20 Most Pivotal Moments in Denver Nuggets History
Dikembe Mutombo cries in joy after the No. 8 Nuggets upset the No. 1 Seattle SuperSonics in 1994.
Every professional sports team has experienced them. Those times in which the franchise is changed, for better or worse.
They can usher in new eras or end them. They can come with the addition, or subtraction, of key players. They can signal a high or low point in the team's history.
The Denver Nuggets are a team rich with history, and like any other franchise, have gone through many pivotal moments over their 44 years of existence.
This list looks at the most impactful and important pivotal moments in Nuggets history.
Trading for Nick Van Exel
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In the late 90s through the early 2000s, the Nuggets were a terrible team. But one player was there to bring energy and life to Denver, Nick Van Exel.
Nick "the Quick" wasn't the most fundamentally sound player, and he shot far too much to be considered a traditional point guard, but the guy could flat-out score. He averaged 17.9 points per game in his four years with the Nuggets, second at the time to only Antonio McDyess.
Van Exel, with his rogue nature, brought excitement to the hardwood with his pull-up threes and step-back jumpshots.
Hiring Dan Issel
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The Horse, of course, was known for his physical play on the court.
And after he retired, Issel brought that toughness to coaching.
Issel yelled and got on his players, but he was also adept at getting the most out of them, leading the young Nuggs to the playoffs in 1994.
He was the reason Denver ended their four-year playoff drought, and he gave the team confidence to know they could upset the Seattle SuperSonics that year in the first round.
1976 Dunk Contest
David Thompson in the 1976 Dunk Contest.
This was not only a pivotal point for the Nuggets, but for the spectacle of basketball in general.
In 1976, the ABA held the first ever Dunk Contest, pitting the Nuggets' David "Skywalker" Thompson against Julius "Dr. J" Erving in Denver's McNichols Arena.
The Skywalker was spectacular, but Dr. J won the contest with the first ever free-throw line dunk (no it wasn't Michael Jordan), and now, the tradition lives on today.
1976 All-Star Game
Besides beginning the Dunk Contest, Denver (and the ABA) are known for creating an entertaining All-Star Game.
The Nuggets faced off against stars from all across the ABA, and the league made an entire weekend of the event, adding the halftime show of the Dunk Contest while paving the way for what we know as All Star weekend.
It was the birth of the best All-Star Game in all professional sports.
Hiring of Larry Brown
Larry Brown (right) with a young Doug Moe (left) on the Nuggets bench in the mid-70s.
Larry Brown is one of the winningest head coaches in all of basketball, one of seven to win over 1,000 games.
Brown led the ABA Nuggets as one of the most successful teams in that now-defunct league, as they won 60-plus games in his two years (65, 60).
Under Brown, the Nuggets made it to the last ever ABA Finals, the deepest they have ever gone into the postseason, and faced Dr. J's Nets.
1976 ABA Finals
The Nuggets and Nets fight over a losse ball during the 1976 ABA Finals.
Denver, led by David Thompson, Dan Issel and Larry Brown, made it to the ABA Finals in the league's final year of existence.
The Nuggets went 60-24 that season and defeated the Kentucky Colonels in seven games to make it to the finals. And while they lost to Dr. J's Nets 4-2, Denver basketball was put on the map nationally due to that series.
Drafting Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
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Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was an incredibly interesting player.
Entering the league, he was Mark Jackson, but he adopted Islam and changed his name.
What he didn't change was his innate ability to hit threes and calmly led the league in free-throw shooting despite having turrets and twitching wildly while he played.
Abdul-Rauf averaged 18 points and 4.5 assists per game in 1993-94 as he and the Nuggets made the playoffs and eventually upset the Seattle SuperSonics.
Drafting Dikembe Mutombo
Does anything else need to be said?
Mt. Mutombo was as dominant a defensive force the NBA has ever seen.
He won four Defensive Player of the Year Awards, one with the Nuggets, averaging 3.7 blocks per game in his five years in the Mile High City.
Mutombo gave the team defense in the paint, and he was undoubtedly a huge reason why they went to the playoffs in 1994-95.
And who can forget the massive Mutombo crying on the floor after the first-round win?
Trading for Marcus Camby
A big time Camby block.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
When the Nuggets traded for Marcus Camby in 2002, they brought in the best defender Denver had seen since the days of Dikembe Mutombo.
Camby was an beast of a blocker, leading the league three seasons with Denver; he was the backbone of the Nuggets' defense.
He was so dominant, the "Camby Man" won Defensive Player of the Year in 2006-07, and he was instrumental in five of the Nuggs' playoff years.
Drafting David Thompson
The famed "Skywalker" was loved by fans for his ability to jump sky high and score high.
Thompson threw down demonstrative dunks but could shoot well too.
He was a dynamic player and so talented he was drafted No. 1 in both the NBA (Atlanta Hawks) and ABA (Denver).
Thompson chose the lesser league in the ABA, and it was lucky for Denver he did, because without the Skywalker's phenomenal play, the team would have likely crumbled to oblivion with the ABA instead of moving up.
He was so electric in his scoring that Thompson went down to the wire with George Gervin in 1977-78, which became the closest scoring title race in the history of the league. Thompson scored 73 in the last game of the season, but Gervin scored 63 and his average (27.22 PPG) was a mere 0.07 better than the Skywalker's 27.15.
Thompson was also the first ever player to be an All-Star in the NBA and ABA, and the Nuggets retired his jersey No. 33 in 1992.
Hiring Doug Moe
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Was there ever a coach that was more of a character than Doug Moe?
Moe was loud, and so were his clothes, yet he held the respect and admiration of his players.
Moe's Nuggets were deadly scoring machines that literally ran teams out of Denver. Alex English took opponents to school with his superb scoring abilities, Fat Lever ran the break and an older Dan Issel played his heart out.
The Moe-led Nuggets enjoyed their most successful stretch in franchise history, winning 432 games under him and going to two Western Conference finals.
Trading for Alex English
Alex English is arguably the greatest Denver Nuggets player ever.
English played 10 years in the Mile High City, and he led the team in scoring every year but his first.
Alex English could drive, shoot the mid-range jumper and even play down low in the block. He was so spectacular that English was selected to eight straight All-Star Games (1982-1989), all with the Nuggets, and he was a main reason the team went to their Western Conference finals appearance against the Lakers in 1985.
Trading for Chauncey Billups
Billups led and pushed Melo to be his best.
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Without Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets would not have made the 2009 Western Conference finals.
Yes, the entire makeup of the team is why they played at such a high caliber that season, but Billups was the floor general Denver dearly needed.
That season, Billups was given the keys to the offense by George Karl, and the veteran point guard expected everyone to listen. He called out plays and called out his teammates when they didn't listen.
But when they realized Billups was right, the Nuggets played spectacularly. And "Mr. Big Shot" performed at a high level himself despite being older, scoring 17.9 points per game, with 6.4 assists per.
2004: Last Games Playoff Push
Melo vs. LeBron in 2004.
The late 1990s and early 2000s brought a playoff drought of seven straight years in Denver, but it all began to turn around in 2003-04.
With Carmelo Anthony, Nene and Marcus Camby, the Nuggets had the talent to once again compete, and they made it into the postseason.
What got them there though was a late-season push, winning five of their last seven games to just edge out the Portland TrailBlazers. And while they lost in the first round, all that mattered in the Mile High was that their basketball team wasn't terrible anymore.
2009 Western Conference Finals
Making the 2009 Western Conference finals was a validation moment for Carmelo Anthony, George Karl and the Nuggets franchise.
Despite making the playoffs in five straight seasons, the Nuggets hadn't advanced past the first round in 15 years until 2009, and they ran through the Hornets (4-1) and Mavericks (4-1) before coming up against the league leading Los Angeles Lakers.
Melo finally won in the playoffs. Karl took a team deep into the playoffs for the first time in forever. And Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin proved they still could be key pieces to a very good team.
Denver knew they were outmatched by the Lakers, but they gave it their best efforts, stealing Game 2 in LA and tying the series up at 1-1. After giving up Game 3, the Nuggets won in convincing fashion (120-101) to tie it again, this time at 2-2.
But the Lakers dominated from there on out, and eventually won 4-2, eventually winning the NBA championship over Orlando 4-1.
1985: First Western Conference Finals
Alex English lays it up against the Lakers in the WCF.
The 1984-85 Denver Nuggets were all about scoring, and they did so with ease, leading the league at 120 points per game.
Denver's scoring champion by Alex English's 27.9 points per game, followed closely by Calvin Natt's 23.3, while the short and fast Fat Lever pushed the pace and distributed the ball to the numerous Nuggets scorers.
Doug Moe had his team run opponents ragged, and it got the Nuggets all the way to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Hiring George Karl
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The Nuggets had done well in collecting talent in Carmelo Anthony, Nene and Marcus Camby; they only needed a stern coach to handle them all.
Denver brought in George Karl midway through the 2004-05 season, and he turned the team around in a hurry. The Nuggs were underachieving under Jeff Bzdelik so he was fired, and Denver went an amazing 32-8 under Karl in his first season.
It was the first of seven straight seasons in the playoffs for the Nuggets under Karl—including four straight 50-win seasons—a streak that continues currently. And Karl's Nuggets also made it to the Western Conference finals in 2009, only to fall to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers (deja vu?).
Karl used to be one of the toughest coaches in the league, but he's softened his stance a bit in recent years while continuing to have the respect of (most of) his much younger players.
Karl now enters his second era, post-Melo, and many are interested what he will do with the opportunity.
Trading Away Carmelo Anthony
Melo, now as a Knick.
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The Melo Megadeal of 2010-11 will live on in infamy for Nuggets fans.
It dragged out over the course of the entire season, and in the end, a move had to be made.
Denver traded away their two stars in the deal—both Carmelo Anthony and hometown hero Chauncey Billupsand it marked the end of the Melo era in the Mile High City.
The Nuggets got back five young players (Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov) and got back what they believed to be maximum value for the superstar that wanted to play in the Big Apple.
1976: Accepted into the NBA
Dan Issel shooting circa 1976.
The Nuggets were so stellar under Brown that when the ABA was absorbed by the NBA in 1976, Denver was chosen as one of four teams to move up and into the NBA.
If it weren't for this extremely important moment, there would have never been an NBA Nuggets team, nor one still today.
Drafting Carmelo Anthony
Anthony walks through the Pepsi Center crowd in his first game as a Nugget.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
In the days approaching the 2003 draft, there were, what looked like, two superstar-quality players, and the Nuggets picked third.
Melo was an amazing addition, a pivotal point of utmost importance, as Denver went to the playoffs in seven straight seasons with him scoring the lights out.
Anthony could shoot or drive off his patented jab-step, and he even developed his outside shooting touch as he grew into a true superstar.
Melo took the Nuggets to the Western Conference finals in 2009, but they fell short, just as they did in each of the other six playoff years.
8 over 1
Mutombo, Issel and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf were catalysts to the Nuggets making the playoffs in 1993-94—a young team not expected to do so in the first place. Each played a roll in the first-round win.
Abdul-Rauf knocked down threes and free throws (93.5 percent), Mutombo played incredible defense and Issel taught them how to win. He was a teacher and leader of young men (the starting five only averaged 2.6 years in the league).
And even though no one gave them a chance, the No. 8 Nuggets upset the No. 1 Seattle SuperSonics 3-2, a team that featured Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf.
At the end of the series-clinching contest, Dikembe Mutombo cried with joy and so did many Denver diehards.
It was the first time in the history of the NBA that the lowest-seeded team beat the top team, and the Nuggets nearly pulled off another awe-inspiring upset by taking the Utah Jazz to seven games in the Western Conference Semis.
Rich Kurtzman is a freelance journalist actively seeking a career in journalism. Along with being your CSU Rams Examiner, Kurtzman writes for Blake Street Bulletin, Stadium Journey, Bleacher Report and Swoosh Nation.
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