Top 5 All-Time Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets were one of the four teams to come over from the ABA when the league merged with the NBA in the late ‘70s, but despite their relative youth, the Nuggets have a pretty rich history. Three Hall of Famers already grace the rafters with their retired numbers (plus one more non-Hall stud Nugget), and that doesn’t even include the other great players too young to be considered just yet.
So here they are, the top five all-time Denver Nuggets, starting with the tallest guy on the list:
#5 – Dikembe Mutombo (1991-1996)
What he did for the Nuggets: Aside from being the centerpiece of the most iconic bit of film in franchise history—Deke grasping and shaking the ball, back to the floor after the #8 Nuggets upset the #1 Sonics in the 1994 playoffs—Mutombo was the most dominant defensive player the team has ever had. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in blocked shots (2nd all-time for the entire league), and he’s also in the top ten for pretty much every career rebounding category the NBA has. He was a three-time All-Star in Denver and won his first Defensive Player of the Year award as a Nugget. Had he played his whole career in Denver, we may be talking about him as the greatest player the team has ever had, but in five years he still did enough to get himself into the Top Five.
Worth noting: Mutombo’s first All-Star selection came his rookie year in Denver, something that obviously isn’t very easy to do. He averaged 16.6 ppg, 12.3 rpg, and almost 3 bpg his first season in the league.
#4 – Carmelo Anthony (2003-2011)
What he did for the Nuggets: It’s hard to gauge how Nuggets fans will about Carmelo twenty years from now, but for the time being the wounds are too deep to fully appreciate how valuable he’s been to the franchise over the better part of the last decade. Aside from the fact that Melo helped lead Denver back to credibility and get them into the postseason every year from his sophomore season on, he was also a three-time All-Star and a three-time All-NBA selection. Three doesn’t seem like a huge number, but there were definitely years when his All-Star snubs generated plenty of controversy. He’s among the most dominant scorers in the league today; it’s just too bad he couldn’t still be scoring those points for Denver.
Worth noting: If the Detroit Pistons weren’t coming off a year in which small forward Tayshaun Prince had played so well, there’s a strong possibility that they would have selected Anthony with the #2 pick instead of Darko Milicic. Instead, drafting for need placed Milicic in Detroit and Carmelo in Denver, despite the fact that Anthony was clearly the second-best player in the draft pool at the time.
#3 – Dan Issel (1975-1985)
What he did for the Nuggets: Issel played most of his ABA ball with the Kentucky Colonels (which was the same state in which he played his college ball), but he got moved to Denver just in time for the NBA merger, and that gave him nine solid seasons with the NBA version of the Nuggets. In that time, he was an All-Star and All-NBA selection only once, though he was a Nugget All-Star once while the team was still in the ABA, too. He’s the franchise leader in free throws made and attempted, as well as defensive and total rebounds. For all that, his #44 is retired by the team and he’s also since been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Worth noting: Issel was drafted by both the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA and the Detroit Pistons of the NBA. Had Issel made a different decision, he may have totally changed the fate of that Detroit franchise. That makes it twice that the Pistons just missed on major talents. Fate can be harsh.
#2 – David Thompson (1975-1982)
What he did for the Nuggets: Let’s put it this way—growing up, Michael Jordan looked up to David Thompson more than any other player. The man was “Skywalker,” both in name and in practice, and his high-flying game made him one of the most exciting players of the late ‘70s. Like Issel, his Nuggets career was split between time in the ABA and the NBA, but his NBA credentials are a little more impressive than Issel’s. He was a three-time NBA All-Star and two-time All-NBA Team selection, but he also was named to an ABA All-Star team and an All-ABA Team. To top it all off, he’s a Hall of Famer, but you probably already guessed that much based on the rest of his resume.
Worth noting: Not only was Thompson MJ’s role model, but he was also the man who brought him into the Hall of Fame. That’s the guy Jordan chose, and I suppose that counts for something.
#1 – Alex English (1980-1990)
What he did for the Nuggets: Only English could’ve made those brutally ugly ‘80s Nuggets jerseys look so pretty. In his eleven seasons in Denver, English averaged 25.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, and 4.4 apg, and when he retired he was the franchise leader in points, assists, offensive rebounds, games, minutes played, and field goals made and attempted. That’s a whole lot of statistical categories to own for the history of a franchise, and added to all that he was an eight-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA Team selection, as well as a Hoops Hall of Famer. Not a lot of guys can boast almost 22,000 points for the same team, but English can, and that’s why he’s at the top of this list.
Worth noting: Up until the end of the 2011 season, English was the director of player development and an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors. His contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the year, however, technically making him a free agent coaching prospect for the 2012 season whenever it finally rolls around.
Marcus Camby (2002-2008)
What he did for the Nuggets: Camby has contributed in major ways to five different NBA teams, but his longest and most successful stint of the lot was his six seasons in Denver. While playing for the Nuggets, Camby won Defensive Player of the Year in 2007, as well as getting named to four consecutive All-Defensive Teams. He led the league in blocks in ’04-’05, ’06-’07, and ’07-’08, and he’s ranked eighth all-time in career blocks per game. If Dikembe Mutombo didn’t exist, Camby would be the best defensive player the franchise has ever seen.
Worth noting: Camby never was named to an All-Star team—not with Denver or Toronto or New York or L.A. or Portland—but he’s probably one of the most deserving non-All-Stars in the history of the game.
Kiki Vandeweghe (1980-1984)
What he did for the Nuggets: During his short tenure with the Nuggets, Vandeweghe was named to two All-Star teams and finished in the top three in scoring twice. He simply wasn’t able to spend enough time with the team to warrant Top Five consideration, but that’s a pretty solid start to a pretty solid career. He never made another All-Star team after leaving Denver.
Worth noting: Vandeweghe’s value in Denver doesn’t come just as a player; he was also the team’s GM from 2001-2006, during which time he made the trade for Camby (2002), drafted Carmelo Anthony (2003), and named George Karl head coach (2005). Of course, he also drafted Nikoloz Tskitishvili, but Denver fans are free to pretend that never happened. Kiki did pick Nene two picks later in that same draft, so consider that at least a tiny bit of consolation.
Fat Lever (1984-1990)
What he did for the Nuggets: Lever is still the franchise’s all-time leader in assists, and with all the juggling at the point guard position that team has undergone recently it doesn’t seem like that particular record is in any immediate danger. He also is fifth all-time in steals per game, and both of his career All-Star appearences happened while wearing a Nuggets uniform. Lever was named to one All-NBA Second Team in 1987, and one All-Defensive Team in 1988, and in the late ‘80s, he was generally considered one of the best point guards in the league.
Worth noting: Just like Vandeweghe wasn’t an All-Star after leaving Denver, Lever wasn’t All-Star before arriving in Denver, and to add to the irony, the two were traded for each other in 1984.
Byron Beck (1967-1977)
What he did for the Nuggets: Chance are that you’ve never even heard of Byron Beck, and if you haven’t that’s perfectly understandable considering he only played one season in the NBA. The rest of his ten-year career, all of which he played for the Nuggets, by the way, occurred when the team was still a member of the ABA. So he didn’t do much as an NBA player, but as an ABA player he was a two-time All-Star, as well as the 8th all-time rebounder in the league. He finished second in all-time ABA games played, and his #40 is one of only four jerseys Denver has chosen to retire. He means a lot to the franchise, even if he’s not a name most casual fans are particularly familiar with.
Worth noting: Beck was one of only six players to have participated in all nine seasons of the original ABA. The others were Louie Dampier, Gerald Govan, Bob Netolicky, Stew Johnson, and Freddie Lewis.
With so much turnover in Denver over the course of the last year, it’s hard to pinpoint any current players that have a shot at making this list someday. Maybe Nene will have career numbers worth of honorable mention, but beyond him it’s hard to measure. Despite whatever is happening now, the players of the past have been more than credible, and hopefully this top five list is an appropriate homage to the best of the best.