It wasn’t always championships, parades and Laker’s tears in Nuggets land. No, for much of the Denver Nuggets history they’ve been a good, not great team…and for other parts they were downright awful. In the 1990s the Nuggets swung from terrible team that played no defense to solid young team with potential to solidly mediocre and finally, downright awful. There were some definite highs and some definite lows in that decade for Nuggets fans. The lowest of lows was winning just eleven games in the 1997-1998 with a team whose best player statistically was…checks notes…Anthony Goldwire. The highest of highs of course was the ’93-’94 Nuggets squad making history as the first ever eight seed to upset a one seed in the playoffs. Other than that though there weren’t a ton of highs in the 90s. The Nuggets made the playoffs again in ’95 and were promptly swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf hit a pretty cool buzzer beater in the last game of the ’92-’93 season and that is basically it. It was a decade far more often marred by lows such as Rauf’s anthem controversy, a myriad of injuries to Laphonso Ellis and Bernie Bickerstaff refusing to pay Dikembe Mutombo and letting him walk for nothing in free agency. Truly the darkest decade of Denver Nuggets basketball. Before the young core that upset the Seattle Supersonics got Nugglifed though there was another memorable moment that happened in 1996. On February 4th, 1996 a middle of the pack Nuggets team slayed the NBA’s biggest giant: the 72-10 Chicago Bulls.

It was the absolute golden era of Bulls basketball in the 1990s. In case you weren’t aware, they had this guy named Michael Jordan and he was pretty good. Jordan had already led the Bulls to a threepeat in the early part of the decade and then retired in 1993 (some might say he took a hiatus) before returning to basketball and the Bulls in 1995. While some of the players that helped Jordan win his first three titles had moved on (Horace Grant, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson) Chicago had loaded up on replacements while Jordan was retired and then went all in during the first full offseason he was back. He still had his running mate and hall of famer Scottie Pippen, but the Bulls had built a fantastic supporting cast around those two. They filled out their big three by acquiring Dennis Rodman who had wore out his welcome in San Antonio and was available a bargain bin price (read: Will Perdue). They upsized Jordan’s backcourt partner by going from the 6’2″ Paxson to 6’6″ Ron Harper. Acquiring Rodman allowed the Bulls to move Toni Kukoc to the bench where he could play small forward (he flourished and won 6th man of the year). Steve Kerr replaced Armstrong as the shooter off the bench and they had Luc Longley and Bill Wennington to fill the classic big who just rebounds and doesn’t get in the way role. Everyone knew their job and coach Phil Jackson knew how to maximize everyone in his system. That Bulls team without a doubt is one of the greatest teams of all time and many will argue it is in fact the greatest team of all time.

The ’95-’96 Nuggets were not exactly juggernauts, but they were a respectable team. Ellis got healthy halfway through the season, Rauf didn’t get involved in the anthem controversy until later in the season. Mutombo hadn’t walked, Bryant Stith was still locking up opposing guards, Tom Hammonds was hammering home dunks  off the bench. They even had a classic stiff in Don MacLean. By and large the team that upset the Sonics in ’94 was still around come the start of ’96. They also had dynamic rookie Antonio McDyess in the fold, outside shooting (some might say too much outside shooting) in the way of Dale Ellis and a fantastic backup PG in young Jalen Rose. It’s very easy to make an argument that when they were fully healthy, the 95-96 team was actually better than the 93-94 team. The major downgrade of course was at the coaching spot. Dan Issel walked away from the team mid season the year prior and Bickerstaff decided he could coach the team himself. The first third of the season was a crazy roller coaster. Denver opened the year 1-8 (their only win taking three overtimes to get) and then went on a run to get back to .500 by mid December only to fall seven games below .500 by the end of January. The Bulls meanwhile were 39-3 come the end of the first month in 1996.

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That set the stage for the Nuggets to once again shock the NBA world. On February 4th the Bulls were headed to Denver for the fourth game in a six game western road trip. They hadn’t lost a game since the day after Christmas and their three losses thus far on the year came against some of the best teams in the NBA: the Orlando Magic (won 60 games that year), the Sonics (won 64 games) and the Indiana Pacers (won 52 games). The Nuggets meanwhile were working the Phonz back into their rotation after he had missed essentially a season and a half. They were only a game and half out of playoff position and looking to make the postseason for the third straight year. They also had the benefit of rest, getting two days off before the Sunday home tilt.

Maybe it was the road trip, maybe it was a trap game (it was sandwiched between the Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers and the Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns), maybe it was the noted 1990s Denver nightlife…but for whatever reason, the Bulls were not ready for what hit them in Denver that night. The Nuggets got on Chicago from the jump in the first half. Despite being undersized in comparison the Chicago’s two 6’6″ starting guards, Rauf got what ever he wanted. Generally speaking he didn’t need much more than a screen at the three point line. While a score first point guard who has the green light to fire at will is commonplace in 2023, it was quite the rarity in 1996 and Chicago struggled to find an answer, even tasking Jordan himself with slowing down Rauf at times. Mahmoud poured in 23 points in the first half of the game while McDyess and Laphonso Ellis gave another fantastic defender, Rodman, all he could handle. On the other end Deke was doing his thing, denying the likes of Jordan and Pippen at the rim and gobbling up every rebound he could find. Before you knew it, it was just over midway through the second quarter and the Nuggets were leading by thirty-one points. The Bulls made a bit of a rally before half but after two quarters Denver held a 68-43 lead…but Chicago had that guy Jordan.

Michael was never a noted three point shooter. He certainly had the capability and some memorable moments from his three point shooting (shrug game against the Portland Trail Blazers) but it wasn’t a staple of his game like the athletic drives as a young player and his post game later in his career were. He kept you honest but as a career 33% three point shooter it was never his specialty. That 95-96 year was a different story though. He shot over 42% from three and took 3.2 attempts per game which wasn’t a ton but the second most attempts per game in his career (he took 3.6 3pt FGA  per game the following season). In the third quarter he found his outside stroke canning multiple threes (he finished 4-7 from downtown on the night) and sparking a Bulls comeback. Pippen joined in, the Bulls started getting out on the break and the momentum completely shifted. Anyone who watched Jordan knows that when his jumper is going and the momentum is on his side it spells big danger for the opposition. He quickly realized it was Dale Ellis guarding him and went to work. He dropped 22 points in the third quarter. With Mike cooking the rest of the Bulls got in on the action and kept chipping away at the lead. Chicago outscored Denver 39-16 in the third quarter and took the lead less than a minute into the fourth on a Pippen and one.

The Nuggets luckily snapped out of their funk in the fourth quarter. McDyess, Rauf and Dale Ellis started knocking down shots. Deke had an emphatic putback slam and monstrous block on Jordan. Still, Michael wasn’t going away. He kept Chicago in it right down to the final minute, dueling with Rauf et al. Mahmoud hit a long two with his foot on the thee point line with under a minute to go to get the Nuggets up by four and then Laphonso Ellis denied Jordan’s shot on the other end. A Dale Ellis mid-range jumper proved to be the dagger and the Nuggets broke the Bulls eighteen game win streak.

In the end I suppose the Bulls got the last laugh. They would lose only six more game that season (including the very next one at Phoenix) and handle the Sonics in the NBA finals in six games. That would be the first championship in Jordan and Pippen’s second threepeat. Meanwhile the Nuggets were about to completely fall apart. About a month later Rauf protested American tyranny by refusing to stand for the National Anthem. It sparked immediate controversy and the Nuggets traded him that Summer. That same Summer Deke left for the payday in Atlanta that Bickerstaff refused to give him in Denver and the next season Laphonso ruptured his achilles tendon which marked the beginning of the end of his time in Denver. It perhaps is the greatest what if in Nuggets history. A team built on drafting and developing with a generational talent at center, a score first guard who could shoot the roof off a building and a forward with an unstoppable ability to score when he’s on. Something tells me that strategy can work in the NBA. It didn’t work for the Nuggets in the 90s though and in the end the shocking upset of the 95-96 Bulls was that group’s last hurrah.

Check out this great interview of Laphonso about the game by Justin Adams!