The dead of the offseason is in full swing, the draft is done, major free agents have all signed and outside of a disgruntled Kyrie Irving, the trade market is wholly uninteresting. With plenty of time to pontificate, the Stiffs got thinking about rivalries. Who is the Denver Nuggets rival? How do we define and rank rivalry and once we do, will anyone truly be able to be called a rival of the Nuggets? The slow period gives us time to answer these questions so in the words of Daenerys Targaryen: shall we begin?
The methodology is loose, to be kind. Mostly its based off of feel. However, there were certain things to take into consideration: teams with former Nuggets players (especially ones who were disgruntled while in Denver), teams who have routinely beat the Nuggets (especially in the playoffs), teams who play in the same conference, teams who play in the same division, and to some degree, teams who have upper echelon talent. Again though, there’s not a lot of hard science here. Rivalries are about emotion and passion, which makes them difficult to quantify but also helps determine where emphasis should be placed. Losing a playoff series is demoralizing for a team and its fans and that breeds hatred of the team that bested them. Losing a player to free agency, or worse having a player force his way out, also tends to stir up emotions of anger and finally a player being spurned by his former team is never a good thing so those three factors played the biggest role in making this list.
The “yaaaaaawn” group
29. Chicago Bulls
28. Indiana Pacers
27. Detroit Pistons
26. Brooklyn Nets
25. Miami Heat
There is almost nothing to make a rival out of this group. All are nowhere near competing, all are in the Eastern Conference and all have virtually no significant history with the Nuggets. You’re really grasping at straws here. The best arguments for having a rivalry with any of these teams would be Dwyane Wade choosing the Bulls over Denver last year, Brooklyn beating the Nuggets twice in a season on buzzer beaters from Joe Johnson and the Pacers backing out of a deal that would have landed the Nuggets Kevin Love. Scraps...moving on.
The “I want to care but I just don’t” group
23. Phoenix Suns
22. Orlando Magic
21. Dallas Mavericks
This group starts getting into the Western Conference but only picks up teams who have virtually no history with the Nuggets. The Mavericks and the Nuggets have traded playoff series losses but Dallas’ was far more recent so perhaps they view the Nuggets as a rival more so than Denver does, but ultimately there’s not a lot of history here. The Suns were a bigger rival in the 80s when the two teams routinely met in the postseason but those days are long gone and Memphis and Denver have never met in the playoffs. Charlotte gets out of the yawn group because they have some decent talent, Orlando gets out of there because Denver has classically struggled in Orlando and they also have two former Nuggets in Evan Fournier and Arron Afflalo (ironically, those two were traded for each other by the Nuggets). Again though, there’s little to go on in terms of rivalry with this group.
The “maybe in the future but not now” group
19. Milwaukee Bucks
15. Boston Celtics
There’s A LOT of talent in this group, whether that be the Celtics whose Finals appearance chances get better with Irving’s malcontent, or the 76ers who are rising from the ashes but come loaded with young players with extremely high ceilings. Every team on this list has guys who profile as future stars in the league, and many already have ascended to that status. However, outside of the Pelicans they are all Eastern Conference teams meaning a true rivalry would likely have to be born from a finals matchup with one of them and outside of Boston (and including the Nuggets), none of these teams strike you as a finals contender in the near future (maybe Washington, but that’s a stretch). The Pelicans have been such a non-factor that there isn’t much of a rivalry now, but with both them and the Nuggets expected to battle for the final playoff spots in the West, this rivalry could get a lot more heated very quickly.
The “ehh I guess” group
14. Houston Rockets
12. Toronto Raptors
11. Sacramento Kings
10. Atlanta Hawks
There’s a pretty easy theme to see with most of this group. Teams 12-9 have a connection with the Nuggets: Masai Ujiri and the Raptors, Michael Malone and the Kings, Paul Millsap and the Hawks and Danilo Gallinari and the Clippers. Nuggets fans probably dislike the Raptors far more than the reverse however, and Millsap and Malone probably have more dislike for their former teams than Nuggets Nation does as a whole, but there’s at least some bad blood here. Except for Gallo and the Clippers, by all accounts that was an amenable separation. However, the Clippers, largely aided by Gallo, will be some of Denver’s biggest competition for playoff spots this year. The Rockets and Cavaliers don’t have much of a Nuggets connection (Mike D’Antoni and J.R. Smith not withstanding) but they are supremely talented teams who Denver fans in general want to get the best of (especially true of Cleveland), even if they aren’t much, if at all, of a rival in the opposition’s eyes.
The “ok, there’s some general dislike here” group
8. Utah Jazz
Once again we have a theme developing. Outside of the Knicks these are all divisional teams. Ironically the Timberwolves probably end up in the “ehh I guess” group at the end of last season but with their roster upgrades they are ready to compete for the playoffs and will be a thorn in Denver’s side. Karl-Anthony Towns provides a great one on one matchup with Nikola Jokic (all of the NW division centers do honestly) and he also gives Minnesota a bright outlook as far as competing for the playoffs, and creating a rivalry, for years to come. Meanwhile, one might have expected the Jazz to fall out of this group but they too will still likely compete for the playoffs despite losing Gordon Hayward. The Nuggets also have a couple of painful losses to Utah in the playoffs. Oklahoma City is the most recent team to dash Denver’s playoff hopes and the Nuggets and Thunder/Sonics franchises have a pretty lengthy playoff history. OKC also has a star who is easy to dislike in Russell Westbrook.
Finally, there’s the Knicks. Five years ago they were easily one of, if not, the biggest rivals of the Nuggets in the eyes of Denverites. Carmelo Anthony’s long, drug out and nauseatingly chronicled departure from the team left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths. While those wounds have started to heal (yours truly even advocated retiring Melo’s number), a new burgeoning argument between Knicks fans and Nuggets fans over whether Jokic or Kristaps Porzingis is the true unicorn has helped add fuel to the flames. This rivalry will likely continue to fade given New York plays in the Eastern Conference and is nowhere near contention, but as of now it’s as good as most in terms of Nuggets rivalries.
The “we really don’t like you even if you don’t care about us” group
This group could have also been called the painful playoff losses group. The Nuggets have made, and lost in, the NBA playoffs 24 times in their history. The Lakers and Spurs account for 11 of those playoff exits. The Lakers have beaten Denver both times the Nuggets reached the Western Conference Finals, meanwhile the Spurs record against Denver in the playoffs is 20-6. Nuggets fans would call those teams easily the biggest rivals of the 2000s but what keeps it from being a true rivalry is this: Denver is 1-11 in series matchups against those teams in the playoffs. While Nuggets fans are filled with angry feelings towards LA and SA, they are a footnote at best in the eyes of those franchises.
The Warriors meanwhile are going to rank pretty high on any team’s rivalry list. Most of this has to do with the fact that they are the current defending champions but a lot of it has to do with their attitude and the way they present themselves. They are cocky (which they have earned the right to be) and sometimes childish while Kevin Durant is viewed as taking the easy way out (which he did). Look no further than Durant’s claims that the Warriors will “sweep your ass” to a Nuggets fan as he walked off the court fresh from a 22 point beat down for an example of this. There’s also the 2013 playoff series to consider, where comments about Denver being a dirty team led to subsequent moling from Andre Iguodala. That playoff series defeat also set in motion the events that have led to a fruitless 4 years of basketball in Denver. Unfortunately, like all rivals on the list, it’s unlikely the Warriors view Denver as a rival at all given the Nuggets have yet to beat them in a truly significant game.
The “one almost true rival” group
If the Nuggets truly do have a rival, without a doubt at this point its the Trail Blazers. Just one year ago the Blazers are likely two if not three groups down this list. However, this rivalry stems from two things: Jusuf Nurkic and Jusuf Nurkic (also maybe some playoff stuff too). Nurkic’s issues are well documented and his discontent as a Nugget reached a peak when he took it upon himself to leave the arena at halftime during a game. Despite his consistent pouting, the Nuggets did right by him and found him a home where he had ample chance to succeed (should have traded him to Brooklyn) even though the team they traded him to was in their division and their biggest threat to take the 8 seed last season, a threat they saw realized on the backs of a monster performance by Nurkic against the Nuggets.
Jokic vs Nurkic has all the makings of a great player rivalry, whether it be the former teammate angle, the rising star at the same position angle, the Serbia-Bosnia angle or the division foes angle. However, Blazers-Nuggets still falls short of a true rivalry because Denver has yet to get the Blazers back and outside of last season there is virtually no drama between these teams. Each team has beat the other once in the playoffs but the last time they faced each other in the post season was 1986. In fact, despite being division foes, until the Nurkic debacle its fair to say fanbases of the two teams were fairly amicable with one another. In the age of social media though that all can change in a second and it certainly has with Nurkic fanning those flames.
Add in the annoying annual summer “look at how hard I’m working” social media campaign, the childish attitude when things don’t go his way, the not so subtle shade on twitter and the fact that Jokic is clearly better and Nurkic makes himself easily the biggest villain to Nuggets fans. The two teams will likely find themselves battling for a playoff spot again in the spring of 2018 so this has the makings of a great rivalry. The Nuggets, like with all of their almost rivalries, simply need to start scoring some victories on their side of it.