A charter franchise in the American Basketball Association, the team was originally slated to play in Kansas City, Missouri before moving to Denver. They were named the Denver Larks before they changed their name and became known as the Rockets for their first seven years of existence, winning division titles in 1970 and 1975. The name “Rockets” was derived from the Rocket Trucking Company, owned by the team’s owner and having the same colors (orange and black).
However, they tended to struggle in the postseason and failed to make a championship game during this span. They had a solid lineup led by Byron Beck and Larry Jones, then later by Beck and Ralph Simpson. During the 1969-70 season, the team also had controversial rookie Spencer Haywood. Haywood was one of the first players try to turn pro before graduating from college, and the NBA initially refused to let him play in the league. Haywood averaged 30 points in his only ABA season, then was allowed to sign with the Seattle SuperSonics to start a productive NBA career.
In 1974, in hopes of moving into the NBA, a contest was held to find a new nickname for the Rockets, as the nickname was already used by the Houston Rockets. The name Nuggets won, having been the nickname first used by the Denver 1949-50 NBA franchise. Their new logo was a miner holding an ABA ball.
With the drafting and signing of David Thompson and Marvin Webster and the acquisitions of Dan Issel and Bobby Jones and with Larry Brown coaching, they had their best seasons in team history in their first two seasons as the Nuggets, with the team making the ABA finals in 1975-76. They would get no second chance to win a league championship, as the ABA folded after the 1975-76 season. The Nuggets were one of four ABA teams taken into the NBA, along with the New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers. The Nuggets and Nets had actually applied to join the NBA in 1975, but were forced to stay in the ABA by court order.
The Nuggets continued their strong play early on in the NBA, as they won division titles in their first two seasons in the league, and missed a third by a single game. However, neither of these teams was ultimately successful in the postseason.
Brown left the team in 1979, helping usher in a brief decline in their team’s performance. It ended in 1981, when they hired Doug Moe as a head coach. Moe brought with him a “run and gun” philosophy, a style of play focusing on attempting to score rapidly with little interest in defense, and it helped the team become highly competitive. During the 1980s, the Nuggets would often score in excess of 115 points a game, and during the 1981-82 season, they scored at least 100 points in every game.
Anchored by scoring machines Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe at the two forward spots, Denver led the league in scoring, with English and Vandeweghe both averaging above 25 points per game. It was a novel strategy, allowing the Nuggets to top the Midwest Division and qualify for the playoffs during that span. (On December 13, 1983, the Nuggets and the visiting Detroit Pistons combined for an NBA record 370 points, with Detroit winning in triple overtime, 186-184.) In 1984-85, they made it to the Western Conference finals after being perennial playoff contenders, and they lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers. Vandeweghe was traded before the 1984-85 season to the Portland Trailblazers for 6-3 rebounding guard Fat Lever, undersized power forward Calvin Natt and center Wayne Cooper. Spearheaded by English and supported by the three new acquisitions and defensive specialists Bill Hanzlik and TR Dunn, the team replicated its success in the Western Conference despite the loss of Vandeweghe. However, they could not get pass the dominant team of the era, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Moe left the team in 1990, and his departure ended their run as a competitive franchise. However, the “run and gun” philosophy continued with coach Paul Westhead at the helm. He gave the green light for players like Michael Adams and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to light up the scoreboards within seconds of possession. This lead to even more scoring records, but that did not translate into wins as Denver was the worst team in terms of number of wins for two consecutive seasons. That record enabled them to land at the lottery and draft 7-2 Georgetown University center Dikembe Mutombo in 1992, and University of Michigan guard Jalen Rose the next year. These two would lead the team into a brief resurgence in 1993-94 (a year they ditched their rainbow colors for a dark blue and gold scheme) finishing 42-40 and stunning the top-seeded Supersonics in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, falling to the Utah Jazz in game seven of the second round, but it was a rare highlight following Moe’s departure. The Nuggets were swept in the following year by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. Denver was an also-ran for nearly a decade, and flirted with having the worst record NBA history in 1997-98, winning only 11 games in an 82 game season. They tied for the worst record in the NBA in 2002-03 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The team has shown signs of another renaissance for the 2003-04 season, with the drafting of Carmelo Anthony and yet another uniform change (powder blue and yellow). In just two months of the season, they recorded more wins than they had in 5½ months of play in 2002-03. Much of the reason for this incredible turnaround were the front-office moves of General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe a former Nuggets player who assumed General Manager duties August 9, 2001, adding crucial personnel including: point guard Andre Miller, power forward Nenê, point guard Earl Boykins, center Marcus Camby and shooting guard Jon Barry. In April, the turnaround was complete as they became the first franchise in NBA history to qualify for the postseason following a sub-20-win campaign the previous year. They were eliminated in the first round four games to one by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
On December 28, 2004, head coach Jeff Bzdelik was fired from the organization and replaced by interim coach, former Los Angeles Laker player and Los Angeles Sparks head coach Michael Cooper, before finally hiring veteran coach George Karl as a permanent replacement. Karl lived up to his reputation by leading the team to an astounding record of 32-8 in the second half of the regular season which vaulted the team into the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
In the playoffs, however, the Nuggets could not survive the powerhouse defense of Manu Ginobili and the San Antonio Spurs. After winning game one in San Antonio, the Nuggets proceeded to lose the next four games and lost the series 4-1. The Nuggets picked 20th in the 2005 NBA Draft; it was acquired from Washington via Orlando.
In 2005-06, for the first time in 18 years, the club won the Northwest division title. This placed the team in the third seed of the Western Conference playoffs. Due to their relatively weak record the Nuggets were forced to play the Los Angeles Clippers who, despite their 6th seeding, had a better record following a great season behind their NBA Most Valuable Player Award candidate Elton Brand. Based on their regular season records the LA Clippers received home court advantage. The first two games in the best-of-7 series were won by the Clippers 89-87 in game one and 109-101 for game two in LA. Game 3 was won by the Denver Nuggets in Denver 98-87. The Clippers went on to win the final two games and advance to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs for the first time in franchise history since the Clippers moved to L.A. for the 1984-85 season.
On, December 18, 2006, team co-captain, Carmelo Anthony, shooting guard J.R. Smith, and power forward Nene were suspended by the NBA (15, 10, and 1 games respectively) for a fight that occurred in the last two minutes of a game against the New York Knicks two days earlier. The fight was sparked by Knicks rookie Mardy Collins, when he tackled J.R. Smith on a breakaway layup. According to Anthony, Knicks coach Isiah Thomas warned him to not go in the paint shortly before the hard foul.
On December 19, 2006, the Nuggets traded Joe Smith, Andre Miller, and two first-round draft picks in the 2007 draft to the Philadelphia 76ers for players Allen Iverson and Ivan McFarlin (McFarlin was waived immediately following the trade’s approval), thus landing the Nuggets the top two scorers in the league in Anthony and Iverson. On January 11, 2007, Earl Boykins, Julius Hodge, and cash considerations were traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for point guard Steve Blake.