With the 2018-19 Denver Nuggets on pace to win 56 regular season games and having a thrillingly fun time whilst doing so, it got me thinking: is this the greatest regular season team in the Nuggets NBA franchise history?
Wanting to make sure a column on said topic had not yet been written, I Googled “best regular season team in Denver Nuggets history” and found that yours truly had written this exact same column in 2013, as that season’s 57-win Nuggets team was wrapping up its historic regular season run.
Having re-read my 2013 column, I was clearly caught up in the euphoria of that season’s regular season record-setting run and gave the 2012-13 team top billing as the franchise’s best NBA participant ever, citing that team’s ability to overcome injuries (sound familiar?), a tougher schedule than their Western Conference counterparts (again, sound familiar?) and that team’s ability to compete just about every night and figure out how to win tough games (again.....familiar??).
In my 2013 column I also recapped the “usual suspects” of great regular season Nuggets teams: 1976-77 (50 wins), 1984-85 (52), 1987-88 (54) and 2008-09 (54). I even gave a nod to one of my all-time favorite Nuggets teams; the Jeff Bzdelik-coached 2002-03 Nuggets who won 17 more games than they should have (by winning exactly 17 games).
But with the 2018-19 Nuggets winning over both Denver and nationwide sports fans alike, the question must be revisited six years after the 2012-13 season concluded. And this time, I’m doing it with some (semi) definable parameters. But rather than having me decide for you, I thought it would be fun to serve up six options for the Denver Stiffs community to vote on.
Before making your picks and reading about the candidates, I must offer a few caveats ...
1 - I selected ONE team from each era of successful Nuggets history. For example, even though Doug Moe’s 1984-85 and 1987-88 Nuggets are both worthy of “all-time best regular season” status, I only picked one.
2 - The exception to #1 is that George Karl’s Nuggets Era was bifurcated into “with Carmelo Anthony” and “post-Carmelo Anthony”, and thus - to Karl’s credit - he lands two completely different teams on this list.
3 - I’ve measured each team based on the following categories and assigned them a number from one to three. The categories are:
- Pre-Season Expectations (one being high, three being low)
- Fun Factor (from the players to the coaches’ personalities, the fan enthusiasm for the team, etc. - one being low, three being high)
- NBA Competitive Factor (how tough was that era in the NBA? one being low, three being high)
- Active All-Stars on the roster (the exact number for that season only)
- Wins (one for sub-50 wins, two for 50-53 wins, three for 54+ wins)
- Stiff Factor (how many genuine Stiffs on the roster, one to three)
1976-77 (50 regular season wins)
Summary: As one of four holdover ABA franchises that joined the NBA in 1976, expectations were low for our Denver Nuggets and yet they wowed the NBA world by reeling off 50 wins in their maiden NBA season. In hindsight, expectations shouldn’t have been low as the team featured superstar guard David Thompson, perennial All-Star forward/center Dan Issel and another All-Star in Bobby Jones. Throw in the manic, fashion forward Larry Brown as the team’s head coach and the 1976-77 Nuggets had a high “Fun Factor,” too.
Pre-Season Expectations: 2 (again, the NBA snobs didn’t think the ABA entrants could hang in the big leagues)
Fun Factor: 3 (David Thompson was the first coming of Michael Jordan and brought his aerial dunking repertoire into the NBA)
Competitive Factor: 1 (with many NBA players doing drugs, drinking and even smoking, the talent and conditioning was nowhere near modern day levels)
Active All-Stars: 3 (Thompson, Issel and Jones)
Stiff Factor: 2 (Monte Towe, a 5’7” guard, was basically Thompson’s caddy from NC State who made his way onto the roster. And another backup guard was named Roland “Fatty” Taylor. Yes, the Nuggets had another player with “Fat” in his first name before Lafayette “Fat” Lever showed up!)
1987-88 (54 regular season wins)
Summary: Choosing among Doug Moe’s Golden Era of Nuggets teams is tough, but even though this team was upset in the playoffs’ second round it was the best regular season squad of the 10 teams Moe coached in Denver. Simply put, the 1987-88 NBA Season may have been the best in league history and yet our Nuggets - coming off a disappointing 37-win 1986-87 campaign - were able to rack up the second-most wins among all Western Conference teams while sending Alex English and Fat Lever as starters to the All-Star Game. And the fun factor was at an all-time level as English and Lever were surrounded by the very players whom the term Stiff is often referred to. It was such an impressive regular season that Moe would be named NBA Coach of the Year in 1988, to which he responded in Classic Moe Speak: ”It’s nice to know people don’t think you’re a total idiot. It must have been a poor year for coaches.”
Pre-Season Expectations: 3 (the team had won just 37 games the season before - a 17 game turnaround with essentially the same roster)
Fun Factor: 3 (Moe was at peak Moe, English at peak English, Lever at peak Lever and the Stiffs at peak Stiffs ... McNichols Arena was packed nightly)
Competitive Factor: 3 (imagine taking today’s NBA players from 30 rosters and consolidating the best of them into 23 rosters - that’s what the 1987-88 season was like - Hall of Famers James Worthy, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale and Patrick Ewing weren’t even All-Star Game starters!)
Active All-Stars: 2 (English and Lever)
Stiff Factor: 3 (Bill Hanzlik, Danny Schayes and Blair Rasmussen - three Denver Stiffs Hall of Famers!)
1992-93 (36 regular season wins)
Summary: I know what you’re thinking. How the @#$% did this Nuggets squad make this list? But hear me out! Coming off two disastrous seasons in which the Nuggets won just 44 games combined, the Nuggets jettisoned Paul Westhead as head coach and brought in the legendary Issel - who had never coached in the pros - to commandeer a squad featuring young stars like Dikembe Mutombo, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (then named Chris Jackson) and a pair of rookies in LaPhonso Ellis and Bryant Stith. Even though this team won just 36 games and missed the playoffs, the 1992-93 campaign went down as one of the funnest in franchise history - capped off by Abdul-Rauf’s incredible dagger, end-of-game three-pointer to sink the 62-win Phoenix Suns in the season’s final game.
In 1993 the future was as bright as ever for Nuggets fans but the weight of those expectations dragged the 1993-94 Nuggets into a disappointing 42-win regular season (which, ironically, ended with the greatest post-season upset in NBA history when those very Nuggets defeated the top-seed Seattle Supersonics in the playoffs’ first round).
Pre-Season Expectations: 3 (coming off the Westhead Era and Abdul-Rauf’s first two seasons were a bust, so everything for the Nuggets was upside)
Fun Factor: 3 (the Nuggets were the NBA’s youngest team by age average that season and started “The Phonz” in every game)
Competitive Factor: 2 (the NBA talent pool was a bit diluted thanks to expanding from 23 teams to 27 between 1988 and 1990)
Active All-Stars: 0 (oddly, Mutombo made the All-Star team as a rookie in 1992 and wouldn’t return until 1995)
Stiff Factor: 3 (Scott Hastings, Todd Lichti and Kevin Brooks)
2008-09 (54 regular season wins)
Summary: Coming off a hugely disappointing 2007-08 campaign in which the talent-laden Nuggets barely qualified for the playoffs only to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers, Nuggets ownership decided to shake up the team’s overly expensive roster and shipped Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby out of town in trade for hometown hero Chauncey Billups and a second round draft pick, respectively (and not joking). But instead of going backwards in the standings, head coach George Karl and his Nuggets made a major leap forward - finishing with 54 wins and securing the Western Conference’s second seed.
Pre-Season Expectations: 3 (after Iverson and Camby’s departures, just making the playoffs was considered an accomplishment)
Fun Factor: 3 (Billups coming back, Kenyon Martin’s return, J.R. Smith’s irrational confidence and Chris “Birdman” Andersen’s ascent made for a thrilling season)
Competitive Factor: 3 (the Western Conference was just as tough - if not tougher - then as now, think peak Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming and Chris Paul)
Active All-Stars: 1 (strangely, Carmelo Anthony wasn’t selected by the fans or the coaches that season)
Stiff Factor: 2 (Chris Andersen, Johan Petro)
2012-13 (57 regular season wins)
Summary: As noted above, one has to bifurcate Nuggets Karl’s nine year tenure in Denver into two parts - “with Carmelo Anthony” and “post-Carmelo Anthony.” After Anthony was traded (sadly, along with Billups) in February of 2011 in one of the most high profile superstar trades in NBA history, the Nuggets roster was completely remade from a star-driven roster to a roster of complementary nobodies. But those nobodies played hard for Karl and became the darlings of Denver when they won a team record 15 straight and a Nuggets NBA franchise record 57 games that season - before tragically folding to the upstart Golden State Warriors in the playoffs’ first round.
Pre-Season Expectations: 3 (when you’re a cast of nobodies, nobody gives you much of a shot to do anything)
Fun Factor: 3 (not one player averaged more than 17 ppg, but seven players averaged 9.6 ppg or more)
Competitive Factor: 3 (just like today’s NBA, the Western Conference was a murderers’ row of opponents)
Active All-Stars: 0
Stiff Factor: 2 (Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov)
2018-19 (50+ regular season wins)
Summary: Even though the 2018-19 regular season hasn’t officially concluded, there’s no doubting that this edition of the Nuggets ranks among the pantheon of great Nuggets regular season teams. This season’s squad has had all the makings of an all-time great Nuggets team: a cast of nobodies who punch well above their weight, low expectations, a candid straight-talking coach in Michael Malone, huge fan interest and a perennial All-Star to be in Nikola Jokic. What this season’s Nuggets team doesn’t have is a true “Stiff Factor”, perhaps not surprising as my colleague Adam Mares likes to point out when citing just how good today’s NBA players are in general. Even Juancho Hernangomez - the Spanish version of Bill Hanzlik - is too good to be called a Stiff. But if we could give Jokic an honorary Stiff position (hell, he looks like one!) this team climbs up the all-time ranks quickly.
Pre-Season Expectations: 3 (having missed the playoffs for five straight seasons, fans were hoping for an eighth-seed and might get a one seed instead!)
Fun Factor: 3 (the playoff absence, a cast of young players who genuinely like Denver and each other, and Denver’s enormous influx of millennials rooting for their new home team has made home games electric all season long)
Competitive Factor: 3 (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Damian Lillard ... the talent in the Western Conference is as tough as ever)
Active All-Stars: 1 (Jokic)
Wins: 3 (assuming they win 54+)
Stiff Factor: 1 (Mason Plumlee - he makes three-pointer bank shots!)
Which is the greatest regular season team in Nuggets NBA franchise history?
Which is the greatest regular season team in Nuggets NBA franchise history?
This poll is closed