Nikola Jokić, Carmelo Anthony and the top players in Denver Nuggets history
The two are among the franchise’s greatest players, including David Thompson, Alex English
What Nikola Jokić has been able to accomplish over the course of eight NBA seasons — two-time MVP, three-time All-NBA first team, five-time All-Star — has placed the Serbian center firmly in the discussion of the most accomplished second-round picks in league history.
That’s a fact.
Should the Denver Nuggets win the NBA championship, which would be the first title in the team’s 47 seasons in the league, is the status of Jokić suddenly elevated to the best player in franchise history?
That, at this stage of his career, is open to debate.
From the 1967 launch of the team in the old American Basketball Association, there have been some incredibly talented players to make a significant impact in a Denver uniform.
- Spencer Haywood, in his only season in the ABA (1969-70) was the league’s Rookie of the Year, MVP and All-Star Game MVP while leading the league in scoring (30 points per game) and rebounding (19.5 rebounds per game).
- Dikembe Mutombo earned three trips to the All-Star game and won a Defensive Player of the Year award during his five years in Denver (1991-96).
- Bobby Jones was a two-time All-Star (one in the ABA, one in the NBA), and a three-time All-Defensive first team member (two in the ABA, one in the NBA) during his four years (1974-78) in Denver. Jones was an ABA All-Star on the 1976 Nuggets team that reached the 1976 ABA finals, losing the series to the New York Nets. Following that series, the Nuggets became one of four ABA teams (the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Nets were the others) to merge with the NBA.
- Marcus Camby, George McGinnis, Allen Iverson, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Calvin Natt and Kiki Vandeweghe are among the other players to post significant numbers in a Denver uniform.
The best Nuggets players of all time? This is one man’s opinion of the top six, in no particular order:
From the time Carmelo Anthony forced a trade from the Nuggets to the New York Knicks in 2011, the relationship between the future Hall of Famer and the team that drafted him has not been warm and fuzzy. But there’s no question about the positive impact Anthony had on the franchise.
The Nuggets, before drafting Anthony in 2003, failed to reach the playoffs in eight consecutive seasons. Three times in that span, the Nuggets failed to win 20 games.
The Nuggets reached the playoffs in each of Anthony’s eight seasons in Denver. During his years in Denver, Anthony was a five-time All-Star, and made four of his six All-NBA teams (second team in 2010, and third team in 2006, 2007 and 2009).
Anthony, who won a scoring title in 2013 as a member of the New York Knicks, was a problem offensively. Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce described Anthony as the toughest player for him to guard. “I’d rather guard LeBron, Kobe, T-Mac before Melo,” Pierce said during an interview this year. “He’s a bulldog.”
A stellar enough career to have his jersey retired by Denver? That might be a problem, since the only No. 15 jersey that’s assured to be lifted into the rafters of the Nuggets arena will bear the name Jokić.
Sure, he suited up with two different teams before Alex English played with the Nuggets, but Denver is where the career of the second-round pick of the 1976 draft flourished.
The eight All-Star appearances, the NBA scoring championship (28.4 ppg during the 1982-83 season), the three All-NBA second team honors — those all occurred during his 11 seasons with the Nuggets. Nine of those seasons resulted in playoff appearances, with three trips to the Western Conference semifinals.
The best way to describe English’s game: smooth. The 6-foot-8 forward was a well-balanced offensive player from his ability to attack the rim to his deadly accuracy from midrange (he was a 50.7% career shooter).
As equally impactful was his role as a humanitarian. Watching a 1985 television report on the famine in Ethiopia prompted English to call Larry Fleischer, then the NBA’s general counsel. “Alex told me ‘we’ve got to do something to help these people,’ ” Fleischer told The New York Times.
That led to a $100,000 donation to Ethiopian victims during the 1985 All-Star Game with each player agreeing to donate his All-Star share and the league donating the balance. Those efforts to help others continued for English, earning him the 1988 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award.
English averaged 25.9 points during his 11 years in Denver, including a career-best 29.8 points during the 1985-86 season. He scored 25,613 career points and is the Nuggets’ career leader in numerous categories, including games played (837), and points (21,645).
English was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997. His No. 2 jersey was retired by the Nuggets in 1993.
Dan Issel became a legend the first season he arrived in Denver, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds in leading the Nuggets to the 1976 ABA Finals (he won an ABA championship with the Kentucky Colonels the previous season),
A 6-foot-9 center, Issel was undersized compared with the giants that dominated the center position during his 15-year career (six in the ABA, nine in the NBA).
What Issel lacked in size, speed and athleticism he made up with court awareness that led to a decorated career that included an ABA scoring title (1971, when he was also the ABA Rookie of the Year), an ABA All-Star Game MVP award (1972), seven All-Star Game appearances (six in the ABA, one in the NBA) and the 1975 ABA title.
Issel was prolific in each league: He averaged 25.6 points and 10.9 rebounds in the ABA, and 20.4 points and 7.9 rebounds in the NBA. At the time of his retirement, his 27,482 career points trailed only Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving and Moses Malone.
He’s second in ABA history in points scored behind Louie Dampier, and ranks 12th on the combined ABA/NBA career scoring list. Issel, nicknamed “The Horse,” had his No. 44 jersey retired by the Nuggets in 1985. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.
The book is still being written on Jokić, the 2014 second-round pick, but the résumé he’s built nine years into his career is quite impressive: two-time NBA MVP (2021, 2022 — and probably should be three), five-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA first team).
The only thing missing is within reach: An NBA championship.
Jokić is the best center in a league where analytics have made traditional bigs obsolete, and he does it with versatility where he imposes his will inside (he shot 63.2% this season) and out (he’s made 46.% of his 3-point shots this postseason).
His 10 triple-doubles this postseason is a single-season record, and Jokić is the seventh player in NBA history to have at least two triple-doubles in the same NBA Finals.
His court vision, from the center position, is unmatched.
Appreciate his historical dominance during these NBA Finals.
The greatest player in Denver basketball history? An NBA championship would move Jokić to the top of the list.
For basketball fans who have never heard of Fat Lever — outside of Denver, there are probably quite a few — he can be best described as an earlier version of Russell Westbrook.
Unlike Westbrook, Lever never averaged a triple-double. But during the 1986-87 season he notched a league-best 16 with the Nuggets (he only had two in his career before that season) and averaged a team-best 8.9 rpg (to go along with 18.9 points and 8 assists). Despite standing just 6-feet-3, Lever was the team’s top rebounder in three of his six seasons in Denver.
Lever remains the team’s career leader in steals (1,167) and ranks second in assists per game (7.5, behind Nick Van Exel) and second in triple-doubles (43, behind Jokić’s 105). A tough defender, Lever was named to the 1988 NBA All-Defensive second team.
The Nuggets reached the playoffs in each of Lever’s six seasons in Denver, helping the team advance to the 1985 Western Conference finals. Lever is one of just five players with a playoff stat line of just 15 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists in a playoff game (Jokić, LeBron James, Jason Kidd and Chamberlain are the others).
Lever’s No. 12 jersey was retired by the Nuggets in 2017.
And that name, Fat? It has nothing to do with a weight problem, and everything to do with his brother’s inability to pronounce his first name, Lafayette.
How influential was David Thompson? When Michael Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, he asked that Thompson introduce him.
“I was in love with David Thompson,” Jordan said in his speech. “Not just for the game of basketball but in terms of what he represented. We all go through our trials and tribulations, and he did. And I was inspired by him.”
Those trials and tribulations were substance abuse issues that prevented Thompson from becoming an all-time great.
But his accomplishments despite those issues?
Thompson was a five-time All-Star (four times in the NBA, once in the ABA), and the MVP in both the ABA and NBA All-Star games (1976 in the final season of the ABA, and 1979 in the NBA).
Thompson’s specialty was his ability to fly, with his 44-inch vertical earning him the nickname “Skywalker.”
Thompson had his sights on the NBA scoring title in the last game of the 1978 season, exploding for 73 points in an afternoon game against the Detroit Pistons which allowed him to take a percentage points lead over George Gervin.
Only Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant have scored more points in an NBA game.
Gervin, playing that night, scored 63 points with both players tied with identical 27.2 ppg scoring averages. Gervin won the scoring title on total points.
Thompson played his final two NBA seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, and ended his nine-year professional career with a 22.7 point per game average. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996. Two of Thompson’s jerseys have been retired: His No. 33 jersey hangs in the rafters of the Nuggets home arena, and his No. 44 North Carolina State jersey remains the only retired number in that school’s history.