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Denver Nuggets: Back to the Future

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It’s all about momentum. If we can just get this baby to 88 miles per hour, you’re going to see some serious...

Denver Nuggets v Washington Wizards
There was a time you were happy to see all three of these faces...
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

This season, your Denver Nuggets are going to need a little mo’. Momentum is a funny thing. When you’re trying to clear a chasm you’ve never cleared, or at least haven’t cleared in a while, you want to be sure you’ve got enough speed as you hit the ramp, or...

One of my favorite things about Denver Stiffs is reading the opinions of folks who are a lot smarter about basketball than me. A couple recent instances come to mind:

That last from a killer roundtable that Adam Mares, Zach Mikash, Gordon Gross, and Brendan Vogt put together when the Nuggets schedule was released this past weekend. Add in more Mares and a smart dash of Ryan Blackburn above, and you have a lot of compelling thoughts in the mix. In this case, there’s a common consensus in Stiffs circles that the Denver DeLorean had better be hauling ass by the first of the year, as it’s a pretty bumpy stretch right before we hope to make that jump at season’s end.

Just like that DeLorean, we can do a little time traveling during the offseason break to look at how Nuggets teams of the past have handled things like momentum, getting up to speed, the bumps in the road, and what part of the season really propelled them forward. Here’s five Nuggets squads that made the playoffs, with some very different sorts of seasons in that mix. Could any of these paradigms help us gain enough momentum to get back to the playoffs? Er, future?

1984-1985: Moe-Mentum

The Nuggets found themselves four years into a nine-year stretch of making the playoffs with coach Doug Moe and a murderer’s row of famous Nuggets names... Dan Issel, Alex English, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, T.R. Dunn, Bill Hanzlik, and more carried the Nuggets to a 52-30 regular season mark on their way to their first trip to the Western Conference Finals. Denver shot out of the gates that year, going 12-2 in their first 14 games. Their lull that season came not long after, where a tough stretch of contests and a few early injuries had them at 19-15 by January 5th. When the 84-85 squad really found their way was in the games right after, going 22-6 over the next two months to be sitting at 41-21 on March 5th. A .500 finish over the last month carried the team to a cruising speed that nearly took them to the Finals.

This years’ squad will need to pile all of that heat up front to be able to cruise a little longer over those bumps, but if this squad can find any stretch of the season to win 22 out of 28 (or even 10 out of 12), they’ll give themselves a hell of a chance to be back in the postseason.

1993-1994: Slow-Mo

Issel found himself a little further down the bench less than a decade later, and with 10 less wins on the season to show for it (42-40). The ‘93-’94 Nuggets had one of the lowest winning percentages of any Nuggets team ever to make the postseason, and never really found much momentum in either direction. Denver vacillated through wins and losses so frequently that a 16-21 mark mid-January was the furthest they ever wandered from dead center in 82 games. Somehow, that ode to .500 has also become the beloved squad everyone remembers: Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Bryant Stith, and many more made their way into the hearts of Nuggets Nation during their remarkable playoff comeback victory over the George Karl-led Seattle Supersonics, followed by pushing the then-mighty Utah Jazz to seven games before finally dropping out. Just like in their regular season, each of their playoff series saw the Nuggets backs against the wall before pushing the other team to the limit.

This years’ squad can ill afford the habits of the ‘93-’94 squad, as a record hovering around .500 deep into this season would probably doom their playoff hopes. That said, the ‘93-’94 team endeared itself to Nuggets fans for an era with their never-say-die attitude and ability to turn the tide, habits that would serve the current squad well.

2008-2009: The Prodigal Son arrives from Mo-town

Though Allen Iverson is listed on the 08-09 Nuggets roster, Denver made a huge trade a few games into the season to bring recent NBA Finals MVP and Denver native Chauncey Billups home. Denver was already stacked with star power, with Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, Nene, and J.R. Smith on the squad. But where Iverson’s game demanded the ball in hand and often took focus from the team, Billups was all about team empowerment. Production at the point shifted vastly, and Denver flourished for it. In their first 16 games, the new core was finding its way, and still powered out to a 10-6 start. Once things started clicking, so did the Nuggets fortunes, and by mid-January Denver had won 17 out of their next 24 to land them at 27-14. The team kept slowly putting their foot to the floor, extending their record to 39-21 by the beginning of March before losing a little steam to wrap up the year, finishing at 54-28 with a first-place finish in the Northwest division, and a two seed through the playoffs. Those Nuggets nearly pushed their way past the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, and the word “inbound” still makes many Nuggets fans twitch uncontrollably.

For today’s Nuggets, a 27-14 start would give them a great shot at the postseason. .500 ball from there still gives them 47 or 48 wins, a number that would have snuck them in over the playoff line last year. If they can somehow match the output of that 08-09 squad, 54 wins would have comfortably netted the three seed in last years’ playoff race.

2009-2010: What the Mo?

With that sort of success, Denver brought the band back together the following season, with an incredibly potent squad with a chip on their shoulders after narrowly missing the Finals the year before. Nearing the end of February, the Nuggets were 20 games above .500 with the season 70% complete. That point was one of the high-water marks for the franchise right as Karl was diagnosed with throat cancer that could not wait for treatment to start. The understandably emotional turn stood to have one of two impacts on the team: to galvanize the squad to win it all for George, or to kick the emotional legs out from under the team. Sadly, the actual outcome was the latter, with Denver losing all momentum on their way to the finish line. Happily, and far more important, Karl survived the scare and came back for more success in Denver. The ‘09-’10 team finished one game worse than their previous season’s mark (53-29) and were never really in their first-round series with the Jazz. This led to the decision to break up the band the next year, a not-so-distant Melo-drama for most of Nuggets Nation, and a sad reminder of what might have been.

It’s tough to know what to learn from this campaign for today’s Nuggets, save hoping tragedy doesn’t befall you right as you are catching fire, and if it does, to hopefully rally around one another when the tough times come. ‘09-’10 was simply a heartbreaking year for the Nuggets, right as they were running hot.

2012-2013 Ulti-mo

Though only six seasons removed, much of the success of the Nuggets ‘12-’13 campaign has been swept aside in historic conversation, lost in the ignominy of a first-round exit to what’s become the still-running Golden State Freight Train. The running and gunning machine that was Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, and (bear with me) Andre Iguodala brought some impressive work on both ends of the floor for most of the season. That said, the momentum was spotty in the first half of the season, with a Game 42 loss to the Wizards leaving the Nuggets six games above .500 (24-18). The team needed some time to gel after a few years of roster shifts.

In Game 43, the Oklahoma City Thunder came to the Pepsi Center, a game that Denver narrowly won in overtime. Something broke loose for the Nuggets in that game, kicking off a nine-game winning streak. It was a triple-overtime loss at Boston that kept Denver from making it 10 in a row. Any team would be happy to have a nine-game streak as a part of their season’s momentum, and streaks of that sort are fairly rare in Nuggets history. That only made it all the more remarkable that six games later, they kicked off a 15-game win streak that included five road games and encapsulated a full month (February 23rd to March 23rd). That stretch is tied for the 24th-longest streak in NBA history. After two more losses, Denver won eight of their last nine to wrap the season at 57-25.

Those last 40 games saw Denver hang 33 W’s, good for a gaudy .825 win percentage. It’s not 88, but it’s certainly fast enough to make a jump.

So what to take from the past for this Denver Nuggets squad? From each of these historic teams there is something to learn. Start hot, keep scrapping, every game counts, don’t let a bad thing snowball, and playing to your strengths and opportunities can make for some serious burnt rubber. Oh, and try to win over 80 percent of your games. That also seems to help.

As the Stiffs collective has stated, the hill gets pretty steep at the end of this season, Nuggets Nation. How much speed will we need to pick up to clear the gap? Is that a ramp at the end, or the quickest route to the canyon floor? How much momentum do you think these Denver Nuggets will have by game 82?

Poll

Which of these momentum arcs will the 2018-2019 Nuggets most closely resemble?

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    1984-85: Issel, English (53-29)
    (34 votes)
  • 9%
    1993-94: Mutombo, Ellis (42-40)
    (21 votes)
  • 19%
    2008-09: Anthony, Billups (54-28)
    (42 votes)
  • 14%
    2009-10: Melo, Chauncey v2 (53-29)
    (31 votes)
  • 18%
    2012-13: Gallinari, Iguodala (57-25)
    (38 votes)
  • 21%
    None of the above
    (45 votes)
211 votes total Vote Now