During his 12 years as mayor, Hancock has created a tradition of renaming the street here when a team played for the championship. He did it for the Broncos and the Avalanche, who won the Stanley Cup last season. But there was something about the navy blue and gold Denver Nuggets Way sign that felt more meaningful than a customary act. The Nuggets haven’t had many nice things.
Their good has stood as a feeble enemy of greatness throughout their 47-year NBA life. Before this run, the Nuggets made 28 playoff appearances — and lost in the first or second round 24 times. They have been one-and-done 17 times. Their arrival in the championship round is a grand reintroduction to the NBA and to a region that has supported but not never loved them.
The Nuggets are here, at last. With a team full of core players in their prime, they could be more than a one-time visitor, too. It took them nearly a half-century to complete their transition from the ABA. After the merger, they came to the NBA with the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and New York (now Brooklyn) Nets. Those three made their first Finals appearances between 1999 and 2002. Two decades later than its peers, Denver has a championship-caliber squad with staying power.
“The Nuggets, man, we’re going to be here to stay for a long, long time,” said Nuggets reserve Ish Smith, the former Washington Wizards guard who has played for 13 teams.
The outcome of Game 1 won’t be remembered as a statement. This best-of-seven series should be a taxing journey from game to game as the Nuggets and Miami Heat — both teams with clear identities, solid depth and strong cultures — tinker and challenge each other. What will resonate from Thursday night is Denver’s entrance to the big time.
It provides a chance to celebrate the undervalued history of this franchise. Denver has long been a quiet sanctuary for basketball artistry and innovation. At 5,280 feet above sea level, it is a place where a fast-paced, free-flowing game can thrive. This Denver team has been electric in the altitude, but even mediocre Nuggets squads have run visiting foes out of their arena.
It’s a franchise that accentuated the skywalking of David Thompson, the superb skill of Dan Issel and the graceful arsenal of Alex English. Eight years before the Golden State Warriors unveiled the short-lived offensive wizardry of Run TMC, the Nuggets averaged a league-record 126.5 points per game during the 1981-82 season with English, Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe each averaging more than 21 points. Thompson, in his final season with the Nuggets, averaged 14.9 off the bench. But that team also allowed 126 points per game and finished 46-36 before losing in the first round.
For an organization without a large trophy case, the Nuggets have been blessed with memorable stars: Carmelo Anthony, Dikembe Mutombo, Bobby Jones, Fat Lever. Allen Iverson had a three-season cameo, his last good years in the NBA. Denver’s all-time top 10 list could inspire some loud debates. Now, the team is led by two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray, a duo made for each other.
Considering its hoops heritage, Denver is a logical environment for Jokic to be the league’s novel floor general. He is a 6-foot-11, 284-pound point guard playing center, an incomparable weapon in a league now dominated by five-out offenses. It took vision for Coach Michael Malone to commit to this style. You can put him with Doug Moe and Hall of Famers Larry Brown and George Karl on a list of creative minds who have influenced the Nuggets.
Karl had a .622 winning percentage and led the Nuggets to the postseason in all nine of his seasons. Moe, who directed those high-scoring teams in the 1980s, has a “432” jersey hanging in the Ball Arena rafters in recognition of his career victories. He had gotten his start as an assistant under Larry Brown, his friend and college teammate at North Carolina, with the Carolina Cougars in the ABA. In 1974, Brown and Moe left for Denver.
“We were like Frick and Frack, the dearest of friends,” Brown said in an interview Thursday. “He’s a dear friend. I remember sending him out to scout an opponent. Doug came back, and I said, ‘Let me see some of the notes you took.’ He wrote down: ‘If we can’t beat these [expletive], we shouldn’t be coaching.’
“It was just us. It wasn’t like today when you have 15 people on the bench and each player basically has his own coach to work with. In Denver, that experience for me was amazing. It’s some of the best times I’ve ever had in coaching.”
Brown also played one ABA season in Denver. They were the Rockets then. With that name, they had a memorable stint that included Spencer Haywood winning ABA MVP and rookie of the year at age 21 with averages of 30 points an 19.5 rebounds in 1969-70. But the franchise grew the most during Brown’s five seasons leading the Nuggets, which straddled the team’s move to the NBA.
In 1976, Brown helped the Nuggets reach the ABA Finals. They lost in six games to the Nets. Then came the merger, and Brown guided Denver to its first two NBA playoff appearances. Despite the immediate success, Denver was becoming a Broncos town. The football team was becoming a model organization, reaching the Super Bowl by the end of the 1977 season. While the Nuggets have been a consistent playoff team and a wonderful lab for experimentation, they have posted only 10 seasons of at least 50 victories in the NBA. They have never won 60.
Before this season, the Nuggets dreamed out loud. Actually, ownership announced the expectations.
“We’re entering a new phase of the organization, and with this squad in particular, which is: It’s championship or bust,” said Josh Kroenke, the team president and governor. “And this is the first time those words have been uttered around these halls, I think.”
Later, Kroenke added: “And that excites me. But that brings a lot of pressure. We’re no longer the underdog that’s kind of the lovable guys that are bouncing along from Denver, Colorado.”
The Nuggets have arrived. Denver Nuggets Way isn’t just a temporary street sign. It’s a proclamation that they can offer more than fleeting fun. After a long wait, they now are rapidly approaching greatness.