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Getting the Denver Nuggets GOATs

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Playing silly games in the desert of the offseason.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Spor

A byproduct of a random chat with my buddy, Iggy (not the Mole, relax). These happen because he and I are fans of the "random-guy-conversation", something we did regularly on road trips when we used to tour 30-plus weeks a year. We still pursue this conversational habit, though now more often via IM and cell phone, but the deep-and-ridiculous questions often went something like:

If you could only have one sort of meat the rest of your life (chicken, beef, pork, fish), which one would you pick? (This is such a no-brainer, but... try me)

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

If you could go out on a single date with one ex, which one? (this was when we were both single, as my wife reads these. Hi, honey. I don't want to date any exes.)

If you had to give up one of your five senses, which would you choose?

And so on... we entertained ourselves for hours as we drove, debating the relative merits of beef-vs-pork, flight-vs-X-ray-vision, least-crazy-exes, and so on. This gave rise to a game we will discuss another day, called "Triple A" (not after Arron Afflalo), and many more. But last week, we two old-school Nuggets fans played a new one:

Who was the best player in history at each of the five positions for the Nuggets?

Let's play, shall we? All one Stiff's +Iggy's tacit opinion, but... Starting up high and working our way down:

Center:

I started here, as this was far and away our shortest discussion. A few names were thrown out: Dan Issel, Dikembe Mutombo, Marcus Camby, Nene. Process of elimination works well for me, so Nene was quickly off the list, and though Camby had a Defensive Player of the Year title here in '06-'07, his time with the Nuggets was less impactful than either of the other two gents. Bye-bye, CambyLand. My gut told me to go with Deke, but the Horse is already in the Hall of Fame. What did the numbers say?

Mutombo (NBA career, 18 seasons): 11,729 points, 12,359 rebounds, 3,289 blocks (2nd in NBA history), eight-time All-Star, four-time Defensive Player of the Year, three-time All-Defensive First Team (by the way, how the hell do you end up DPoY and NOT First Team? Awesome, NBA.)

Issel (NBA and ABA career, 15 seasons): 27,482 points, 11,133 rebounds, 532 blocks, seven-time All-Star, one-time All-ABA First Team

The Horse has Deke in points by a mile, but Mutombo outshines in every other category (and learned a lot from Issel as a coach). A semi-close call, but this one swings to Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo. One down.

Power Forward:

This one got a little tougher, not because of too many options, but because there were a number of names that floated by from that second tier. After some serious debate, we narrowed it down to Antonio McDyess, LaPhonso Ellis, Kenyon Martin, Kenneth Faried, and J.J. Hickson. Just seeing if you were still paying attention.

As in our first exercise, the last few names pretty easily dropped away. J.J. isn't actually in the mix, Manimal is a player on the rise, but let's not get crazy. He's only now coming into his own - to the tune of broad Stiffs debates that wonder if last season's second half was fluke or fact. K-Mart was a mostly-great enforcer and teammate, but never once lived up to the max contract that brought him to Denver. His glory days were in a Nets uni.

Phonz and Dice started on eerily similar arcs, both exploding out of the gates (Ellis had over 1,200 points in his rookie season, and McDyess cleared 1,000 himself) before having struggles with injury. In the long run, McDyess' patellar injuries were easier to heal (though nothing to sneeze at), and came later into a longer career. Ellis' knee and hernia issues are one of the truly tragic examples of careers which were cut short by injury. At his best, LaPhonso dominated on both ends of the court, as this video shows, gods weep.

I'd be tempted to give it to Ellis simply due to how much I loved his roar, but at the end of the day, McDyess scored nearly 5,000 more points in his four extra seasons (12,227 points for Dice compared to 7,410 for Phonz). McDyess also had a stunning 1999-2000 season, accumulating 1,551 points, 685 boards and 139 blocks on the way to being only the third player in Nuggets history to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds in a season. Had McDyess not had the patellar issues that cost him nearly two seasons at his apex, I believe he'd be in a very different conversation as to his peers and place in the game. Step up to the podium, Antonio McDyess.

Small Forward:

God, I hated this one. Hated it so much that I actually laughed in relief when I realized that the Skywalker himself, David Thompson, was categorized more as a shooting guard than a small forward, as I always tend to think of him. A relief, because it still gets sticky. Alex English. Kiki Vandeweghe. Carmelo Anthony.

How freaking good is a list when you entertain Danilo Gallinari for the half-second he deserves, and then move back to a list resembling Mount Rushmore if you tack DT back in. The first cut of those three will be the hardest, as any name off the list feels like a crime to me. But...

I love Kiki Vandeweghe. He was incredible, and had a long and impressive career. But only four of those seasons were in Denver (though his last two seasons, '82-'84, he cracked the 2,000-point barrier at 2,186 and 2,295, respectively.). Three seasons later, Kiki did it one more time for Portland (2,122), but then tailed off precipitously, cracking a grand once at 1,226 points for the '90-'91 Knicks. Kiki is voted off the island. Unreal.

And still, Melo vs. English. Not cool. My least favorite part of this game is drawing opinions for which you will be mocked no matter what you do.

Carmelo Anthony is rightfully seen as the savior of a moribund Nuggets franchise, putting us on his back: back on the map and back to playoffs (and keeping us there), including a Western Conference Finals appearance in '09. In each of the seven full seasons of his tenure, Melo got us in the door. To this day, there is still no one currently playing in the league with whom I would rather entrust the ball with that last-second three, and I've not checked my facts, embarrassingly. It's just my gut remembering all those glorious daggers. Carmelo, you were a badass for us. And yet...

Not everyone remembers that Alex English had been in the league for nearly five seasons when he was traded to us by the Pacers for George McGinnis. Talk about a fleecing: McGinnis was literally on his last legs, and English took the '80-'81 season to come tantalizingly close to that 2,000 point plateau (1,929). That was an improvement of over 600 points from his previous season (1,318), which had been the best of this young career.

English would not miss that mark again for eight consecutive seasons.

In the ‘85-'86 campaign, Alex English put up 2,414 points, nearly cracking a 30-point per game average, the height of being the 1980's most-prolific scorer. Carmelo has had two seasons over 2,100 points in his career (one with Denver, '05-‘06), which would have ranked for English's seventh- and eighth-best seasons.

Yes, but Melo took us to those seven playoffs. English led us to nine in a row.

Yes, but Melo took us to the Western Conference Finals. So, did English, in '85.

Eight-time All-Star, all-time leading Nuggets scorer. Hall of Famer. I gotta go with Alex English. So glad this long night is over. Stupid game.

Shooting Guard:

And then there are parts of any game which are easy. I liked Allen Iverson. A lot. Arron Afflalo and Andre Iguodala are both nice players, even if we Stiffs like to verbally skewer Iggy.  Try typing those names a lot: Afflalo and Iguodala. Afflalodala. There are a few other names we can bandy about this list, but here's the thing...

If you don't think that David Thompson was, for a brief and meteoric moment, the most dynamic and acrobatic basketball player in the NBA, we need to have words. Thompson was a prolific scorer, breaking that same 2K plateau in each of his first three seasons with the Nuggets. We all know he burned out too quickly with his demons, but for a moment, the Skywalker was the must-see player in the NBA. If you think it should be someone other than DT at shooting guard, we can meet out back and slug it out after I get done laughing. Somewhere below in the thread someone will bring up some obscure Nuggets two-guard that makes me regret those words. But still, easily the Skywalker.

(Can you imagine if I'd had to keep David Thompson at small forward and have a Skywalker vs. English throwdown? I have nightmares.)

We're bringing it home...

Point Guard:

This one was also tough in its way. I'll probably leave someone important off, but... here's my list: Chauncey Billups, Ty Lawson, Fat Lever, Andre Miller. Hell, Nick Van Exel. The puff of smoke where Mark Jackson used to be. We have options, and all of them faintly arguable. We even talked about Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, and the occasional games in which he was able to turn it on, to a degree I cannot recall seeing since. There were moments he was unstoppable. And I loved those uniforms. I digress.

Abdul-Rauf, you're out. Those scoring outbursts were too rare, your other outbursts too frequent. Sorry, Mark Jackson, you're also... Mark? Mark? If anyone sees Mark Jackson, please tell him he was amazing as he passed through, we felt as if he may have just been a mirage in his brevity.

Nick Van Exel. No.

Andre Miller is fast approaching some amazing milestones. Too many of those seasons were spent away from Denver, and he can be as divisive a force to a team as he can be a positive. This is your best-of-the-best, and that takes him out for me. So...

Mr. Big Shot, Chico, and Fat. Going to need to do some research, as based strictly on nicknames, Lawson is at an extreme disadvantage, whereas Lever gets extra credit for the fact that "Fat" is already a nickname. And I'm guessing he may need that extra credit, as I need to look Lafayette Lever up for stats again before deciding to drop him from the list. I remember he was good, but I think nowhere near Ty or Chauncey, right?

This is why the internet is good.

Ty Lawson is on the rise, a hopeful All-Star, and emerging into the heart and soul of this Denver Nuggets squad. Hell, I'm happy to have a current player this deep into the conversation. But in his five seasons, Ty has topped 1,000 points in these last two (999 in '11-'12, cruel plateaus), and this last season he had an impressive 543 assists.  How does that stack up against Chauncey?

Billups has an extended career, with multiple honors (Finals MVP, anyone?), but many of those were not with the Nuggets. That said, any credit taken away for seasons not-in-Denver are taken with a grain of salt when you are Denver's favorite son. We did you wrong, Chauncey. I hope you come back to a role that helps this team, whatever it is. But let's talk data instead of emotion.

Chauncey had two stretches with Denver, but for purposes of this argument, I focused primarily on his second go, when he and Melo got us back to the Western Conference Finals. Billups was the obvious difference-maker in the Nuggets cohesiveness in his two-plus seasons, and that WCF season included 1,427 points and 409 assists. Given those numbers and his body of work, I'm saying that Mr. Big Shot narrowly edges out Chico, but I hope for Ty to make this argument moot by the end of his career. And Chauncey vs. Fat is just a forgone conclusion. Or so I thought. Thank you, Basketball-Reference.

In his six seasons ('84-'90) with the Denver Nuggets, Fat Lever cracked the 1,000 point plateau each and every time, with 1,051, 1,080, 1,552, 1,546, 1,409, and 1,443 points in those respective campaigns. But, as an obvious scoring guard, Lever gave up a ton of assists, no?

Uh, no.

Lining them up the same way, over those same six seasons, his assists totals: 613, 584, 654, 639, 559, 517. Chauncey had his WCF, but so did Fat ('84-'85). Based on sheer length of service and consistency, I'm afraid I have to go against what I want to do, and call this one for Fat Lever. Way to go, Fat... Just doesn't roll off the tongue.

As an aside, did you know Nick Van Exel had a season for the Nuggets in which he dished out 714 assists? Amazing, though ‘Dre had that ridiculous 882-assist season, he did that with Cleveland, prior to joining the Nuggets.

So, this ridiculous game has gone on long enough. Who's your GOATs, Nuggets Nation? What did I do wrong? Anybody want Skywalker and that chat? (kidding, I'm a wuss)