Ranking the Top 25 Players in Denver Nuggets History

Nick Juskewycz@@NickJuskewyczContributor IIIAugust 16, 2013

Ranking the Top 25 Players in Denver Nuggets History

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    The Denver Nuggets have gone through several ups and downs since they were called the Rockets as a member of the ABA in 1967, but they have made the postseason 33 times in their 46-year history.

    In players who barely even experienced the NBA to guys still on the court today, the Nuggets have continuously found some of basketball's greatest competitors.

    There are a few factors to consider when ranking the top 25 Nuggets players of all time: 

    1. How much the player contributed statistically combined with how much his team won. It's important that he brought the production on a consistent basis, but it must have turned into team success on the floor.
    2. How many seasons or games the player spent in Denver. Some of the greatest players to put on a Nuggets jersey only did so for a limited amount of time, which ultimately lowers their grading. 
    3. How many All-Star appearances and NBA or ABA awards the player received. This can be the X-factor when deciding who is positioned higher between two players.

    Let's dive into nearly half a century of Nuggets hoops and figure out who made the top 25 and who is the No. 1 player.

    (All statistics and Nuggets records are courtesy of basketball-reference.com.)

Honorable Mentions

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    Allen IversonAveraged a franchise-best 42 minutes and second-best 25.6 points. However, Iverson never played two full seasons with the Nuggets.

    Bill Hanzlik: Played 593 games, which is the fifth most in team history.

    Bryant Stith: Denver's starting shooting guard for a good portion of the '90s. He scored 10.9 points per game.

    Dale Ellis: Ranks fourth all time with the Nuggets in three-pointers, converting 448 three-point field goals.

    Danny Schayes: The toughest decision to leave off the list. Schayes spent seven-and-a-half seasons with the Nuggets during the '80s, mostly starting at center. 

    Dave Robisch: Played four seasons with Denver in the ABA and another two-and-a-half years during the early '80s in the NBA. 

    George McGinnis: Averaged a magnificent 20 points and 11 rebounds, but only spent one-and-a-half seasons with the Nuggets.

    Ty LawsonOff to a fantastic start and will crack the top 25 next year at the pace Ty's on. 

25. Kenyon Martin (2004-2011)

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    For all the money the Nuggets gave the All-Rookie First Team selection, Kenyon Martin wasn't the luxurious No. 1 overall pick Denver fans were expecting.

    Nevertheless, the 2004 All-Star produced solid numbers for his seven years of service when he was healthy. He racked up 11.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.0 block per game. 

    Playing alongside Nenê Hilario, these thunderous big men always had the Denver fans jumping out of their seats. Whether he was rejecting a layup into the fifth row or throwing down an alley-oop pass with authority, the opposition always had to watch out for Martin's acrobatic skills.

    He might be a bust in some people's eyes, but the Nuggets made the playoffs each year Kenyon was on the team, and he is worthy of making the top 25.

24. Wayne Cooper (1984-1989)

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    While Alex English, Fat Lever and T.R. Dunn were running the show on the outside in the '80s, Wayne Cooper was the big man inside protecting the rim.

    Cooper's five seasons with the Nuggets were some of his best, including the first year, when they made the 1985 Western Conference Finals. He posted 12.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game that year.

    Denver acquired Cooper as part of a walloping trade with the Portland Trail Blazers that also brought in Lever and Calvin Natt. Wayne earned the starting center spot immediately and kept it for 324 of his 351 games.

    The Nuggets made the postseason all five years Cooper was on the team, and while they were widely recognized as an offensive juggernaut, his presence on the defensive end helped them become a consistent playoff team. 

23. J.R. Smith (2006-2011)

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    J.R. Smith was the perfect sixth man for the Nuggets.

    When Carmelo Anthony needed a breather, Smith came in full steam ahead. He created his own shot off the dribble, had unthinkable range and couldn't be stopped when he caught fire. 

    Smith only needed five seasons to annihilate the all-time Nuggets three-point record with 768 made attempts. While Smith scored 13.7 points per game and shot 38.2 percent from behind the arc, when he went on a hot streak, it was one of the most thrilling short-term performances you could find on a basketball court.

    While making the postseason all five years, Smith played a significant role on the 2008-09 squad that made the Western Conference Finals.

22. Reggie Williams (1990-1995)

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    As the Nuggets exited the glory days of the '80s, they were in need of someone with experience who could score on the perimeter and in the post. Reggie Williams was the guy.

    The San Antonio Spurs sent Williams to Denver, and he took over the starting spot at the 3. Before taking a limited role in the 1995-96 season, Reggie averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.6 steals per game.

    Williams particularly made his mark in Nuggets history during the 1994 playoffs. Denver knocked off the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics, and it was the first time a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 8 seed in NBA history.

    While Williams was the guy who could do a little bit of everything, his 632 steals and 301 three-pointers rank sixth and ninth, respectively, in Nuggets history. 

21. Calvin Natt (1984-1989)

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    Calvin Natt arrived in Denver at the perfect time.

    The Portland Trail Blazers shipped Natt to the Nuggets before the 1984-85 season to team up with Alex English, and they succeeded instantly by making the Western Conference Finals. It was only the second time the Nuggets made the game and the first time since eight teams from each conference qualified for the playoffs.

    During that season, the 1985 All-Star posted 23.3 points on 54.6 percent shooting to go with 7.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. 

    After that, injuries forced Calvin's numbers to decline and he only played in 42 games of his final two-and-a-half seasons with the Nuggets. This started an unfortunate trend to Denver's power forwards for years to come. 

    Natt was eventually traded to the San Antonio Spurs, but for how much of an influence he had in getting the Nuggets deep into the postseason, he earns the No. 21 ranking.

20. Nick Van Exel (1998-2002)

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    Nick Van Exel only registered three-and-a-half years with the Nuggets, but his diverse point guard skills made him difficult to stop. He had superb quickness, made phenomenal passes and is perhaps the greatest three-point shooting point guard to ever play in Denver.

    In just 245 games with the Nuggets, Van Exel launched himself to currently the fifth-most made three-pointers with 425. His averages included 17.7 points while dishing out 8.4 assists per game.

    Van Exel grabbed a lot of people's attention when he shot free throws over a foot behind the line; yet, he still made 81 percent of his attempts.  

    Denver struggled massively during the Van Exel, era and if he didn't requested a trade that he later regretted, according to Mark J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports, Van Exel could've been significantly higher on the list.

19. LaPhonso Ellis (1992-1998)

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    LaPhonso Ellis didn't live up to the hype of being a fifth-overall pick, but despite a grueling knee injury, he was still one of Denver's best players in the mid-'90s. 

    After earning All-Rookie First Team honors, Ellis racked up 15.2 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in six seasons with the Nuggets. 

    Since Ellis had the luxury of playing next to Dikembe Mutombo, opponents were forced to deal with one of the liveliest frontcourts in the league.

    However, Ellis maintained a high-flying motor that couldn't be matched and had the more polished offensive game. He could take defenders off the dribble and was draining three-pointers by the 1996-97 season.

18. Michael Adams (1987-1991)

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    Similar to Van Exel, Michael Adams had a short four-year run with the Nuggets, but he made the most of it.

    With averaging 18.2 points, 7.2 assists and 2.0 steals per game, Adams constantly pushed the ball on offense while showing his tenacity on defense. Adams' best year came in the 1990-91 season, when he posted a daunting 26.5 points, 10.5 assists and 2.2 steals per game. 

    Adams had tremendous vision and could get into the lane with ease, but his range was perhaps the most impressive given his awkward shooting motion. He's currently second all time in Nuggets history from three with 630 makes, fourth in assists with 2,181 dimes, and ninth in steals with 602 takeaways.

    Even though his stay in Denver was short, Adams played 34.9 minutes, which is the eighth most for a Nuggets career.

17. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (1990-1996)

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    When Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was selected third overall in the 1990 draft, he was primarily a role player off the Nuggets bench.

    Then the point guard landed the full-time job in the 1992-93 season and earned NBA Most Improved Player with his career-high 19.2 points.

    Abdul-Rauf's NBA career didn't last long, but he is the most accurate free-throw shooter in Nuggets history at 91.6 percent, and he racked up a franchise-eighth-best 7,029 points in six seasons. In the 1993-94 campaign, Abdul-Rauf shot 95.6 percent from the line and fell short of (at the time) the all-time free-throw NBA-season record by one miss.

    While Abdul-Rauf was a superbly accurate shooter, he also had great talent getting into the lane to take high-percentage shots while finding his open teammates as well.

16. Antonio McDyess (1995-1997, 1999-2002)

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    Antonio McDyess went through a rough career battling injuries, but luckily for the Nuggets, they got his best years.

    He had an immediate impact by earning All-Rookie First Team honors with his prolific offensive game, rebounding talents and defensive skills. McDyess averaged 18.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in his six seasons, and his 604 total blocks ranks seventh in franchise history.

    Another asset McDyess possessed was that he always got the crowd involved and let his game do the talking. He came down in transition and did his monstrous right-handed slam, while also blocking shots that seemed unreachable anywhere on the defensive end.

    McDyess was an All-NBA Third Team selection in 1999 and made the All-Star Game in 2001. 

15. Andre Miller (2003-2006, 2011-Present)

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    The ageless Andre Miller may have lost some of his speed, but he's still dishing out assists like he's in his prime.

    Miller is in his second stint with the Nuggets and currently sits third on the all-time Nuggets assist list with 2,878 dimes. In five-and-a-half seasons, he only missed 16 games during the 2011-12 campaign.

    Right when the 2002 assist leader's career started peaking, Miller came in at the same time as Carmelo Anthony to run the offense in 2003. His scoring and distribution skills contributed to three consecutive playoff appearances and the Northwest Division title in the 2005-06 season.

    After spending time with the Philadelphia 76ers and Portland Trail Blazers, Miller returned to his former team as a backup to future star point guard Ty Lawson. Miller's experience off the bench was crucial for a team that just went through the 'Melo blockbuster trade, and he racked up nearly as many assists as he did in his first run with Denver, despite playing eight fewer minutes.

    Miller's career averages with the Nuggets are 12.4 points, 6.9 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He was also an All-Rookie First Team selection.

14. Chauncey Billups (1999-2000, 2008-2011)

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    It didn't look like Chauncey Billups and the Nuggets would have much of a future together after two partial seasons, but when he returned healthy to join a much-improved Denver squad, that notion changed.

    Chauncey started all 201 games his second time around and his championship experience helped the Nuggets get past the postseason hurdle of the first round in the 2008-09 campaign. During the playoff run to the Western Conference Finals, Billups was brilliant with 20.6 points, 6.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game. 

    In his Nuggets career, Billups is second all time in shooting 91.2 percent from the free-throw line and third in three-pointers made with 514 conversions. He also made two All-Star appearances, was an All-NBA Third Team selection and received the 2009 NBA Sportsmanship Award.

    Had Billups been able to play near a full season in his first two years with the Nuggets, he would've had a shot at the top 10.

13. T.R. Dunn (1980-1988, 1989-1991)

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    T.R. Dunn may not have the statistics that jump off the page, but he was a vital player to Denver's success in the '80s. 

    While Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe and Fat Lever were scoring machines, Dunn was locking down opponents defensively. With the uptempo style of play the Nuggets emphasized and for playing 10 seasons in Denver, Dunn's motor was particularly impressive.

    With 734 games and 18,322 minutes logged, those rank fourth and fifth in Nuggets history, respectively. Dunn is also one of the best guards Denver has ever seen on the glass, as he pulled down a current 10th-best 3,496 boards and a sixth-best 1,359 offensive rebounds.

    As a three-time All-Defensive Second Team selection that was part of seven Nuggets playoff teams, Dunn is one of the most underrated players in franchise history.

12. Nenê Hilario (2002-2012)

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    After being selected to the All-Rookie Team in 2003, Nenê's career flourished when the Nuggets surged to the top half of the Western Conference. With Carmelo as the dominant scorer, Miller and Billups as the point guards and standing next to Marcus Camby, Nenê had the necessary pieces to succeed. 

    Considering that he wasn't the go-to person, and he went through multiple injuries and dealt with his cancer scare, Nenê's career statistics with the Nuggets are astonishing.

    In posting 12.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals and just under 1.0 block in his nine-and-a-half seasons (only played one game in one of those seasons because of his knee injury), Nenê currently sits at a seventh-best 555 games, ninth-best 6,688 points, seventh-best 3,859 rebounds, fifth-best 694 steals and ninth-best 504 blocks in franchise history.

    By missing only a handful of games in his last three-and-a-half seasons, his comeback is an achievement most power forwards haven't been able to do in the team's history.

    The numbers aren't staggering, but Nenê's athleticism and constant knack for contributing on both ends of the floor is indicative of why the Nuggets haven't had a losing season since his rookie year. 

11. Ralph Simpson (1970-1976, 1978)

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    Ralph Simpson spent a vast majority of his gratifying basketball career in Denver.

    As one of the primary scorers, he set multiple milestones with the franchise in his six-and-a-half seasons. Currently, those all-time Nuggets rankings are a fifth-best 10,130 points, seventh-best 1,950 assists and ninth-best 519 games.

    Between his time wearing a Rockets and Nuggets uniform in Denver, Simpson scored 19.5 points per game and was an excellent complement to Byron Beck and Bobby Jones. Ralph also bagged 9,953 of his points during the ABA stint, which is a franchise record.

    The five-time ABA All-Star was an All-ABA First Team selection and a two-time All-ABA Second Team pick.

10. Kiki Vandeweghe (1980-1984)

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    Kiki Vandeweghe's time in Denver only lasted four seasons, and he may not have been the best player on the team at the time, but the two-time All-Star was a magnificent scorer.

    After averaging a mere 11.5 points his rookie year, Vandeweghe developed a step-back jumper that was nearly impossible to stop. It continued to work to the point that he scored 29.4 points in the 1983-84 season. 

    Having a shooter like Vandeweghe gave Alex English and their teammates enough support in starting one of the deadliest uptempo offenses in basketball.

    Unfortunately for Vandeweghe, he didn't have the greatest career numbers with the Nuggets since he was the bargaining chip for Fat Lever, Calvin Natt and Wayne Cooper. However, he did score 23.3 points per game and maintain a PER of 20.1. Both of those marks are sixth in Nuggets history. 

9. Bobby Jones (1974-1978)

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    Even though he was a sixth man, Bobby Jones is the greatest defender in Nuggets history.

    While spending his first four seasons with Denver, Jones averaged 2.0 steals and 1.9 blocks. He's currently fourth on the all-time Nuggets blocks list with 625 and sixth in steals with 660.

    Those kinds of numbers combined with his 8.6 rebounds per game and relentless energy earned Jones two ABA and two NBA All-Defensive First Team selections.

    Jones turned his defensive efforts into offensive production as well, scoring 14.8 points on 58.3 percent shooting. He had a huge wingspan and great fundamentals and never quit on a play.

    While he was in Denver, Bobby made ABA All-Rookie First Team, All-ABA Second Team and two NBA All-Star teams. He made the postseason all four years, including an ABA Finals appearance and the franchise's first Western Conference Finals. 

    With his positive, selfless attitude, he is still regarded as one of the great leaders and role models in professional basketball history.

8. Marcus Camby (2002-2008)

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    Coming in after great shot-blockers like McDyess and Mutombo, Marcus Camby was the force inside that the Nuggets needed to compete against the Shaquille O'Neals and Tim Duncans of the West.

    In six seasons with the Nuggets, Camby grabbed double-digit rebounds in five of those years while averaging a double-double in three. On top of that, he racked up an average of three blocks per game throughout his Denver career.

    This consistency ranks Camby sixth on the all-time Nuggets rebound list with 4,117 boards and second in blocks with 1,126 rejections.

    Camby led the league in blocks from 2006 to 2008 and was rewarded with two All-Defensive First Team selections, two All-Defensive Second Team honors and the 2007 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. 

    After the Nuggets sent McDyess to the New York Knicks for Camby, the pieces started falling in place for the resurgence of the franchise.

7. Byron Beck (1967-1977)

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    As the first player to ever have his jersey retired by the Nuggets, Byron Beck was the pioneer who jump-started Denver basketball.

    Beck played all 10 years in Colorado's capital, nine in the ABA and one in the NBA. By totaling 747 contests, Beck ranks third for most games played in Denver and is second all time in ABA history.

    The two-time ABA All-Star dominated the glass and is second all-time in Denver rebounds with 5,261 boards. Offensively, he crushed opponents with his hook shot and is sixth on the franchise's all-time scoring list with 8,603 points.

    Beck finished his 10-year career averaging 11.5 points on 50.5 percent shooting to go with his 7.0 rebounds per game. Between the ABA and NBA, he brought Denver four division titles.

6. Dikembe Mutombo (1991-1996)

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    No one protected the rim for the Nuggets like Dikembe Mutombo did in the early 1990s. 

    Denver selected Mutombo with the fourth-overall pick in 1991, and he quickly started swatting shots into the stands. He only played five years with the Nuggets, but Dikembe reached 1,496 blocks and is still the all-time leader in franchise history.

    He was also a force on the glass, having ripped down 4,811 boards, which is third best on the all-time Nuggets rebounding list. Considering he did that over just five seasons, Mutombo's effectiveness can't be overstated. 

    Mutombo started every game of his Denver career and grabbed everyone's attention when he stuffed the Seattle SuperSonics at the rim in the first round of the 1994 playoffs. He blocked 31 shots in the five-game series for an NBA playoffs record.

    During his early run with the Nuggets, Mutombo was selected for the All-Rookie First Team, earned the 1995 Defensive Player of the Year and was the blocks leader from 1994 to 1996. He's currently second on the NBA all-time blocks list with 3,289 rejections.

5. Lafayette Lever (1984-1990)

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    Lafayette "Fat" Lever is the most dynamic point guard to put on a Nuggets uniform. 

    Lever joined Denver for the 1984-85 season and made the playoffs in all six seasons he was with the team. The 6'3" phenom put up 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game during his stay.

    With his triple-double threat playing alongside English, Dunn and Natt, opponents had nightmares.

    As good as Lever was on offense, he was just as good defensively. He is the Nuggets' all-time leader in steals with 1,167 takeaways and had no problem taking on the elite point guards of the '80s.

    With these skills on both ends of the floor, Lever was a two-time All-Star and was named to the All-NBA Second Team in 1987 and All-Defensive Second Team in 1988.

4. Dan Issel (1975-1985)

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    He may not have jumped out of the gym, but Dan Issel is the best center to ever play for the Nuggets.

    Issel pulled down 6,630 rebounds in his 10 seasons with Denver, which is 1,369 more than Beck's second-place ranking. Issel also ranks second in scoring with 16,589 points.

    He was only 6'9", but Issel was a gigantic force in establishing position in the post and running the floor in transition. He had great hands and touch at the rim, used his nifty footwork to get good looks at the basket, and made a living at the free-throw line with 6.8 attempts at 79.3 percent.

    This led to the second-highest career PER in Nuggets history at 21.1.

    After Issel's playing days were over, he became a broadcaster for the Nuggets and was later hired as the team's head coach from 1992 to 1994 and 1999 to 2001. This included coaching the Nuggets team that defeated the No. 1 SuperSonics in the first round.

    Issel became a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 and is No. 9 on the all-time ABA/NBA scoring list with 27,482 points. While with Denver, he made the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, the 1977 NBA All-Star Game and was an All-ABA Second Team pick.

3. Carmelo Anthony (2003-2011)

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    After making one of the worst draft decisions in team history by selecting Nikoloz Tskitishvili fifth overall in 2002, the Nuggets struck gold with Carmelo Anthony with the third pick in 2003.

    Before Anthony's arrival, Denver hadn't been to the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, but the Nuggets have made the postseason every year since. Even though 'Melo was traded to the New York Knicks in the middle of the 2010-11 season, his value gave the Nuggets the pieces to continue competing for the Northwest Division title.

    Anthony started every game he played and posted 24.8 points and 36.4 minutes per contest with Denver. 'Melo led the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, an accomplishment that's only happened two other times for the franchise.

    It only took Anthony seven-and-a-half seasons to reach 13,970 points, which is third best in Nuggets history. With his ability to shoot from the outside, create his own shot and finish in traffic, there hasn't been a more versatile scorer in Denver.

    After receiving All-Rookie First Team honors, 'Melo was a four-time All-Star, an All-NBA Second Team choice and a three-time All-NBA Third Team pick.

2. David Thompson (1975-1982)

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    David Thompson was one of the most explosive guards to ever play the game.

    After winning the Naismith College Player of the Year in 1975, he instantly shined with the Denver in its last year with the ABA. With his 26.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, Thompson earned the title of ABA Rookie of the Year, and All-ABA Second Team and ABA All-Star Game MVP honors

    Thompson showed everyone he was the real deal. 

    Serving as one of the players Michael Jordan looked up to, Thompson had one of the best verticals in the game. When he came down the middle of the lane, the Skywalker looked to posterize anyone who got in his way. 

    In the six seasons after Denver moved to the NBA, Thompson was a three-time NBA All-Star, MVP of the 1979 All-Star Game and a two-time All-NBA First Team selection. 

    Thompson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996 and is one of only five players to score more than 70 points in a game. 

1. Alex English (1980-1990)

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    There have been many phenomenal players in Nuggets history, but no one has had a bigger impact on the franchise than Alex English.

    English spent a little over three-and-a-half years between the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers, although he hadn't found his groove with either team and the Pacers shipped him to Denver during the 1979-80 season.

    After producing 21.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per contest for the final 24 games of the regular season, English excelled with the Nuggets over the next decade. He was the perfect fit for Doug Moe's uptempo offense, which allowed him to develop into into one of the greatest scorers during the '80s.

    The eight-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA Second Team pick and 1983 scoring champion led the Nuggets to nine straight postseason appearances and a berth to the 1985 Western Conference Finals.

    The Nuggets have only made it back one other time since.

    Alex averaged 25.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game during his tenure in Denver and currently leads the Nuggets with 21,645 points, 2,038 offensive rebounds, 3,679 assists and 837 games. Considering there are no current Denver players in the top 10 in any of these categories, with the exception of Andre Miller on the assist list (801 behind English), English's records should hold for quite some time.

    In becoming the first player to ever record eight-consecutive seasons with at least 2,000 points, English was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997. He's currently 13th on the NBA all-time scoring list with 25,613 points.

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