Denver Nuggets: NBA All-Time Starting Fives
Is there another NBA franchise that’s less associated with playing defense that’s had a pair of Defensive Player of the Year winners?
With the exception of T.R. Dunn, Dikembe Mutombo, and Marcus Camby (the latter two won DPOY in 1995 and 2007, respectively), it’s tough to think of a franchise that’s less associated with defensive stops.
While the Denver Nuggets are not known for a rich legacy of defense, points certainly haven’t been tough to come by in the Mile High City.
For three of their four decades in the ABA and NBA, the Nuggets have been a consistently competitive and highly entertaining bunch.
The team transitioned from the ABA to the NBA during the Thompson-Issel era, led by one of the best inside-outside duos of the decade. The big man on those teams was the steady Dan Issel—one of the first true centers with a strong perimeter game. Meanwhile, on the wing, the Nuggets featured David “Skywalker” Thompson, one of the most exciting players in basketball history.
After reaching the ABA Finals in the league’s final season, the Nuggets joined the NBA and became a playoff fixture, reaching the postseason each of their first three seasons (including a trip to the 1978 Conference Finals) and in 12 of their first 14 NBA campaigns (including another trip to the Conference Finals in 1985).
That run began with the aforementioned Thompson-Issel combo, and continued thanks to the understated brilliance of Alex English and the guidance of defensively challenged (but fan friendly!) head coach Doug Moe.
By the early 1990s, both English and Moe were gone, and the Nuggets were rebuilding.
First, the franchise’s centerpiece was defensive standout, Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo was exceptional on the boards as a shotblocker. And while he helped Denver become the first-ever No. 8 seed to win a playoff series with a stunning upset over the Seattle SuperSonics in 1994, the five-year Mutombo era was generally unremarkable.
However, what followed made those five years seem downright idyllic.
In the eight years that followed, led by the likes of Antonio McDyess, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and Bryant Stith, the Nuggets managed to top 35 wins just once (40-42 in 2000-01), and won fewer than 20 games three times (one was the 50-game 1998-99 season, during which Denver was 14-36), including a cataclysmic 11-71 season in 1997-98.
The past seven years, or the 'Melo era, have seen the Nuggets fare much better—seven consecutive playoff appearances (over .500 each season), three consecutive 50-win seasons (2008-10 and counting) and a trip to the 2009 Conference Finals, which saw the Nuggets challenge the eventual champion Lakers before falling in six games.
Defense may win championships, but in the case of the Nuggets, offense keeps you competitive.
PG—Fat Lever (17 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 7.5 apg, 2.5 spg in 474 games)
One of the most underrated players of the past 30 years. How is this guy not a household name?
More than any player other than Magic Johnson—and more recently, LeBron James (he’d have probably done it in 1980s)—Lever, who’s just 6’3”, was a legitimate threat to average a triple-double. And not just once.
During his three-year peak (1986-89), Lever’s all-around numbers compared pretty favorably with virtually any lead guard in the NBA. Lever followed up an incredible 18.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 8 apg season in 1986-87 with a 18.9, 8.1, and 7.8 in 1987-88 and 19.8, 9.3, and 7.8 in 1988-89. The following year, his numbers slipped a bit. His line? 18.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 6.5 apg.
And just one All-Star appearance (1988) during that stretch. He would add another All-Star selection in 1990. Interestingly, Lever was not named to an All-NBA Team in either season, but was selected to the All-NBA Second Team in 1987.
Granted, the Doug Moe offense (think an uptempo version of Nellyball) provided a fantastic opportunity to accumulate numbers, but Lever did an exceptional job of manning the wheel for six years.
With Lever running the point, the Nuggets made six consecutive postseason appearances, including the 1985 Conference Finals. During the most competitive era in the NBA, Lever was the orchestrator of one of the league’s most potent offenses.
SG—David Thompson (23.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.4 apg in 415 games)
Thompson was both a beneficiary and a victim of the era in which he played. One of the most explosive scorers the game’s ever seen, his physical gifts were tailor-made for the ABA game.
Before we go any further, consider the following about David Thompson: He was Michael Jordan’s favorite player as a child and the man chosen to introduce MJ at his Hall of Fame induction.
After starring at North Carolina State, Thompson joined the Denver Nuggets in their final season in the ABA, and immediately became a star. As a rookie, he averaged 26 ppg and 6.3 rpg and partnered with Dan Issel to lead the Nuggets to a 60-24 record and an appearance in the last-ever ABA Finals, where they fell to Julius Erving’s New York Nets in six games.
Thompson’s precocious talents were recognized and rewarded, as he was named the 1976 ABA Rookie of the Year, All-ABA, was selected an All-Star, and won the MVP of the last ABA All-Star Game with a 29-point, eight-rebound performance on his home floor at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver.
That All-Star weekend, his impact extended far beyond the game itself, as Thompson, along with Julius Erving and others, participated in the first-ever Slam Dunk Contest.
Think MJ-Dominique, only a dozen years earlier when every dunk was still at least somewhat new. While Thompson would fall to Dr. J, that contest set the stage and brought artistic dunking into the mainstream.
After the NBA-ABA merger, he didn’t miss a beat. Thompson averaged between 24 and 27.2 ppg in his first three NBA seasons, was named an All-Star in each of those three seasons, named All-NBA twice (1977 and 1978), and MVP of the 1979 All-Star Game, making him the only player ever to win All-Star MVP in both the ABA and the NBA.
From both an individual and a team perspective, 1977-78 was David Thompson’s best season in the NBA. That season, Thompson averaged 27.15 ppg (more on this in a sec), 4.9 rpg, and 4.5 apg, and helped lead the 48-34 Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost in seven games to Seattle SuperSonics.
That season, he finished second in the NBA in scoring in what will forever be remembered as the wildest, most dramatic scoring race in history. Entering April 9, 1978, the last day of the regular season, Thompson trailed the Spurs’ George Gervin in the scoring race by a fraction of a point. Earlier in the day, Thompson scored an incredible 73 points against the Detroit Pistons, only to lose the scoring title by .07 ppg (22.22 to 22.15) to Gervin, who scored 63 points later that same day.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Thompson scored a then-NBA record 32 points in the second quarter against Detroit Pistons, a record that was broken by George Gervin…later that same day, as Gervin put up 33 in the second quarter against the New Orleans Jazz.
However, while the 1970s Nuggets were a perfect fit for Thompson’s game, the celebrity lifestyle of the late 1970s/early 1980s would ultimately prove to be his downfall.
A foot injury limited Thompson to just 39 games in 1979-80 (21.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), but it was around this time that another far more serious issue was beginning to emerge. In the late 1970s, he developed a substance abuse problem that would ultimately limit his productivity and cut his potentially legendary career short. While he managed one more outstanding season with the Nuggets in 1980-81 (25.5 ppg), his lifestyle began to catch up with him.
He would never again average as many as 16 ppg in the NBA.
After spending one more season in Denver, he signed with Seattle, where he’d play two more lackluster seasons before a serious knee injury in 1984—suffered on a flight of stairs at New York City’s famous (infamous?) Studio 54 nightclub—ending his career at the age of 29.
Thompson is fondly remembered as one of the deadliest and most exciting scorers in basketball history, his early performances rivaling anything produced by Julius Erving. However, his is a story that, thanks to a combination of injury and vice, was sadly left incomplete.
SF—Alex English (25.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.4 apg in 837 games)
In terms of offensive firepower, a Denver Nuggets’ small forward is really tough to beat. Over the past 30 years, three men who have suited up in 293+ games each at the 3 for the Nuggets have averaged at least 23.3 ppg.
Despite some solid competition, this spot went to English, the face of the Denver Nuggets’ franchise, by a pretty healthy margin. Not only does he hold the franchise record in virtually every offensive category, he’s one of the most prolific and seemingly effortless scorers in NBA history. He’s also one of the least heralded.
While English is inextricable linked with the Denver Nuggets, what most fans might not know is that Denver was actually his third stop in the NBA.
He was drafted in the second round (23rd overall) by the Milwaukee Bucks, and traded to the Indiana Pacers after two seasons. After emerging as an offensive threat in a season and a half in Indy, English was traded again in 1979-80, this time to the Nuggets in exchange for George McGinnis.
After joining the fast-paced, high-scoring Nuggets, the soft-spoken Alex English finessed his way to being one of the best scorers in NBA history.
After averaging 21.3 ppg in 24 games with the Nuggets in 1979-80, English went on to average 25+ ppg in eight of the next nine seasons (he averaged 23.8 ppg in 1980-81), was selected to eight consecutive All-Star teams (1982-89), and the All-NBA Second Team three times (1982, 1983, 1986). English won the 1982-83 scoring title with an average of 28.4 ppg and averaged a career-high 29.8 ppg in 1985-86, finishing second in the NBA behind Dominique Wilkins’s 30.3 ppg.
Consider this—for all of the talent that passed through the NBA in the 1980s, no player scored more points in the decade than Alex English’s 19,682.
Also, for all of the talented scorers who graced the NBA in its first four decades, Alex English was the first player ever to post eight consecutive 2,000-point seasons.
English is the Denver Nuggets' all-time leader in games played (837), minutes (29,893), points (21,645), scoring average (25.9 ppg), most points in a season (2,414 in 1985-86), and assists (3,679).
Check out the minutes played and points scored again. This guy was good for almost three quarters of a point for every minute he played in Denver!
At the time of his retirement, English was sixth in NBA history in scoring. Nearly two decades later, he is still 13th on the NBA all-time scoring list.
Also, English led the Nuggets to nine straight playoff appearances, a pair of division titles (1985, 1988), and into the 1985 Western Conference Finals (losing to the Lakers in five games).
Carmelo Anthony—something of an evolutionary Alex English—was a bit of a hard-luck runner-up here. There are few NBA franchises for whom Anthony would not be the best-ever small forward.
Since being drafted in 2003, 'Melo has been one of the most prolific and consistent scorers in the NBA. He’s got a career average of 24.7 ppg and has averaged at least 20.8 ppg every year as a pro, including a pair of 28+ ppg campaigns (28.9 ppg in 2006-07 and 28.2 in 2009-10).
Anthony is one of just three players in franchise history (English and Dan Issel are the others) to reach 10,000. As of the summer of 2010, he’s got 12,711 points as a Nugget—good for second in franchise history.
Anthony was selected to the All-Rookie First Team in 2004, has been an All-Star three times in his seven-year career (2007, 2008, 2010), and earned All-NBA Second Team honors in 2010.
As impressive as anything he’s accomplished individually is the positive impact Carmelo has had on the Nuggets as a team.
Denver had missed the playoffs for eight consecutive years and finished above .500 just once in the 13 years prior to his arrival. With Anthony on the roster, the Nuggets have made seven consecutive playoff appearances, finished above .500 each season, won 50+ games in each of the past three seasons, and reached the 2009 Conference Finals.
If his time in Denver extends beyond his current contract (looking increasingly unlikely), 'Melo’s got a solid shot at capturing this spot. If not, the No. 2 spot will be his for some time to come.
Finally, we have Kiki Vandeweghe, another of the forgotten scoring machines of the 1980s.
After refusing to play for the Mavericks (the team that drafted him) and forcing a trade to Denver, Vandeweghe spent the first four years of his career with the Nuggets. He increased his scoring average each season he was in Denver (11.5 ppg as a rookie, to 21.5, 26.7, and 29.4 in 1983-84), and his 1983-84 career-high was good for third in the league that year.
In Vandeweghe’s four years in Denver, he was named an All-Star twice and played for three generally unmemorable playoff teams.
PF—Antonio McDyess (18.2 ppg, 9 rpg, 1.7 bpg in 361 games)
While it was very tempting to break my own rule and create a small-ball lineup featuring Carmelo Anthony at PF, that’s just not how we do things ‘round here!
Unlike the small forward position, there wasn’t a terribly deep pool to choose from here, but McDyess certainly is a worthy choice. Before knee injuries robbed him of much of explosiveness, he was one of the NBA’s best leapers and most athletic big men.
The second overall pick in 1995 Draft, McDyess was originally drafted by the L.A. Clippers, but traded to the Nuggets shortly after, in exchange for Rodney Rogers and Brent Barry. He spent six of his first seven seasons in Denver—he was traded to the Suns after two seasons, but returned as a free agent after just one season in Phoenix.
McDyess produced his four best seasons while in Denver, including a pair of 20-10 efforts in 1998-99 (21.2 ppg, 10.7 rpg, plus 2.3 bpg) and 2000-01 (20.8 ppg, 12.1 rpg). The former earned him a Third Team All-NBA selection, the latter his only career All-Star selection.
The story of McDyess in Denver is one of individual excellence with NO accompanying team success. In his five full seasons in Denver (he played just 10 games in 2001-02), the Nuggets didn’t reach the playoffs once and managed to win more than 35 games just once (40-42 in 2000-01).
McDyess’s only real competition here came from LaPhonso Ellis, whose career in Denver was a slightly less impressive mirror image of McDyess’s—six seasons, five healthy, averaged 14.3 ppg four times (including a career-high 21.9 ppg in 1996-97) and 7+ rpg in each healthy season.
Ellis was a very good power forward for a good chunk of the 1990s, playing alongside Dikembe Mutombo. Unlike McDyess, during Ellis’s time with the team, the Nuggets made a pair of trips to the postseason—in fairness, they did so with 42-40 and 41-41 records—and he was on the floor when the Nuggets downed the Seattle SuperSonics to become the first No. 8 seed to advance past the first round of the playoffs.
C—Dan Issel (20.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg in 718 games)
One of the best big men of the 1970s, Issel joined the Nuggets in 1975-76 (the same year as David Thompson) after five excellent season with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels. He went on to spend a decade with the team, reaching the playoffs eight times, the NBA Conference Finals twice, and the 1976 ABA Finals. While he was hard-nosed and crashed the board well, Issel is one of first pure centers to rely heavily on perimeter scoring.
Issel was an All-Star each of his first two seasons with the Nuggets—once in the team’s last ABA season and again in its first in the NBA. In his 10 seasons with the team, he averaged 20+ ppg eight times and at least 8.5 rpg on five occasions. His best scoring season with Denver happened to come in the team’s worst during his run, when he averaged 23.8 ppg for 1979-80’s 30-52 team.
His best season with the team was his first, as he averaged 23-11 for a team that reached the last-ever ABA Finals. He also had 19 points and nine rebounds in the final ABA All-Star Game.
Following the merger, Issel continued to play extremely well for Nuggets, averaging 22.3-8.8 in his first NBA season.
Issel’s best NBA season came in 1977-78, his third year with the Nuggets, when he averaged 21.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg, and 3.7 apg for a 48-win team that took Seattle to seven games in the Conference Finals. In 13 postseason games in 1978, Issel averaged 20.2 ppg, 10.3 rpg, and 4.1 apg.
In his eight postseason trips with the Nuggets, Issel averaged 20 ppg or better seven times and 9.3+ rpg four times.
Issel remains the Nuggets' all-time leader in rebounds (5,707), FT attempted (4,756), and FT made (3,792). He ranks second behind Alex English in games played (718), points (14,659), FG attempted (10,711), and FG made (5,424). He also ranks fourth in steals (698) and fifth in assists (1,804).
Issel accumulated over 27,000 points in his combined ABA and NBA career—only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, and Wilt Chamberlain had scored more—and still ranks eighth on the all-time combined ABA/NBA scoring list.
While we're here, we simply must talk about Issel's (pretty stiff) competition here: Dikembe Mutombo.
For all the exploits of David Thompson, Alex English, and Carmelo Anthony, there was no greater moment in franchise history than when Dikembe Mutombo fell to the floor after the 1994 Nuggets became the first eighth seed to win a playoff series.
Mutombo was the fourth overall pick in the 1991 Draft, and made an immediate impact. As a rookie, he quickly became the anchor of the team, averaging 16.6 ppg, 12.3 rpg, and just under three bpg. This performance earned him All-Rookie First Team honors in 1992, along with the first of two All-Star selections (the other was in 1995) as a Nugget.
In five seasons with the Nuggets, Mutombo was the centerpiece of the Nuggets team and one of the league’s best defensive players. In 361 games with Denver, Mutombo averaged a rock-solid 12.9 ppg, 12.3 rpg, and an awesome 3.8 bpg.
Mutombo’s teams in Denver didn’t enjoy a great deal of success, winning 40+ games just once and reaching the postseason twice in five seasons, though as previously mentioned, they did become the first No. 8 to knock off a top seed in the playoffs, beating the heavily-favored SuperSonics in five games (after losing the first two) in 1994.
Mutombo's defense was the key to this upset, as he grabbed over 12 rpg and blocked 31 shots—a record for a five-game series. He was fantastic in 12 postseason games in 1994, averaging 13.3 ppg, 12 rpg, and a staggering 5.75 bpg.
In 1995, his last season in Denver, along with his second All-Star selection, Mutombo was named to the All-Defensive Second Team in 1995. This is a bit of odd distinction considering he won the first of his four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards that season.
Mutombo is still the franchise’s all-time leader in blocks (1,488) and ranks second in rebounds (4,811), less than 900 behind Issel’s 5,707, despite playing in 327 fewer games as a Nugget.