Are we witnessing the best regular season in Denver Nuggets NBA history? I emphasize the word "regular" as this Nuggets squad will need to get to the Western Conference Finals - or farther - to challenge for the best overall season in Denver Nuggets NBA franchise history.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the list of "great Nuggets regular seasons" isn't very extensive. We are the franchise of Stiffs, after all. In fact, this debate kind of reminds me of that scene in the 1980 comedy film spectacular Airplane! that goes like this:
Elaine Dickinson: Would you like something to read?
Hanging Lady: Do you have anything light?
Elaine Dickinson: How about this leaflet, "Famous Jewish Sports Legends?"
Replacing "Famous Jewish Sports Legends" with "great Denver Nuggets regular seasons" in this context.
But let's move on ...
Forgetting post-season success or disappointments, there are really only five* Nuggets NBA season candidates for this debate: 1976-77, 1984-85, 1987-88, 2008-09 and this current season, 2012-13. For example, the 1993-94 Denver Nuggets may have had arguably one of the best overall seasons in Nuggets' NBA franchise history, but their 42 regular season wins doesn't put them in the argument for best regular season ever in their NBA franchise history.
Let's run down each of the candidates briefly, and then discuss where the 2012-13 regular season lands.
The 1976-77 regular season was particularly special as it was not only the Nuggets first in the NBA after the NBA/ABA merger, but they claimed the Midwest Division title with 50 wins ... a benchmark for great regular season success in the NBA and something that was harder to do when the NBA had just 22 teams, as it did until the Dallas Mavericks were added for the 1980-81 season. (Imagine taking today's 30 teams, discarding eight of them and dispersing the collective NBA talent pool among the 22 remaining teams. In that scenario, players like former Nuggets Yakhouba Diawara, Mark Pope, Shelden Williams, Johan Petro, DerMarr Johnson and Malik Allen don't get roster spots - anywhere. Now try winning 50 games without the likes of the talent-depleted Bobcats, Suns, Kings, Magic, Cavaliers and so forth to pick up easy wins against. Not easy.) But being the latter part of the 1970s, players didn't condition as they do today, coaches didn't prepare as much and drug use was rampant throughout the league. So while the 1976-77 Nuggets undoubtedly had a memorable season, I don't think it ranks as the best ever in the Nuggets' NBA franchise history.
After not reaching the 50-win plateau for seven more years, the 1984-85 Nuggets set a Nuggets NBA franchise regular season record with 52 wins. And not only did they win 52 games, but they did so in a 23-team NBA that now featured Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Bernard King, Dominique Wilkins, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale, Clyde Drexler, Moses Malone, James Worthy, Mark Aguirre, Adrian Dantley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief and many other exceptional players of that era. Thankfully, the Nuggets had exceptional players of their own like Alex English, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt and Dan Issel, hence why that squad marched to the franchise's second NBA conference finals appearance (for a recap on how that season ended, re-read Jeff Morton's article from early January). Moreover, because the NBA had only 23 teams in those days the Nuggets faced the eventual champion Lakers and other premier Western Conference competition five or six times during the regular season (in-division rivals were played against six times) ... not three or four times as they do in the modern NBA.
Three years later, the 1987-88 Nuggets would win a Nuggets' NBA franchise best 54 wins - second best in the Western Conference - in what I believe was the best and most competitive season in NBA history. (For more explanation on why 1987-88 was THE BEST season in NBA history, I encourage readers to revisit my May 2008 piece on the subject.) The NBA was at its talent apex in 1987-88 (note how competitive the playoffs were in both conferences, including a seven-game NBA Finals thriller between the Lakers and Pistons) and this was the final season before the NBA expanded to six more cities between 1989 and 1996, diluting much of the league's talent and bringing in an influx of not-ready-for-prime-time freshmen, high schoolers, foreigners and aging veterans who'd have been bounced out of a 23-team NBA much earlier in their careers. Somehow, someway Doug Moe coached that Nuggets team to 54 regular season wins, garnering him a Coach of the Year award and a Midwest Division title for Denver. Unfortunately, that Nuggets squad was upset in the second round of the playoffs by an incredibly deep Dallas team which tends to mar an otherwise amazing Nuggets' 1987-88 regular season.
The Nuggets wouldn't win 54 games and finish second overall in the West again until the 2008-09 season, when George Karl coached an incredible regular season (and playoffs) out of big ego players like Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin and Nene Hilario. Given that the 2008-09 Nuggets went as far as any Nuggets team ever by taking the eventual champion Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals, it's arguable that the 2008-09 Nuggets overall season was the best in the team's NBA franchise history. But as I stated above, it's easier to win 54 games in a talent-diluted league than the hyper-competitive league that the Nuggets faced in 1987-88. Conversely, the conditioning of the modern NBA player is far superior to that of the conditioning in the late 1980s ... so maybe the Nuggets' 54 wins in 2008-09 did represent their best NBA regular season ever?
If you believe the 2008-09 Nuggets produced the best ever regular season ever for the franchise, then there's no doubt that the 2012-13 Nuggets winning 56 (and maybe 57) games ranks as #1 in the Denver Nuggets' NBA franchise history. Granted, the 2012-13 Nuggets play in the same talent-diluted league that the 2008-09 Nuggets played in and their 56 (or 57) wins won't even get them a second overall seed in the West or a division title as their 54-win predecessors did. BUT not only have the 2012-13 Nuggets won more games than any NBA Nuggets team ever, but their 2012-13 schedule was historically difficult. By playing 22 of their first 32 on the road, the Nuggets were screwed in two ways by the NBA schedule makers. As if playing away from home 22 out of 32 times to open an NBA season wasn't hard enough, the overdose of home games in January meant worse home crowds (try going to 12 NBA games in one month ... not easy) and thus, it's no wonder the Nuggets dropped two of their (just) three home losses in January.
But regardless of what the NBA threw at them - plus the injuries incurred - the 2012-13 Nuggets thrived, and then some. They competed every night, evident by 1) the fact that they were blown out less than a handful of times in 82 games, 2) the multitude of close games that this Nuggets team won on the road and at home and, 3) to date they have won virtually every game played on the Pepsi Center floor except three ... an astounding home record regardless of what happens against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday.
As Altitude TV's Chris Marlowe alluded to in the at-Milwaukee broadcast last night, maybe someone "up there" has been rooting for the Nuggets this year. Or maybe this team was just supremely well assembled, well coached and devoutly committed to by a collection of good-but-not-great players who were in Denver last summer well before training camp even started.
Sometimes, the good guys finish first.
Well, in our case, hopefully third!
*With apologies to the 2002-03 Nuggets that won 17 more games more than they should have ... something no other Nuggets team can claim ... of course, they won only 17 games. And additional apologies to loyal Denver Stiffs reader "Thursty" who will rightfully argue for the 1974-75 ABA Nuggets that won a franchise-best 65 games is the best regular season Nuggets team ever - my big issue there is that they played against just nine other ABA teams and the talent and conditioning level wasn't anywhere near what the Nuggets had to contend with in the 1980s and in today's NBA.