Discover more from Statitudes
In a Box: Denver Nuggets
A snapshot look at the history of the Denver Nuggets.
My favorite sports writer, the incomparable Bill James, has used the “In a Box” concept in several of his books. Basically what James does is choose a topic (e.g., a baseball manager) and creates an idiosyncratic list of the topic’s defining features. I think the format works well for a Substack post, so today I’m going to give the “In a Box” treatment to the Denver Nuggets franchise.
The Denver Nuggets “In a Box”
Seasons: 47 (1976-77 through 2022-23)
Denver joined the NBA along with the Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, and San Antonio Spurs when the ABA and NBA merged in 1976. I’m going to focus on their NBA seasons in this post, but first I’ll say a few words about their ABA history.
The Nuggets were actually named the Denver Rockets when they joined the ABA for the league’s inaugural season in 1967-68. They were rebranded as the Nuggets prior to the 1974-75 season in anticipation of a move to the NBA, as Houston was already using the “Rockets” name.
Although they never won an ABA title, the Rockets/Nuggets made the playoffs in seven of the league’s nine seasons. Denver made the ABA Finals one time, falling to Julius Erving and the New York Nets 4-2 in the league’s final season. Those Nuggets were led by All-Star center Dan Issel and rookie sensation David Thompson.
W-L Record: 1,897-1,890 (.501)
That translates to a win-loss record of roughly 41-41 over an 82-game season. The Nuggets have finished with a winning record in 27 of their 47 seasons (57.4%).
The Nuggets have won at least 50 games 10 times and have claimed 10 division titles. They have recorded eight 50-loss seasons and finished in the division basement four times.
Home-Court Advantage: +.302 (.652 home, .350 away)
The Nuggets own the largest home-away differential of any franchise since the ABA-NBA merger, followed by the Utah Jazz at +.282. It’s probably not a coincidence that Denver (5,280 feet) and Salt Lake City (4,265 feet) are by far the two highest NBA cities by elevation. Oklahoma City is a distant third at 1,198 feet.
Playoff Appearances: 29 (61.7%)
The longest streak of playoff appearances in franchise history is 10 seasons from 2003-04 through 2012-13. The franchise’s longest playoff drought is eight seasons from 1995-96 through 2002-03.
Championships: 1 (2022-23)
The Nuggets played 46 seasons before winning their first NBA title, the most by any franchise prior to their first championship. The Cleveland Cavaliers rank second, taking home their first title in their 45th season (2015-16).
This post is unlocked for all subscribers. Sign up for Statitudes using the special link below and you’ll get your first 30 days for free. If you’re not satisfied with what you see, just cancel before the free trial expires and you won’t be charged.
Most Wins, Season: 57 (2012-13)
Piloted by Coach of the Year George Karl, the Nuggets finished second in the Northwest Division and third in the Western Conference. They were a balanced squad, led in scoring by guard Ty Lawson (16.7 PPG) and forward Danilo Gallinari (16.2 PPG).
The Nuggets were bounced in the first round of the NBA Playoffs by the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors, who were making their first playoff appearance of the Stephen Curry era. The Nuggets played the series without Gallinari, who had torn his ACL near the end of the regular season.
This ended up being Karl’s final season in Denver, as he was dismissed on June 6, 2013 after pushing for a contract extension. Karl is one of only four Coach of Year Award winners who did not coach the same team the following season:
Dolph Schayes, 1965-66 Philadelphia 76ers
Pat Riley, 1989-90 Los Angeles Lakers
George Karl, 2012-13 Denver Nuggets
Dwane Casey, 2017-18 Toronto Raptors
Riley resigned from the Lakers; the others were fired.
Most Losses, Season: 71 (1997-98)
The 1997-98 Nuggets are one of only six teams in NBA history to lose at least 70 games in a season:
Philadelphia 76ers (1972-73)
Los Angeles Clippers (1986-87)
Dallas Mavericks (1992-93)
Denver Nuggets (1997-98)
New Jersey Nets (2009-10)
Philadelphia 76ers (2015-16)
More on this team’s ineptitude below.
Best Season, Team: 2022-23
This is a no-brainer. During the regular season, the Nuggets finished with the best record in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history. They were led by the incomparable Nikola Jokic, who was the team’s runaway leader in points, rebounds, and assists.
Denver then went on an incredible playoff run, winning 16 of their 20 games (.800 winning percentage) to claim their first NBA title. Since the NBA expanded the First Round to best-of-seven series in 2003, only one team* has finished a postseason with a higher winning percentage: the 2017 Golden State Warriors (16-1, .941).
* The 2007 San Antonio Spurs also had a postseason record of 16-4.
Worst Season, Team: 1997-98
These Nuggets started the season by losing their first 12 games; lost a franchise-record 23 games in a row in December and January; and then dropped 16 consecutive games in February and March. They won-back-to-back games just once the entire season.
Denver’s schedule-adjusted point differential of –11.7 PPG that season is the fourth-worst such figure in NBA history:
–14.7 — Dallas Mavericks (1992-93)
–14.0 — Charlotte Bobcats (2011-12)
–12.0 — Cleveland Cavaliers (1970-71)
–11.7 — Denver Nuggets (1997-98)
–11.5 — Philadelphia 76ers (1972-73)
The 1997-98 Nuggets and 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats are the only teams in NBA history to score less than 90 PPG and allow more than 100 PPG.
Highest Scoring Average, Team: 126.5 (1981-82)
This figure is also the highest by any team in NBA history. Three Nuggets averaged at least 20 PPG that season: Alex English (25.4), Dan Issel (22.9), and Kiki VanDeWeghe (21.5). They are one of only three teams in NBA history to have three players who each scored at least 1,750 points. The others are the 1986-87 Seattle SuperSonics (Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers, and Xavier McDaniel) and the 1990-91 Golden State Warriors (Chris Mullin, Tim Hardaway, and Mitch Richmond).
The Nuggets averaged at least 120 PPG every season from 1980-81 through 1984-85, the longest such streak in NBA history. Only three other teams have averaged at least 120 PPG in a season since the merger:
1983-84 San Antonio Spurs (120.3)
2020-21 Milwaukee Bucks (120.1)
2022-23 Sacramento Kings (120.7)
Denver’s scoring average since entering the NBA is 107.6 PPG, tops among all teams over that span. The Phoenix Suns rank second at 107.1 PPG.
Lowest Scoring Average, Team: 84.2 (2002-03)
This is the second-lowest scoring average by a team in the shot-clock era, trailing only the 81.9 PPG put up by the Chicago Bulls in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. That was, of course, the first Bulls team of the post-Michael Jordan era.
The Nuggets scored at least 100 points just seven times that season. Only two other teams in the shot-clock era have recorded fewer such games in an 82-game season: the 1999-2000 Chicago Bulls (5) and the 2003-04 Utah Jazz (6).
Highest Scoring Average, Player: 29.8, Alex English (1985-86)
English scored at least 2,000 points each season from 1981-82 through 1988-89, the second-longest such streak in NBA history. Karl Malone holds the record with 11 consecutive 2,000-point seasons.
English’s eight 2,000-point seasons are one more than all other players in franchise history combined:
8 — Alex English
2 — David Thompson
2 — Kiki VanDeWeghe
1 — Carmelo Anthony
1 — Allen Iverson
1 — Nikola Jokic
Highest Rebounding Average, Player: 13.8, Nikola Jokic (2021-22)
Jokic led the NBA with 1,019 rebounds that season. He’s one of three Nuggets to record a 1,000-rebound season, the others being Dikembe Mutombo (twice) and Marcus Camby.
Highest Assist Average, Player: 12.3, Mark Jackson (1996-97)
Jackson’s career with the Nuggets consisted of just 52 games. On June 13, 1996, he was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Nuggets, then was sent back to Indiana on February 20, 1997. Jackson averaged at least 8.0 APG in a season for five different franchises, the most in NBA history.
The highest assist average by a player who spent a full season with the Nuggets is 10.5 APG by Michael Adams in 1990-91. Adams also averaged 26.5 PPG that season. At the time, he was just the third player in NBA history to average at least 25 PPG and 10 APG in a season, joining Oscar Robertson (five times) and Nate Archibald.
Most Points, Career: 21,645, Alex English
English is one of 23 players in NBA history to score at least 20,000 points for a single franchise. He’s one of 10 to also average at least 25 PPG with that franchise.
Most Rebounds, Career: 6,273, Nikola Jokic
Most Assists, Career: 3,959, Nikola Jokic
Jokic is one of only four players to be the career leader for an NBA franchise in both rebounds and assists. The others are Kevin Garnett (Minnesota Timberwolves), Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls), and LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers).
This one was pretty easy:
Guards — David Thompson and Fat Lever
Forwards — Alex English and Carmelo Anthony
Center — Nikola Jokic
Thompson was an efficient scoring machine until injuries and drug abuse brought his career to a premature end. Thompson had a career scoring average of 23.7 PPG with the Nuggets, shooting 50.6% from the field and 77.6% from the free throw line.
Although Lever stood just 6-feet-3-inches tall, he was a triple-double threat on a nightly basis. Lever ranks 11th in NBA history with 43 triple-doubles, all of which came as a Nugget. He averaged 17.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, and 7.5 APG in a Nuggets uniform.
English was a silky smooth bucket getter, averaging a franchise-record 25.9 PPG on 50.9% shooting from the floor and 84.0% accuracy from the charity stripe. He averaged at least 25.0 PPG each season from 1981-82 through 1988-89, earning an All-Star Game berth all eight seasons.
Anthony spent seven-plus seasons in Denver, leading the franchise to its third Western Conference Finals appearance in 2008-09. He averaged 24.8 PPG and 6.3 RPG as a Nugget, with a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 20.2.
Jokic is the only player in franchise history to win an NBA MVP Award, doing so twice. Through eight seasons, Jokic has career averages of 20.2 PPG, 10.5 RPG, and 6.6 APG. His 105 career triple-doubles are the most in NBA history by a center, good for sixth on the all-time list. By the way, the Nuggets are the only franchise in NBA history to have two players record at least 40 triple-doubles (Lever and Jokic).
Honorable mention goes to center Dan Issel, who averaged 20.4 PPG and 7.9 RPG in 718 NBA games for the Nuggets. Issel was an ironman, appearing in at least 76 games in all 15 of his professional seasons. Fun fact: Issel and Julius Erving are the only players in history to score at least 10,000 career points in both the ABA and NBA.
Best Season, Player: Nikola Jokic (2022-23)
Although Jokic missed out on his third consecutive MVP Award in 2022-23, this was a dream season for the superstar. Jokic nearly averaged a triple-double in the regular season, recording figures of 24.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG, and 9.8 APG. He shot 63.2% from the field, 38.3% from 3-point range, and 82.2% from the free throw line, becoming the first player in NBA history to average at least 20 PPG with a true shooting percentage of 70% or higher.
Jokic was even better in the playoffs, averaging 30.0 PPG, 13.5 RPG, and 9.5 APG with 55/46/80 shooting splits. He led the Nuggets to the first championship in franchise history and was named Finals MVP.
Worst Season, Player: Junior Harrington, 2002-03
The 2002-03 Nuggets were dreadful, finishing with a record of 17-65 and averaging a franchise-worst 84.2 PPG. Harrington played in all 82 games, starting 51 of them, and was mostly awful, averaging 5.1 PPG on 36/25/65 shooting splits.
Harrington averaged 23.3 turnovers per 100 plays, the second-worst such figure in the NBA among players who played at least 2,000 minutes that season. He also posted the lowest true shooting percentage (40.5%) of any player in that group.
But here’s the pièce de résistance: Harrington’s PER of 6.4 is the worst in NBA history by a player who played at least 2,000 minutes in a season. In fact, it’s not even close: Harrington is the only such player to record a PER lower than 7.0. Yuck.
Best Player: Nikola Jokic
The Nuggets have had several Hall of Famers play a significant number of games with the franchise (see below), but Jokic is an easy selection here. If he continues on his current career path, Jokic will likely end up at one of the 10 best players in NBA history.
Best Coach: Michael Malone
After missing the playoffs in each of his first three seasons as head coach of the Nuggets, Malone has guided them to five consecutive playoff berths, including last season’s first-ever championship run. Malone ranks third in franchise history in both regular season wins (367) and winning percentage (.576), and he’s the only coach to lead the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals more than once.
Honorable mention goes to Doug Moe, who won a franchise-record 432 games and led the team to nine playoff berths in his nine full seasons as head coach. Moe’s Denver teams averaged 119.7 PPG, the second-highest such figure in NBA history by a coach who spent at least five seasons with a franchise. Moe trails Alex Hannum, whose Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers teams averaged 122.3 PPG.
All-Star Game Selections: 37
Alex English leads the way with eight selections, followed by Nikola Jokic with five, Carmelo Anthony with four, and David Thompson and Dikembe Mutombo with three apiece.
The Nuggets have seemingly been slightly underrepresented in the All-Star Game. They rank 12th among all franchises in wins since the merger, but just 17th in All-Star selections.
Hall of Famers: 10
The Hall of Famers who have appeared in at least one game for the Nuggets are:
Alex English (837 GP)
Dan Issel (718)
David Thompson (415)
Dikembe Mutombo (391)
Bobby Jones (157)
Charlie Scott (148)
Allen Iverson (135)
George McGinnis (121)
Sarunas Marciulionis (17)
Tim Hardaway (14)
I should also note that Hall of Famer Spencer Haywood played 84 games for Denver in 1969-70, when the franchise was in the ABA and known as the Rockets. Haywood averaged 30.0 PPG and 19.5 RPG in his lone ABA season, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors.