When Denver Nuggets fans discuss their franchise’s history of playoff disappointments, we first direct our ire in the direction of Los Angeles, as that city’s Lakers have bested our beloved Nuggets in the post-season a franchise-record six times (without a lone playoff series victory for Denver) since the Nuggets entry into the NBA in 1977.
But when it comes to playoff futility for Denver professional basketball, another franchise has been almost equally stonewalling for the Nuggets: this year’s playoff opponent, the San Antonio Spurs.
Even though the Nuggets and Spurs were American Basketball Association (ABA) rivals - both being original ABA teams as the Denver Rockets and Dallas Chaparrals, respectively, when the league was formed in 1967 - they never met in the ABA playoffs with the lone exception of the Texas Chaparrals losing to the Denver Rockets for the ABA Western Division in a one-game tiebreaker in 1971.
But since jointly joining the NBA in 1977, the Spurs have eliminated the Nuggets from the playoffs five times ... with the Nuggets taking just one single series from their longtime division and conference rivals (in 1985). And while this year’s versions of the Nuggets and Spurs have virtually no connection to the past, besting an always-tough Spurs team will certainly go a long way to alleviate a history of playoff pain among longtime Nuggets fans.
On a side note, the Spurs should be commended for their incredible post-season consistency. Since joining the NBA in 1977, the Spurs have appeared in the playoffs every season except four and have advanced past the first round 25 times. Oh, and they’ve won five championships along the way. Comparatively, our Nuggets have missed the playoffs 18 times in that span, have advanced past the first round just six times and are yet to appear in an NBA Finals. Let’s flip that script starting this weekend please!
The first time the Nuggets and Spurs met in the playoffs was in 1983. The Spurs won the Midwest Division with 53 regular season wins and the Nuggets finished second with 45. After beating the Phoenix Suns 2-1 in Round 1 (in those days, teams only played best two out of three and top seeds received a bye), the Nuggets proved to be no match for the Spurs who carved the Nuggets up and bested them in five games.
The Nuggets, then coached by former Spurs coach Doug Moe, ran into near-peak Hall of Famer George “The Iceman” Gervin, peak Johnny Moore (not to be confused with my good friend and longtime Nuggets season ticket holder John Moore) and the aging Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore, with Gervin and Moore both averaging more than 27 points per game in the series - and Moore dishing out 14 assists per game. Nuggets All-Stars Alex English, Dan Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe all put up admirable scoring numbers, but the Nuggets stars plus a cast of Stiffs like Danny Schayes, Rob “Fat Little Hog” Williams, Bill Hanzlik and Glen “Gonzo” Gondrezick were no match for the superior Spurs.
But while the Spurs window of success from 1977 to 1983 was rapidly closing, the Stiffs Era was fully upon us and the future looked bright for Nuggets basketball!
The Stiffs Era was in full swing in 1985. After winning a then-NBA franchise record 52 games, the 1984-85 Nuggets were able to claim their lone post-season victory against the Spurs in a first round, hard fought 3-2 Nuggets series victory. In the 1984 off-season, Vandeweghe was traded for Fat Lever, Calvin Natt and Wayne Cooper and the Nuggets converted from an offensive juggernaut that played no defense into an offensive juggernaut that played minimal defense.
And it worked.
In that 1985 series, the high scoring Nuggets decimated the Spurs by 30 points in Game 1 and by 27 points in Game 5, but Games 2 through 4 were close affairs (just 10 points differential combined through those three games). This series was basically Gervin’s last stand as “The Iceman” as he scored 41 points in Game 2 which led to the 41-win Spurs upsetting the superior Nuggets at Denver’s McNichols Arena in Game 2. But the Nuggets were able to rebound and steal Game 3 at San Antonio which helped set up their handsome victory in Game 5 at McNichols and cement the series victory for Denver.
Between 1985 and 1989 the Spurs experienced their worst run in franchise history, missing the post-season twice (as noted above, the franchise has missed the post-season just four times ever) and even when they made the playoffs they did so with regular season win totals of 35 (1986) and 31 (1988 - when the Spurs were coached by current Nuggets assistant Bob Weiss!).
Meanwhile, the Nuggets - after rocking and rolling through the mid-1980s - eventually got old and ran out of gas by the decade’s end. The 1989-90 Nuggets eked their way into the playoffs having won just 43 games where they faced a rejuvenated Spurs team that featured future Hall of Famer and NBA Rookie of the Year David Robinson and Moe’s best friend Larry Brown as head coach, who had turned a 21-win team into a 56-win team; at the time the greatest one-season turnaround in NBA history.
The series ended with a 3-0 sweep and the Stiffs Era was officially over. Gone that following summer were Moe, English, Lever, Schayes and Hanzlik (sniff, sniff).
Six years after the complete dismantling of the Stiffs Era, the Nuggets returned to the playoffs for the second season in a row - and a year removed from pulling off the greatest upset in NBA Playoff history when the 1993-94 eighth-seeded Nuggets best the first-seeded Seattle Supersonics. Unfortunately, the Nuggets 1994 post-season success wasn’t able to translate into a successful regular season campaign. Star power forward LaPhonso Ellis missed the entire 1994-95 season with a horrible knee injury and the team just wasn’t the same without him. Nuggets head coach Dan Issel quit 34 games into the season and team president - and Denver Stiffs Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Inductee Bernie Bickerstaff - took the reins as coach for the season’s remaining 32 games.
Not only was that season disappointing but the playoff series versus the one-seed, 62-win Spurs was a disaster. After the Spurs decimated the Nuggets in San Antonio in Games 1 and 2 (by a combined total of 42 points), Game 3 - albeit a closer affair - was one of the uglier games in Nuggets playoff history, capped off by belligerently angry Nuggets fans throwing objects onto the court, Bickerstaff getting himself ejected from the game and, before leaving, having to get on the McNichols Arena PA system to ask the fans to calm down.
This playoff series was such a disaster that the Nuggets wouldn’t return to the post-season until 2004 (oh, how spoiled today’s Nuggets fans are - only having to wait six years in-between playoff appearances!).
Fast-forward 10 years and the Nuggets were back as a playoff stalwart after having missed the post-season from 1996 through 2003. With 40 games remaining in the 2004-05 campaign, the Nuggets hired the fiery George Karl to take over as head coach and he led the team to a remarkable 32-8 record - the best record in NBA history for a mid-season coaching replacement. Throughout the NBA that season, the Nuggets - featuring star players like Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, Andre Miller and Kenyon Martin - were known as “the team no one wants to face” in the playoffs, and their 49 regular season wins set up a date with the 59-win Spurs, now led by Gregg Popovich and having won NBA Championships in 1999 and 2003 with Tim Duncan taking over as the team’s leader from Robinson and complemented by fellow future Hall of Famers (and routine Nugget killers) Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Hopes were high for Nuggets fans as the team shocked the Spurs and won Game 1 in San Antonio in a bruising 93-87 affair. But the great Popovich quickly figured out how to beat his friend Karl and the Nuggets. The Spurs won Game 2 by almost 30 (a game in which Anthony shot 5-14 from the field), never looked back, beating the Nuggets in four straight games.
The Spurs would go on to win their third championship later that June.
In what felt like a repeat of the 2005 end-of-season and playoffs, a red hot regular season Nuggets team stormed into the playoffs as a sixth seed to face off against a 58-win, third-seeded Spurs squad. After recovering from the “Madison Square Garden Melee” of December 2006, which saw Anthony and J.R. Smith suspended for 15 and 10 games, respectively, the Nuggets traded Miller and others for Hall of Famer Allen Iverson early in the season before rattling off 10 wins in their last 11 games.
Once again, heading into the playoffs the Nuggets were branded as “the team no one wants to face”. Once again, the Nuggets upset the mighty Spurs in Game 1 at San Antonio, led by a stellar Iverson performance. Once again, the wheels on the Nuggets’ bus came off soon thereafter. And once again, the Spurs would go on to claim another NBA Championship in June.
In what was a much more competitive series than in 2005, the Nuggets lost games 2, 3 and 4 by just 21 total points. But the Nuggets were never really “in” the series, which regrettably was highlighted by Karl publicly excoriating the 21 year old Smith for his end-of-game mistakes in Game 4 and subsequent benching in Game 5.
It’s hard to believe that 12 years - 12 years!! - have passed since that 2007 Nuggets vs. Spurs playoff series. And now the Nuggets and Spurs are set to face off as playoff opponents for the seventh time in their respective franchise histories - one more series than the Lakers as the Nuggets most oft-played post-season opponent. But unlike in most years’ past, the Nuggets (at least theoretically) have the upper hand; having won 54 regular season games to the Spurs 48, which grants Denver home court advantage for just the second time ever in a Nuggets vs. Spurs series.
Moreover, while Popovich still masterfully mans the sidelines for the Spurs (when he can stay in a game for more than 63 seconds, of course), his current Spurs roster is devoid of the greatness that vaulted previous incarnations to six NBA Finals appearances and five championship victories. The Spurs current cornerstones LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan may be perennial All-Stars, but they’re better at stuffing the regular season stat sheet than elevating their teams through the playoffs. Long gone are the days of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker - as well as the tough defenders like Kawhi Leonard, Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry who made the Spurs so damn hard to beat.
So while the Nuggets may have a long way to go to fully avenge the many past playoff disappointments against the Spurs from San Antonio, they should be able to bring this series home in five games.