A brief history of the Nuggets versus the Warriors

Doug Pensinger

In the 36 years that the Nuggets have been in the NBA, they've never faced the Warriors in the post-season. And here's why ...

No thanks to people like me, we tend to think of the Denver Nuggets as a franchise with a Stiff-laden history. Bad years, down years, missed opportunities, Bernie Bickerstaff and so forth.

But in reality, not only are we in the midst of the Nuggets' 10th consecutive playoff run, but our beloved franchise - since joining the NBA in 1976 - has missed the post-season just 13 times in 36 years.

If you really want to look at a Stiff-laden franchise, perhaps we should be looking westward to Oakland where the Warriors are making just their seventh NBA playoff appearance since 1978. Seventh!! That's a remarkably low number for a franchise with an awesome fan base that plays in a big media market (the San Francisco Bay Area plus Silicon Valley) and actually won an NBA Championship once - in 1975, and followed that up with a Western Conference and semifinals appearance in the subsequent two seasons.

So perhaps it's not so amazing that these two franchises - the Nuggets and the Warriors - have never met in the playoffs until now. Simply put, whenever the Nuggets have been good the Warriors have been garbage. And when the Nuggets were garbage (1995 through 2003 for example) the Warriors were ... well ... garbage, too. With some brief exceptions, of course. (For a terrifically comical rundown on the Warriors pathetic history since the late 1970s, I encourage readers to revisit Bill Simmons' column from last March titled "How to Annoy a Fan Base in 60 Easy Steps.")

And thus, despite residing in the Western Conference together for 36 years we have only a few regular season highlights to point to when looking at the history between these two franchises. Overall, the Nuggets have claimed 87 of the teams' 154 matchups since 1976 including a dominant 60-17 home record.

The first matchup between the two franchises took place in Denver on November 9th, 1976. The Warriors were coming off a Western Conference Finals run and were two seasons removed from their sole NBA Championship under the guidance of head coach Al Attles and a cast of characters that included Rick Barry, Phil Smith and Jamaal Wilkes. Meanwhile, the Nuggets - coming off an ABA Finals run - were NBA newbies who had rattled off wins in all of their first seven NBA games and had plenty of talent of their own, including Dan Issel, David Thompson and Bobby Jones. The Nuggets would make it eight straight by beating the Warriors 123-117, overcoming a 43-point game from the Warriors' Smith thanks to 34 points from Issel and 25 points from the Skywalker. Both teams would get to the Western Conference playoffs' second round, but were on opposite sides of the bracket and didn't make it to the conference finals.

After the conclusion of the 1976-77 season, the Warriors wouldn't return to the playoffs until 1987 while the Nuggets would make the post-season 13 times over the next 15 seasons, including two Western Conference Finals appearances (1978 and 1985). Interestingly, it was none other than current Nuggets head coach George Karl who returned the Warriors to respectability for the 1986-87 season. While the Nuggets stumbled to a 37-45 record that season (that ended with the "we got no shot to beat the Lakers" first round series against the Lakers), Karl guided the Warriors to 42 wins and a five-seed with players like Joe Barry Carroll, Sleepy Floyd, Purvis Short and Chris Mullin on his roster. Karl's Warriors upset the fourth-seeded Utah Jazz in the first round and would lose to the eventual champion Lakers in the second round (a series that included Floyd's incredible 51-point performance in Game 4 during which he set an NBA record by scoring 29 points in the fourth quarter). Unfortunately, the Warriors and Karl weren't able to build upon that successful season and Karl was fired with 18 games remaining in the 1987-88 season.

Filling in for Karl to begin the 1988-89 season in Golden State was the mad scientist of NBA coaching, Don Nelson, who led the Warriors through one of their few semi-successful eras in the NBA. Nelson's Warriors - led at first by "RUN TMC" (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) and then briefly by Latrell Sprewell and Chris Webber - made the playoffs four times between 1988 and 1994 - a period during which the Nuggets absolutely sucked under head coach Paul Westhead. Hoping to bring a-never-before-seen up-tempo game to the NBA, Westhead's joke of an offense kicked off the 1990-91 against Nelson's Warriors on November 2, 1990. In a surprisingly close affair, the Nuggets lost by just four points - 162-158 ... in regulation! In that game, Mullin had 38 points, Hardaway had 32 (plus 18 assists) and Richmond only scored 29. The Nuggets were so bad that Warriors' Stiff Tom Tolbert had 18 points and 12 rebounds in that game. But believe it or not, one of the Nuggets 20 wins that season came against Golden State when the Nuggets beat the Warriors 150-145 (again, in regulation!) on February 23, 1991. RUN TMC combined for only 86 points in that game while Orlando Woolridge, Michael Adams and Reggie Williams combined for 98 points, including 41 from Adams.

But just when both the Nuggets and Warriors seemed to be getting their respective houses in order during the 1993-94 season (the Nuggets won 42 games with Issel as head coach and upset Karl's Seattle Supersonics in Round 1 while Nelson's Warriors - led by Webber - won 50 games), both teams fell apart soon thereafter thanks to losing their star power forwards for very different reasons. The Nuggets lost LaPhonso Ellis to a devastating knee injury in the summer of 1994 and that injury, combined with an assortment of colossally stupid moves by Bickerstaff and his predecessors, resulted in the Nuggets missing every subsequent post-season until 2004. Around the same time as Phonz's injury, Webber and Nelson got into a pissing match (see #20 in Simmons' article) and Webber demanded a trade which the Warriors granted ... to the Washington Bullets in exchange for Tom Gugliotta and there first round picks. The Warriors wouldn't return to the playoffs for 13 years.

Bringing Nelson back for the 2006-07 season, the 42-win Warriors snuck into the 2007 playoffs as an eighth seed where they'd face Nelson's former team, the 67-win Dallas Mavericks who were coming off an NBA Finals appearance. In the biggest upset in NBA history (sorry, Nuggets fans, but the 1993-94 eighth-seeded Nuggets were just 21 games worse than the first-seeded Sonics and they played a five-game series), Nelson's Warriors would beat the one-seeded Mavericks in an astonishing six-game series.

With hopes high in Oakland entering the 2007-08 season, the Warriors picked the wrong season to have 48 wins not be good enough to make the playoffs. In fact, the 2007-08 Warriors battled the 2007-08 Nuggets for much of the season for the eighth-seed (and the right to get swept by the Lakers), making the two teams' April 10th, 2008 meeting critical. After posting 37 points on the Nuggets and leading by 15 points at the end of the first quarter, the Nuggets responded with a 39-point second quarter and won the game 114-105 thanks to Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith combining for 82 points, effectively ending the Warriors' playoff hopes and assuring the Nuggets of a fifth-straight playoff appearance.

Having missed the playoffs for another five straight seasons before this current NBA season, the Warriors - under the guidance of Jerry West in the front office and with new ownership that will soon move the team to San Francisco - seem to finally be on the right track as they try to erase 30-plus years of futility. As we know well here in Nuggets Nation, the 2012-13 Warriors played the Nuggets competitively in their four regular season matchups earlier in the season ... including a double-overtime thriller in Oakland on November 12th that the Nuggets won 107-101.

And now, for the first time ever in a post-season, these two longtime NBA Western Conference franchises face off in what should have been a competitive playoff series. I say "should have" because without their All-Star power forward David Lee, it's unlikely that the Warriors can win more than a game against the deeply talented Nuggets.

But no one said erasing 30-plus years of futility is easy.

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