Denver Nuggets Move to the Semifinals: Thoughts After Historic Round One

Rich Kurtzman@@RichKurtzman Senior Analyst IMay 1, 2009

It has been what seems to be an eternity since the Denver Nuggets won a playoff series—15 years to be exact—until they finally acheived the feat Wednesday night against an inferior New Orleans team.

A decade and a half is a long time to go without a winning basketball team. During that span, Denverites saw a doubling of gas prices, the dramatic rise and fall of the stock market, and three different Presidents, including Barack Obama's Demohcratic Natonial Convention held in their Nuggets' masterpiece of architecture, the Pepsi Center.

However, two things stayed constant in Denver through the '90s and into most of the 2000s—the winter would bring snow and the Nuggets' feeble attempts to play basketball.

Growing up in Denver, the Nuggets were my only favorite team in childhood, but it came at a price. I was nine the last time Denver won a playoff series, too young to grasp the importance of their historic win, the first eight-over-one-seed upset in NBA history.

Not too young, however, to have kids make fun of your favorite team.

It wasn't the first time I watched the Nuggets, but definitely the time I fell in love with them, and the NBA.

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The 1993-94 Nuggets that beat the Sonics 3-2 in the playoffs that year were a dynamic bunch of young, talented players.

The team centered around Dikembe Mutombo, their defensive and rebounding specialist. Alongside Mutombo was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a great passer and free-throw shooter, and second-year players LaPhonso Ellis and Bryant Stith. Head coach Dan Issel, former Nuggets great and Hall-of-Famer, was a hard-nosed leader, and very vocal in his approach.

After losing in the second round in '94, Denver again lost in '95 as Issel was fired midseason, and Bernie Bickerstaff took over as coach. Bickerstaff, who was also the GM at the time, soon became to be known as a curse word in Denver.

Bernie "Bickerstaffed" the Nuggets, making a fire sale of the team, and seemingly starting over from the beginning.

Gone was Mutombo, on the top of his game, fresh off winning his first NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. Rauf, Denver's twitchy point guard, was traded away to the Kings. Ellis injured his knee and would miss the majority of the next few seasons.

Following the Nuggets' last playoff runs were desperate times indeed. In the 1997-98 season Denver flirted with the NBA record for fewest wins in a season (11), but narrowly escaped the dubious feat. The Nuggets continued to be the laughing stock of the league as from 1997 to 2002, Denver averaged only 25 wins per season.

The worst-case scenario occurred in Denver, a great sports city—the city named the best in the country in 1998 by The Sporting News. Denver lost interest with the NBA.

Fans became disinterested with huge egos, contracts, and the "better buy a program" lineup year after year. Even a beautiful new stadium could not attract fans to the game, but I stayed true.

I once sat row BB (second row) at Pepsi Center in 2002, why? One of my friends' mom worked at the Denver Post, which gave away the tickets to anyone in the office, but no one would take them. She called me, as I was the only Nuggets fan she could think of, and we went.

Then things started to get interesting. GM Kiki Vandewege traded veteran Antonio McDyess for Marcus Camby and Nene Hillario. The move began a true rebuilding period, and after a horrible season, the Nuggets were set to pick third after the NBA's draft lottery.

Again, fate seemed to be laughing in the Nuggets' faces as, to their bad fortune, there were only two great players in the draft, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony.

A wrench was thrown into the equation as a young European phenom, Darko Milicic, was drafted second by Detroit, after James, but before Anthony.

At long last a ray of sunshine shone down on the Rocky Mountains and on Denver. Carmelo Anthony became a Denver Nugget in 2003, after winning an NCAA championship the year before.  The Nuggets went to the playoffs, but were beaten handily.

In 2005, George Karl was hired, as Denver finished with a flurry and made the playoffs again, but lost. For the next three years, the Nuggets made the playoffs, many times the eighth seed up against odds too large to overcome, and lost.

The rosters changed around 'Melo, Allen Iverson was even added, but Denver could not win in the postseason.

Then, at the beginning of this season, GMs Mark Warkentien and Rex Chapman had a combined stroke of genius as they traded the jaded Iverson for Denver native and experienced great Chauncey Billups.

Billups was the final piece of the puzzle that put the Nuggets back on top of the mountain once again. He is the shimmering gold piece in George Karl's pocket, a veteran willing to work with the coach and capable of great leadership on the floor.

Billups is the Yin to Karl's Yang. While Karl can be quiet at times, Billups is a vocal leader, pushing players to their fullest extent. Karl made a commitment to defense this season, but only Billups could instill the will in his teammates to fulfill that promise. Billups even came to Karl before the playoffs and told the coach the Nuggets needed another under-the-basket inbounds play. The play is now in place.

Now, the Nuggets, and their fans, can once again call themselves playoff winners.

No more with this talk of 'Melo having the "T-Mac Curse", not being able to get out of the first round. No more questioning if the Nuggets need a new coach, as Karl won for Denver in the playoffs. No more wondering if the Nuggets were ever going to win in the playoffs again, or if they would forever be vexed by Bickerstaff's shady moves.

The Nuggets have just drubbed the Hornets 4-1, outscoring them in the process by 111 combined points. Denver played superior basketball and demonstrated they have much more talent, and depth than the Hornets. Their physical, aggressive play was a new facet for Denver—and if it continues, will give any team fits.

The key player of the series was easily Chauncey Billups, as he dominated Chris Paul, and led the Nuggets to commanding victories all but one game.

Next up for the Nuggets is the Dallas Mavericks, who finished off the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, also winning 4-1. Originally it looked like Dallas and Denver would meet in the first round, and a series preview can be seen here.

But, much has changed since I wrote that piece some three weeks ago. The Mavericks have gotten very hot, and are in a better position than they were entering the playoffs. Actually, their hot play jumped them out of seventh and into sixth place the final day of the regular season, giving Dallas an easier matchup.

Denver too is hot, winning 18 of their last 24, and the Nuggets beat Dallas 4-0 in the season series. Although all the games were close, and Josh Howard missed two of the battles, the Nuggets are still the better team. Denver's depth and talent overall give them the advantage in this series.

Look for Denver to once again win, making more history, winning in six, 4-2.