Spring Break of my senior year in high school, I went with a couple of buddies to a movie, which turned out to be Highlander. I didn't know a ton about it, but had three simple facts at my disposal. One, there would be swordplay. Two, there would be the world's greatest portrayer of James Bond, in Sean Connery. That he would be playing a Spaniard with a thick Scottish accent was of little importance to me. Oh, and three... there would be swordplay. This was going to be a great evening.
Shockingly, I was not disappointed. For those three of you unfamiliar with the film, I refer you to the Highlander Wikipedia page. The upshot of the story, with a thirty-year-old spoiler alert warning: there is a race of immortal beings who are compelled to fight each other to the death until there is only one of them left. With swords. And Sean Connery. We covered this. I swear it's a better film than I just made it out to be. As I sat and marveled at the movie, it was easy to picture an actual tournament bracket seeding the immortals, a la March Madness or Karate Kid.
Out for drinks a couple nights ago, one of my L.A. basketball buddies threw out the provocative idea that Carmelo Anthony was the greatest player ever to lace up his high tops for the Denver Nuggets. I had to think hard about his supposition, as I wanted to mke sure he was talking about the best Denver Nuggets of all time, not the best player ever to play on the Denver Nuggets. Which led me to throw out a series of names I thought he might not have considered. While I was a huge Melo fan, there were a few Nuggets players I'd admittedly loved far more. But did my adoration actually make them better, or was I simply biased? I set out to find out more, and landed on a list that begged for a Sweet Sixteen style seeding. Of the 353 players that Wiki says have played for Denver in its history, here's a best shot at the guys who I think are the sixteen best, in no particular order:
- Carmelo Anthony
- Bobby Jones
- Kiki Vandeweghe
- Byron Beck
- Andre Miller
- Ralph Simpson
- David Thompson
- Dikembe Mutombo
- Dan Issel
- Chauncey Billups
- T.R. Dunn
- Alex English
- Fat Lever
- Antonio McDyess
- Marcus Camby
I look forward to the debates below about how foolish I was to leave Danilo Gallinari, LaPhonso Ellis, or someone else off of this list, and so I figured to keep it balanced a bit. To that end, I at least placed my own top four players into separate quadrants of the bracket. So, Mr. Anthony, Mr. Thompson, Mr. Issel, and Mr. English can all go to their separate ways, the rest can fall where they may, and we'll see who makes it out of the Thunderdome alive!!!
Oops, wrong movie. THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!!
Here's the bracket, mostly randomized:
Alright, boys and girls...
Carmelo Anthony vs. Marcus Camby
Too easy. Sorry, Marcus.
Andre Miller vs. Ralph Simpson
Andre was the guy I remember well, so there was a moment's temptation to go with one of the most durable and intelligent point guards in league history, with a playing style that looks like let it would let him play the game into his sixties, and a top-ten all-time assists tag to throw into the mix. Miller's nearly-six seasons as a Nugget were filled with one of the prettiest assist-highlight reels you'd ever hope to see. But...
Ralph Simpson's six-and-a-half years at the forward spot were a highlight of the late Rockets/early Nuggets era. Simpson was a five-time All-Star in his ABA years, and still is amongst the Nuggets top ten in all-time records for games played, points, and assists. Not an easy call against an all time great, but as the more valuable Denver Nugget, Simpson takes it by a nose.
Dan Issel vs. Nene
Two excellent big men in their time. One of them in the Hall of Fame. Night night, Nene.
Bobby Jones vs. T.R. Dunn
Tough matchup. Excellent defenders, both. Exceptional guards, both. Superb sixth men, both. Dunn spent nearly six more seasons as a Nugget than Jones, and T.R. was a tough, wrecking ball of a man. But Bobby Jones played defense in a way that players still mention in iconic and reverent tones today, and was a part of making the ABA-to-NBA transition for the Nuggets an exciting one for the team. Jones won a ring, though not as a Nugget, but won the league's first Sixth Man award in his championship season due to his still-exceptional play. It was close, but Bobby Jones is the man.
Alex English vs. Antonio McDyess
Wow, this randomized in a funny way, pitting so many positions against themselves in the first round, though this a dichotomy of the power forward vs, the shooting forward. McDyess was a shooting star, but English was a generational-type player who had the best years of his career with the Nuggets.
Byron Beck vs. Dikembe Mutombo
Beck was an ABA star, and truly was huge for Denver, including in their one finals trip in the team's history, a game seven loss to the Indiana Pacers in the ABA Finals. Beck was one of a handful of guys who played in the ABA from it's inception to it's finish.
Deke could have spent his storied career in Denver, had the Nuggets had a pulse in the moment, and was a dominant force when he was with the team. I'll give this one to Mutombo, while admitting my bias of having seen Dikembe play. Advantage, Deke.
David Thompson vs. Fat Lever
This one just makes me angry. Who was the dumbass who decided to randomize this stupid list and knock Lever out in the first round? Down goes Fat. Sad stuff, but Thompson is a serious contender to take this thing all the way.
Kiki Vandeweghe vs. Chauncey Billups
I'm suddenly hating that I had this idea. Whichever one you choose, you're going to piss people off. Chauncey is one of my three favorite Nuggets, but Kiki was part of a one-two scoring punch over his time in Denver that had him as the second highest scoring player in the league in the 1983-84 season. Chauncey still doesn't get the love he deserves in Denver, as Kiki takes the day.
Carmelo Anthony vs. Ralph Simpson
Geez, maybe my friend is going to be right, Melo is kind of making his bracket simple thus far...
Dan Issel vs. Bobby Jones
Bobby... Bobbbby... I hear nothing but amazing things about your game and heart. But Issel at his prime was a semi-toothless wonder, a seven-time All-Star in the ABA and NBA, including being named the MVP of his second All-Star game. Second all-time leading scorer in Denver Nuggets history. It's the Horse, Bobby. I'm sure you understand.
Alex English vs. Dikembe Mutombo
Crap. I hate this damned game. Amazing Grace knocks out Deke, and handily, in my view. There can be only one. Damnit.
David Thompson vs. Kiki Vandeweghe
I'm not sure if I'm more depressed that I so easily dismissed Kiki in this head-to-head matchup, or that I went through this entire exercise just to validate to myself who my top four were in the first place. Close call. But in this matchup, all I can say is... he walked on the SKY, Kiki. The sky. Advantage, Skywalker.
Onwards to the...
Carmelo Anthony vs. Dan Issel
This was about the part of the Highlander movie where we join the story in the beginning, where everyone who is duking it out at this point is going to be a bit of a badass when it comes to being a part of the Denver Nuggets, let alone the best one (there can be only one). Nothing from here really has easy answers.
Issel was an easy vote for the Hall of Fame, and leads Carmelo in every meaningful category for Nuggets all time stats, save three-pointers, where Issel doesn't even register due to position and era. Shockingly, Anthony's name does not appear on the Nuggets All-Time assist list. Go figure.
Melo stands to finish his career as one of the league's greatest scorers, and will quite probably eclipse Issel's career scoring totals. Issel finished a long and impressive career with a decade in Denver.
Anthony is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer for sure. Issel has his number up in the rafters. Odds are very good Carmelo will follow suit, but surprisingly my vote as the most impactful Nugget between these two gents goes very narrowly to Issel. Is it weird to surprise yourself in these imaginary exercises? I would have told you Melo makes the finals for sure. Weird.
Alex English vs. David Thompson
Thompson was the man who inspired Michael Jordan. He was an unstoppable force in his brief and bright career here in Denver, and truly had the potential to have been in the argument as the best to ever play the game, had he not derailed his career. Truly a transcendent player who might have been an easy lock for this silly made-up bracket, had he kept it all together. However...
English was a consistent force for Denver for year upon year, putting together one of the more dominant decades in basketball history in terms of scoring. For eight consecutive seasons (and nearly a ninth), English exceeded 2,000 points. Though David's star shone briefly and brightly, Alex puts a little English on this shot, and moves on to the finals against an old friend.
Fourth Round - The Finals:
Dan Issel vs. Alex English
When going out to those all-time stats to see how Issel and Anthony stacked up in Nuggets lore, the name that consistently topped Issel in several major categories was Alex English. To my surprise, English is even the all-time assists leader for the Nuggets, topping Lever by over a hundred. Crazy.
And though Issel went on to play a meaningful part of coaching the Nuggets to some amazing moments as well, when you take it all in from each of their amazing player contributions, English still stands out time and again. Also an easy Hall of Fame vote, Alex English is our Nuggets Highlander. THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!!!!!
Which is good, because otherwise there are actually no prizes for winning this bracket, so...
Alex, you won. Give me a call, I'll buy you dinner, or a beer, or something.