The Denver Nuggets opened their 2016-2017 home slate with a special acknowledgement for Dikembe Mutombo whose jersey was retired and the team wore throwback rainbow skyline uniforms to honor their former defensive stalwart of the early 90s. Mutombo joins Alex English, Dan Issel, David Thompson, Byron Beck (thanks to user Thursty for pointing out Beck also has his jersey retired) and Doug Moe as the only members of the Nuggets organization to have their number retired (the team retired number 432 for Moe, representative of his win total while head coach). Deke is the last PAINFULLY obvious number to be retired. He’s a hall of famer, he’s one of the greatest defenders to ever play the game, he led the Nuggets to their most memorable playoff victory and he is immortalized in the most iconic moment of the franchise’s history. Despite a somewhat brief tenure with the Nuggets, Mutombo’s place in the rafters is an easy call. A much more difficult call though would be who will be next to join him? An argument can be made that the next player or coach to have their number retired by the Nuggets has yet to actually play for the organization because there are no worthwhile candidates, but here’s five who could have a shot.
Like Mutombo, Vandeweghe didn’t have a terribly long tenure with the team, he played just four season for Denver (Mutombo played five). However, also like Deke, Kiki’s time with the Nuggets was impactful, just in a very different way. Vandeweghe was a scorer and the third part of the Nuggets early 80s big three with English and Issel. Kiki’s finest season as a Nugget was 1983-1984, his last with the team. He led the team in scoring, averaging 29.3 points (good for third in the entire Association) which earned him a second straight all star appearance. Altogether Vandeweghe’s offense contributed to a total of 30.2 win shares to the Nuggets while he was a member of the team, which is a fairly impressive total when you consider he only played four seasons for Denver.
The longevity is going to hurt Kiki’s argument though, beyond limiting his total win shares contributed, Mutombo is the shortest tenured Nuggets player to have his jersey retired, and he’s got the whole first ever eight seed to upset a one seed as he falls to the floor in jubilation while clutching the basketball thing going for him. The other part that hurts Vandeweghe is the team’s limited success while he was playing for them. The Nuggets made the playoffs three of the four seasons with Kiki manning one of the forward spots, but they only advanced past the first round once (1983) and they were quickly dispatched by the San Antonio Spurs in the next round. If Vandeweghe had played just a few more seasons with the Nuggets he’d be a virtual shoe-in, but because it was just four seasons it’s not likely that there will be another #55 jersey hanging in the Pepsi Center rafters anytime soon
Fat can make a much stronger case to get his number retired. After spending his first two seasons in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers, Lever exploded onto the NBA scene with the Nuggets (ironically after being part of a trade package that sent Vandeweghe to the Blazers) where he would spend the next six seasons putting up gaudy numbers for the Nuggets. Like Kiki, Fat would earn two all-star appearances with the Nuggets. However, Lever didn’t receive an all-star selection in arguably his best season which was 88-89 when he averaged 19.8 ppg, 9.3rpg and 7.9apg. Lever’s incredible ability to rebound for a point guard and his ability to both score and dsitribute helped catapult him into the top 10 all time for career triple doubles (currently tied for sixth with LeBron James) and his 16 in the 86-87 season are the eleventh most for a single season. Another stat that gets skipped over a lot when it comes to Lever is games played per season. The incredibly durable point guard played more than 70 games in each season he played for the Nuggets.
The arguments against Fat are sparse. The team didn’t have great success during his tenure, but he was the starting point guard when the team reached the Western Conference Finals in 1985, a feat that would take them 24 years to repeat. Still, that was Fat’s first season with the Nuggets and it was down hill from there. What also unfairly works against Lever is he was a quiet superstar, often overshadowed by the likes of English and the aging Issel. Because of this, Lever’s accomplishments are left forgotten when talking about great NBA point guards, and he is consistently the bearer of the “who dat?” title when the NBA shows a graphic of all time leaders in triple doubles. Nonetheless, of everyone in this list, Fat Lever has as strong a case as anyone and his 47.8 win shares in a Nuggets jersey back it up.
Mr. Big Shot himself. Chauncey already has his jersey retired in Detroit, and much like the Nuggets following suit when the Atlanta Hawksmretired Mutombo’s jersey, they could do the same with Billups. Chauncey spent two tenures in Denver, first for what amounted to about 70 games, and second for what was essentially two and a half seasons. On basic statistical analysis alone it’s hard to make a case for Billups getting his jersey retired by the Nuggets, after all he contributed just 27.6 win shares for the team. However, Chauncey has a leg up on everyone for three reasons: First, he’s a hometown kid who played both his high school and college ball in Colorado. Second, he’s got a good shot at making the hall of fame thanks to the Finals MVP trophy he holds and finally, he is widely regarded as the key piece that got the Nuggets out of the first round and carried them to the conference finals in 2009.
Despite all that, it’s hard to make a compelling case that the Nuggets should retire Billups’ jersey. He just didn’t have the longevity and while there’s an argument to be made about whether Mutombo is a Hawk or a Nugget first, Chauncey is undoubtedly a Detroit Piston first, and he said as much at his jersey retirement ceremony in Detroit. That’s just fine, he IS a Piston first and he deserves to be remembered as such. There are the niche of us who love him for what he did for Denver, both before and during his professional career, but retiring his jersey would be going overboard.
Karl’s got a strong argument for the title of greatest Denver Nuggets coach of all time. In fact only the aforementioned Moe would be in the argument against Karl as the greatest. Moe won 432 games as the Nuggets head coach in just under ten seasons, meanwhile Karl won 423 in just under nine seasons (including one season shortened by lockout). Both coaches found relatively the same amount of limited success in the playoffs, great regular seasons mired by early exits from the playoffs but a tenure highlighted by an exciting run to the conference finals. Moe advanced past the first round more times than Karl, but Karl never missed the playoffs like Moe did in his first season. Both preached a fast pace, somewhat reckless style of basketball. Both were infamous for letting their players know exactly what they thought. Indeed, the parallels between the two coaches are numerous which is why, despite a somewhat ugly divorce, Karl will likely have #423 raised to the rafters at some point, but like Moe he could also be waiting for quite a while before it finally happens.
If not for the way he left, Melo would almost assuredly be a lock for having his number retired. He represented the Nuggets four times in the all-star game and during his seven full seasons as a member of the team he led them to the playoffs seven times. He was just as instrumental as Chauncey in getting the team to the 2009 conference finals, including a back breaking buzzer beating three pointer against the Dallas Mavericks in game three of the conference semis that put the Nuggets up 3-0. His 53.5 win shares contributed are the most of anyone on this list and are very close to the same amount current jersey retiree David Thompson contributed (56.7). He’s third all time in franchise scoring, ninth in rebounds and seventh in three point field goals. From the period of 2003-2011 Melo was arguably a top five player in the NBA and he did it while wearing a Nuggets jersey. He had more success over a longer period of time than either Mutombo or Thompson and he is the best player to play for the Nuggets since Alex English.
Again, all of that points to an easy case for a #15 Anthony jersey to get hoisted into the rafters at some point and it very may well happen one day. The way that Melo exited will make it a much more difficult choice though. It’s no secret Anthony forced his way out of Denver. With a lucrative extension on the table that would pay him more than any other team could muster, Anthony balked at the Nuggets offer and thus began a chain of events that drug Denver’s fans through the mud for six months when it became painfully obvious that trading Melo was the only option. Now, players get traded all the time, or in the case of a guy like Mutombo, players walk away from their teams and still get honored when it’s all said and done. The difference though is Mutombo basically got shown the door where as Melo demanded to go as loudly as he could out of it. It wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about winning, it was simply about he just didn’t want to be here anymore. That hurts and therefore no matter how great the numbers are, retiring his jersey will be a tough pill to swallow for the organization and fans alike. Still, it can not be understated what Melo did for the Nuggets, both as an uber talented forward on the court, and a superstar who revitalized a laughing stock of a franchise off of it. As time passes, the pill will get easier to swallow and eventually that #15 will go up in the rafters.