Did you know that the NBA Lottery was put into place in 1985? That was the year the New York Knicks “won” the first pick in the draft and were able to select highly touted Georgetown center Patrick Ewing. What were the Nuggets up to in ’85? When did Denver get into the lotto mix and why?

In 1985 and 1986 the NBA lotto gave equal chances to all seven non-playoff teams by having just one envelope per team placed inside a giant rotating wheel. Picks 1-7 were determined by David Stern pulling out each envelope. So, the worst team in the league could have wound up picking 7th. By 1987 the critics of the lotto process saw some reform. The league decided to make only the first three picks up for grabs, and after that team records would determine where you picked. So, if you had the worst record in the league – you'd pick no worse than 4th. And then in 1990, the NBA added a weighted system to the lotto that gave the worst team a 16.7% chance at getting the top pick – gone was the single envelope per non-playoff team. Finally, in 1993 the NBA increased the odds for the worst team from 16.7% chance at the top pick to 25%.

It was a pretty elementary process in 1985. Luckily for us, with the interwebz, we can go back and watch that footage of the first NBA lottery:

Now, you might asking yourself: Why weren’t the Nuggets in the ’85 lotto? Well, that’d be because they were busy leading the league in points per game at 120 per contest, compiling a 52-30 record (good for the second seed in the Western Conference), and had just lost in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers (4-1). The Nuggets would have no use for the NBA lottery until 1991, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Nuggets of the 80’s were enjoying great success, but that didn’t come without some hiccups along the way. A 12 year span, from 1967-1979, saw the Nuggets (the Rockets from 1967-74) in the playoffs every season – nine of those in the ABA and three in the NBA. The team had stability with head coach Larry Brown’s four and a half seasons, but when he was replaced after going 28-25 during the 1978-79 campaign, things started to slip.

Brown's assistant, Donnie Walsh, took over as head coach during the year, and went 19-10 to help guide the team into the post season. But the next season (1979-80), the team went just 30-52 and missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Walsh would go 11-20 to start the 1980-81 campaign, and was replaced with Doug Moe (a close friend of Brown's).

Moe helped right the ship the rest of the way in 1981 and saw the team go 26-25, to finish 37-45. From there, the Nuggets returned to NBA relevancy and would see some glory years that included nine straight trips to the playoffs (five first round exits, three trips to the WC Semi Finals, and one trip to the WCFs). When looking back at Moe's tenure, most people look fondly on his time, heck even this blog was named in honor of a Moe-ism "Stiffs!" But when you talk to reporters who covered the team back then, you get a fuller picture that shows Moe wasn't without his faults as coach. It wasn't all roses as Denver's head man.

After the team made the Western Conference Finals in 1985, they never recaptured that same success. Moe's teams still made the playoffs for the next five seasons, even topping the win total in '84-'85 of 52 with 54 wins in '87-'88, but they would only advance past the first round twice (and lost in the Semis in both cases).

Being named Coach of the Year in 1987-88, when the Nuggets set a franchise record with 54 wins, didn't help Moe save his job. Two years later he was fired following 1989-90 season, in which his team went 43-39 and made the playoffs. The franchise was at a crossroads with an aging roster, and needing a new voice.

The old voice of Moe was gone, and the way he left will forever be pretty hilarious. From the Philadelphia Daily News:

Moe, one of the most colorful characters the game has ever seen, held a news conference announcing his own firing. Not only that, but he had his wife, Big Jane (as Moe calls her), pop open a bottle of champagne and they toasted the local media.

How do you replace a guy like that? What do you do with a roster that has again made the playoffs? Well, at that time the Nuggets decided to blow up the roster. After the 1989-90 season, when the team was 43-39, we saw eight players gone before the 1990-91 campaign, and 15 new faces were brought in at various times during that season.

Here are the core players the Nuggets parted with in the off-season of 1990:

1.) Alex English – signed with the Dallas Mavericks as an unrestricted free agent (out of basketball after being released by the Mavs on May 1, 1991.)

2.) Fat Lever – traded to the Dallas Mavericks for two first round picks (1990 & 1991 selections).

3.) Joe Barry Carroll – signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Phoenix Suns.

4.) Bill Hanzlik – retired.

5.) Danny Schayes – traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Terry Mills.

6.) Tim Kempton – out of basketball before signing with the Phoenix Suns in 1992.

Notable roster holdovers included: Michael Adams, Walter Davis, T.R. Dunn, Jerome Lane, Todd Lichti, and Blair Rasmussen.

What nobody knew at the time was that the decisions made following that '89-'90 campaign would help set the wheels in motion for the Nuggets' historic 1994 playoff run. Let's go through and see how that setup came to be …

The Nuggets replaced Doug Moe with Paul Westhead. Good old Westy had already failed twice in the NBA, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls. Failure is an odd word for the LA days since Westhead won the NBA title as head coach with the Lakers in 1980, and compiled a 111-50 record with Magic Johnson and Company in a three season stint (50-18, 54-28, and 7-4). He landed with the Bulls for the 1982-83 season, but went 28-54 and was canned after just one season. From 1985-90 Westhead had a nice run as the head man for Loyola Marymount in the college ranks. In a three year span from 1988-90 he went 70-18 and the Nuggets lured him back to the NBA.

Westhead's Nuggets were a disaster, to say the least. They went 20-62 in his first season, and 24-58 in his final season with the team. Needless to say, the Nuggets nine year playoff run, under Moe, was over as the team was out of the post-season the next three years, from 1991-93. But again, the Nuggets began using the assets from the '89-'90 squad to help rebuild for the future.

It took the Nuggets three seasons to get back to the playoffs and to find their new path. In the 1990 offseason, the team shed eight players and added 15. In the 1991 offseason, the team parted with 12 players and six new faces would be in the mix. In the 1992 offseason, the team parted with seven players, and added six new faces. And in the 1993 offseason, the team parted with just four players and added seven new faces. That's a total of 65 players coming-and-going from 1990-93.

Now, let's see how the Nuggets core from the 1994 playoffs wound up with the team via the 1989-90 roster …
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf: 1990

Had Denver never traded away Fat Lever, they never would have wound up with Rauf. On June 22, 1990, the Nuggets traded the 9th pick of the draft and the 15th pick to the Miami Heat for the 3rd overall pick (Chris Jackson aka Rauf). Here’s how the Nuggets wound up with two first round picks in the 1990 draft:

The 15th pick was Denver's original selection after the team went 43-39. The 9th pick was originally the Washington Bullets selection that found it's way to Denver. In 1986, the Mavericks swapped Jay Vincent to the Bullets for their 1990 first round selection. The Nuggets acquired that Bullet's pick from the Mavericks as one of the two picks in the Lever deal. Denver later traded that pick, and their own (9th and 15th) to the Heat for the 3rd overall pick. Thankfully the Bullets went 31-51 in '89-'90 and gave the Nuggets a nice asset to work with.

Dikembe Mutombo: 1991

The Nuggets went a league worst 20-62 in the 1990-91 season and that earned them their first NBA lottery selection. Remember, during this time the Nuggets only had a 16.67% chance at the no. 1 pick. It was truly the worst case scenario when the lottery was said and done. The Nuggets slipped back from the top spot (based upon team record) to the 4th spot as three teams jumped ahead of them.

Here is how the Top 3 picks shook out for the 1991 lottery:

1.) Charlotte Hornets: 26-56 with a 10.61% shot at the first pick: Larry Johnson.

2.) New Jersey Nets: 26-56 with a 12.12% shot at the first pick: Kenny Anderson.

3.) Sacramento Kings: 25-57 with a 13.64% shot at the first pick: Billy Owens (traded to Golden State).

4.) Denver Nuggets: 20-62 with a 16.67% shot at the first pick: Dikembe Mutombo.

The first lottery wasn't kind to the Nuggets (foreshadowing the Nuggets entire lottery history), but the Nuggets made the best of a bad situation, and drafted a Hall of Famer.

Reggie Williams: 1991

The former 4th overall selection of the 1987 draft was signed as a free agent by the Nuggets on Jan. 4th, 1991. Williams would go on to have his finest scoring seasons with the Nuggets, as he posted his three highest scoring totals of 16.1, 18.2 and 17 points per game with Denver.

LaPhonso Ellis: 1992

During Westhead's second season running the team, the Nuggets went 24-58 and "earned" another lottery pick in the 1992 draft. The Nuggets had a 12.12% chance at the no. 1 pick, but Lady Luck was not on Denver's side and the team wound up moving back in the lottery to the 5th spot (from the 4th spot that their team record earned).

That year in the NBA lotto the 21-61 Orlando Magic moved from the 2nd slot in the draft to the 1st and selected Shaquille O’Neal. The 31-51 Charlotte Hornets were slotted to pick 8th before the lotto, but jumped ahead to the 2nd pick and eventually drafted Alonzo Mourning. The 15-67 Minnesota Timberwolves had the best odds entering the lottery, but fell back two spots to 3rd and took Christian Laettner. And the 22-60 Dallas Mavericks fell back from the 3rd position to 4th and drafted Jim Jackson.

While the Nuggets didn't luck out with O'Neal or Mourning, they did luck into Ellis.

Robert Pack: 1992

In the offseason of 1990 the Nuggets acquired Terry Mills from the Bucks in exchange for Danny Schayes. The following January of 1991, the Nuggets were part of a three-team trade that saw the following teams acquire:

Blazers get:
-Walter Davis from Denver (he was a member of the 1989-90 Nugs)
-1992 second round pick

Nets get:
-Drazen Petrovic
-Terry Mills

Nuggets get:
-Greg Cadillac Anderson
-1992 first round pick
-1993 second round pick

The Nuggets would use that '93 second round pick to acquire Pack from the Blazers on Oct. 23rd, 1992.

Bryant Stith: 1992

In that massive three-team trade in Jan. of 1991, the Nuggets acquired a future first round pick from the Nets. The protections on the pick were for '92, 1993, and 1994. It was conveyed to the Nuggets in '92 because the Nets made the playoffs and Denver drafted Stith 13th overall.

Rodney Rogers: 1993

During Dan Issel’s first season as Nuggets head coach, the team began turning things around and went 36-46, so another lotto pick came Denver’s way. The Nugs only had a 6.06% chance at earning the top pick in the draft. Instead of moving up, or staying put, the team slipped from the 8th slot to the 9th slot. It was, again, the Orlando Magic leapfrogging teams. Orlando went 41-41 that season and had only a 1.52% chance at winning the lottery, and that’s all they needed. They got the top pick and took Chris Webber, but quickly traded him for the lesser known Anfernee Hardaway.

The Nuggets would miss out on 8th pick Vin Baker, but took Rogers (who was a key piece in Denver).

Bison Dele: 1993

The Nuggets went 44-38 during the 1988-89 campaign and earned the 15th pick in the draft, where they selected promising Stanford standout Todd Lichti. Lichti averaged 18.8 per game at Stanford and pushed those totals to 20.1 points per game in his junior and senior seasons.

Lichti also showed some promise with the Nuggets in his rookie campaign, but in May of 1990 a tragic car accident (where Lichti was the passenger) changed his career. Had Lichti never been in that wreck, he may have been a key player with the Nuggets, and not somebody they were willing to part with on Aug. 19th, 1993. That's when the Nuggets pulled the trigger on the trade that brought Dele aka Brian Williams to Denver for Lichti, Anthony Cook, and a future second round pick (from the Milwaukee Bucks).

Tom Hammonds: 1993

Signed with the Nuggets as a free agent on Feb. 5th, 1993.


Did the Nuggets have grand designs for the future when they decided to part ways with Doug Moe, Alex English, and Fat Lever in 1990? While the answer to that question is likely: yes, it is also interesting to see how those plans – that had to remain fluid – came together.

The Nuggets failed to find their next Moe after they fired him. Paul Westhead was a disaster for two seasons in Denver. Dan Issel looked like the next big thing for Nuggets coaches, but his short two and an (almost) half seasons with the team didn’t bring the stability the franchise had hoped in the early ’90s. It took the Nuggets 11 more head coaches after Moe (counting Issel twice) to find stability once again in the coaching ranks with George Karl.

It took the Nuggets shuffling 65 players in-and-out of the roster in just four seasons to find the perfect roster for the playoff run in 1994. Some luck, some strategy, and a lot of headaches.

As this offseason approaches, remember the moves that were made following the 1989-90 season and how they set up the 1994 playoff team. We can draw similar conclusions to the 2012-13 Nuggets with the firing of Karl and the roster moves that have followed.

It may be another few years before the Nuggets start getting back on the right track, but this offseason will set wheels in motion for how things will play out for years to come.