always been the Denver Nuggets. And they haven’t always been in the NBA, either.
The Nuggets were one of four teams to join the NBA in 1976 from the old American Basketball Association, along with the Indiana Pacers, New York (now Brooklyn) Nets and San Antonio Spurs.
The franchise is also not affiliated with the first iteration of the Denver Nuggets to play in the NBA, a franchise that played one season in the old National Basketball League and was part of the merger that created the NBA, when the NBL and Basketball Association of America joined forces in 1949. That franchise was 18-44 in its lone NBL campaign in 1948-49, went 11-51 in its only NBA season and folded.
The team known today as the Nuggets began as one of the original nine teams in the ABA, known then as the Denver Rockets—named for the Rocket Trucking line founded by the franchise’s first owner, Bill Ringsby.
The team played seven seasons as the Rockets, making the playoffs every season but never advancing beyond the Division Finals.
In 1974, in anticipation of a possible merger with the NBA, the team was renamed the Nuggets—in order to avoid a possible conflict with the existing NBA franchise in Houston—and hired coach Larry Brown the same year. Brown led the Nuggets to an ABA-record 65 wins, but the team was upset in the Western Division Finals by the Pacers.
Denver won 60 games in the ABA’s final season, 1975-76, again posting the best record in the circuit, but lost to the Nets in the ABA Finals.
The team came into the NBA and immediately won back-to-back division titles in 1976-77 and 1977-78. After 12 straight postseason berths, the Nuggets finally missed the playoffs for the first time in 1979-80.
But now under the direction of Doug Moe, the Nuggets were back in the postseason in 1981-82, beginning a stretch of nine straight seasons in the playoffs.
The team bottomed out in 1990-91, hiring Paul Westhead as coach after he directed Loyola Marymount to an unlikely Elite Eight appearance in the previous year’s NCAA tournament. Westhead, who won an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980 as an interim coach, found his warp-speed paced system didn’t translate to the NBA and the team lost a then-club record 62 games.
Franchise great Dan Issel, however, took over as coach in 1992 and in the 1993-94 season, the eighth-seeded Nuggets became the first No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs, stunning the Seattle SuperSonics.
The franchise fell upon hard times again in the late 1990s, losing a franchise-record 71 games under former Nuggets guard Bill Hanzlik in 1997-98. That was in the midst of the franchise’s longest playoff drought, an eight-season stretch from 1995-96 through 2002-03.
Jeff Bzdelik brought Denver back to the postseason in 2004, but was replaced in 2004-05 by George Karl, who took the Nuggets to 57 wins in 2012-13, the most since the franchise came to the NBA, earning Coach of the Year honors … right before he was let go.
Denver has been consistent in 47 seasons, reaching the playoffs 33 times, but since coming to the NBA in 1976, has never gone farther than the conference finals, reaching that level in 1978 (lost to Seattle), 1985 (lost to the Lakers) and 2009 (also lost to the Lakers).
There have been 16 general managers for the Nuggets, with Carl Scheer the longest-serving of the bunch. Scheer spent almost 10 years in the job, from June 1974 through May 1984. Current GM Tim Connelly took over in June 2013.
The head coaching position has been held by 20 men, with Moe the franchise leader in wins with 432, just ahead of Karl’s 423. Brown put together 251 wins in his four-plus seasons. Postseason success, however, has been hard to come by, with Issel the only coach in franchise history who does not have a sub-.500 record in the playoffs.
And here are the best players, by position, for the Denver Nuggets in the modern era, beginning in 1979-80. Players had to have played 200 games for the franchise and averaged 25 minutes per game.