The Denver Nuggets don’t often come up in the debate about which franchise has the greatest talent of all time, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place at the table. They boast some sneaky-great players over the course of their 48-year existence, and I’d put these five guys up against almost anybody.
It should be noted I did consider team-construct when putting together this list, meaning I took into account positional aptitude and how players would potentially interact with each other on the court. This isn’t necessarily a list of the five greatest Nuggets of all time, rather it’s an attempt to put together a starting five that could win the most games together.
I’m also putting this into the context of the style of basketball that’s so prevalent today, i.e. versatility and ability to play and defend multiple positions, maximization of floor spacing and efficiency on both sides of the ball.
PG – Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
Let the controversy begin. I’ll try to state this carefully. Rauf was Steph Curry when Curry was still retrieving balls at Hornets practice for his dad. Ok, I realize that’s a fairly significant exaggeration, nor was it put very carefully, but anyone who’s never watched Rauf play would be well-served to go back and watch some highlights. This guy was truly special in many of the same ways that Curry is.
Admittedly, he was a bit challenged on the defensive side of the ball, but he was quite simply one the greatest shooters I’ve ever had the chance to watch. He also had an impressive handle with an ability to break down his defender off the dribble, and although he was a shoot-first type of point guard, he was also an excellent passer.
But with shooting at all-time premium in today’s league, it’s hard to deny his place on this squad. I also seriously considered Fat Lever and Chauncey Billups, and in many ways I deserve some criticism for leaving either of them off, but I simply couldn’t resist the intrigue of thinking about how valuable Rauf would be in a modern offense.
SG – Fat Lever
I know. The obvious answer here is David Thompson, and once again, I may prove to be foolish for leaving him off, but hear me out.
For every offensively potent point guard, you need a 3-and-D guy to balance out the backcourt in today’s NBA. Although Fat Lever didn’t develop a consistent three-point shot until the latter stages of his career, once he did, he basically broke the mold in terms of how versatile a guard could be.
Although he stood only 6’3”, he averaged about 19/9/8 over four seasons from 1986-87 to 1989-90 (his 1988-1989 season was truly one for the ages). He also was extremely stout on the defensive side of the ball, as evidenced by his career average of 2.2 steals per game.
He still ranks sixth all time in total number of triple-doubles (43), and he sits on that list among six Hall of Famers, two surefire inductees once eligible in LeBron James and Jason Kidd, and Grant Hill, who could also be a Hall of Famer when it’s all said and done despite his career being riddled with injuries. Needless to say, it’s a pretty elite list.
Lever spent much of his early career running point, but once Michael Adams became a Nugget, he demonstrated an impressive ability to slide over to the 2-guard en route to some of his best seasons as a pro. I think his versatility and unique skill set would be invaluable in today’s NBA, and it’s for those reasons that he cracked my starting lineup.
SF – Alex English
English was unquestionably one of the most dynamic offensive forces throughout the majority of the ’80s, finishing in the top five in scoring every season from 1982-1987. Two out of those seasons (’83 and ’86), he finished the season as the league’s leading scorer.
While he wasn’t a three-point shooter by any means, you also have to remember that the long-ball wasn’t a big part of NBA offenses in general back then.
He did demonstrate a consistent ability to step back and knock down 10-to-16 footers with more ease than almost anyone in NBA history. For a six-year period, from 1981 through 1987, he put up 28 points per game on 52 percent shooting, which is incredible efficiency for a player who spent most of his time outside of the paint.
His game would also translate fairly well to today’s game, at least offensively. He was never a great defender, nor was he a great athlete, and therefore he might have trouble staying with some of the more athletic wings in the league, but his ability to get buckets is undeniable and therefore he undoubtedly secures a spot in my starting lineup.
Carmelo Anthony Kenyon Martin
Man, it was hard to leave Carmelo Anthony off this list. If this was a more conventional list of the best players to ever wear a Nuggets uniform, he would undoubtedly have a place. But given the strengths and weaknesses of the other players in this lineup, I needed someone with a bit more defensive versatility, someone who could guard three positions effectively. Unfortunately we all know that defense, or even giving energy on the defensive end, was never Carmelo’s strong suit.
But if there was ever anyone who epitomized intensity and intestinal fortitude on the defensive side of the ball, it was Kenyon Martin. I know I’ll probably get killed for this selection, but if you forget for a second about him being selected with the No. 1 overall pick, Martin’s career was an impressive one, and he was a central figure in both the New Jersey Nets’ run to back-to-back championship appearances and also the Denver Nuggets’ playoff runs throughout the mid-to-late-2000s.
He was admittedly challenged on the offensive end, at least in terms of creating his own shots, and executing in half-court sets, but there’s plenty of offense in this lineup already, and I could see Martin playing a Draymond Green-type of role in a modern setting, sans the ability to knock down threes. He’d probably have even more value in today’s game than he did even 10 years ago. I guess he was born a decade too early.
C – Dikembe Mutombo
I struggled a bit with this one, not because Mutombo isn’t worthy of the selection, but because with the addition of Martin as the power forward, I thought they might be too offensively limited in their frontcourt. But I think this group has enough scoring and shooting ability already in Rauf, Lever and English that I felt they could compensate for a lack of offensive punch from Martin and Mutombo.
When it came down to it, Mutombo was such an elite defender — as evidenced by his record-setting four Defensive Player of the Year Awards — that I couldn’t resist putting him in the starting lineup. He was quite simply the ultimate rim protector. In the ’95-’96 season, he blocked 4.5 shots per game. That’s absolutely insane. Since that season, only Alonzo Mourning has even approached that number with his 3.9 blocks per game in ’98-’99.
With Mutombo anchoring the paint, opposing teams would be forced to limit the vast majority of their scoring opportunities to perimeter shooting, which obviously carries with it a much lower conversion percentage. He’s quite simply too dominant of a force to resist including him in this lineup.