We have reached the top 3 of my journey through the 20 greatest Denver Nuggets of all time and the top 3 were more difficult to rank than you might think.
Dan Issel was an All Time great player at Kentucky University while in College. He was named an All American twice in his 4 seasons under the Legendary Adolph Rupp with the Wildcats. That did not translate into being a high draft pick when he entered the NBA Draft in 1970. Issel was picked in the 8th round by the Detroit Pistons but was also drafted by the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA and chose to play in the rival league instead of going to Detroit. Issel was a major star in the ABA and helped lead the Colonels to the ABA Championship in 1975. He was also the Rookie of the year in the ABA after averaging 29.9 points per game in the 1970-1971 season. He was traded to the Nuggets after the championship season of 1975 and played one year for the Nuggets in the ABA before the Nuggets were allowed to enter the NBA after the 1976 season. Issel is an icon in Nuggets history having served as a player, coach, general manager and broadcaster over the 40 years since his acquisition from Kentucky. He is one of only 3 Denver Nuggets in the Basketball Hall of Fame joining Alex English and David Thompson after his induction in 1993.
In Issel’s first season in Denver playing in the ABA he averaged an Nuggets career high 22.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and helped lead the Nuggets to the ABA Championship series against Julius Erving’s New Jersey Nets where the Nuggets would eventually lose in 6 games. The Nuggets first season in the NBA was successful one as well as they went 50-32 and won their division but lost in the Western Conference Semi-finals to Seattle. Over the course of his career in Denver, Issel would be a mainstay in the Nuggets lineup as he never played less than 76 games in a season and had a career high playing in an unheard of 84 games in the 1976-1977 season. He stayed injury free for his entire career unless you include the fact that he lost 5 teeth in a fight during his 2nd season in the ABA and had to wear a bridge in his mouth for the rest of his life. He didn’t wear the synthetic teeth while playing so one of Issel’s signatures was his toothless smile you could easily see when he went up for a jump shot or stood at the free throw line waiting to shoot a free throw.
In his Nuggets career Issel averaged 20.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and shot 80% from the free throw line. He was part of the Nuggets team in 1984 that took the Lakers to 6 games in the Western Conference finals and if not for an injury to forward Calvin Natt in game 3 they may have unseated “Showtime” and gotten the chance to play the Celtics in the NBA finals with a chance to go against the iconic Celts team that included future Hall of Famers Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. Issel was on teams that made the playoffs in each of his 15 seasons with the exception of the 1979-1980 and 1980-1981 seasons with the Nuggets.
Issel played 10 seasons in Denver and that is reflected in the fact that Issel shows up in the top 10 in 16 statistical categories in Nuggets history. He is on every list except blocked shots in some form or fashion. Take a look at Issel’s amazing stats in a Nuggets uniform:
2nd in games played with 837 (in his 10 seasons he averaged over 80 games per season)
2nd in minutes played with 25,198 (an average of 30 minutes per game while only missing an average of 2 games per season)
2nd in field goals made with 6,176
2nd in field goals attempted with 12,183 (meaning he shot an average of 50.6% from the field in his Nuggets career)
1st all time in free throws made with 4,217 (almost 500 more made free throws than Alex English who is second on this list)
1st all time in free throws attempted with 5,277 (over 600 more than 2nd place Carmelo Anthoney)
2nd in offensive rebounds with 1,989 (Behind only Alex English with 2,038)
1st in defensive rebounds with 4,641 (2nd on the list is Dikembe Mutombo with 3,297)
1st in total rebounds with 6,620 (almost 1,400 more than the 2nd highest total in Nuggets history….Byron Beck with 5,261)
7th in assists with 2,005 (Issel is still considered one of the great passing centers in NBA history and that is evident by being on an assist list as a center)
4th in steals with 798
4th in turnovers with 1,481
1st in personal fouls with 2,288
2nd in points scored with 16,589 (He scored a combined 27,842 points in the NBA and ABA which is 9th on the all time combined scoring list behind such notables as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Shaquille O’Neal and Moses Malone)
7th in points per game with an average of 20.7 per game
10th in rebounds per game with 8.3
Wow! That is an impressive list of accomplishments for an undersized center playing against the likes of Jabbar, Malone, Parrish and Hakeem Olajuwon!
Issel was known for a couple of signature moves that were “named” by Nuggets broadcaster Al Albert in the 70’s. He had the infamous “Issel head fake” that was so overstated I am amazed that so many great NBA defensive players fell for it. And of course “Issel with the missile” when he shot his patented 16-18′ jump shot from the top of the key or at the elbow. The Nuggets of the Doug Moe era were a lot of fun to watch as they ran Moe’s imitated but never perfected “Passing Game” and they scored points in bunches. In the early 80’s the Nuggets had 3 players in the top 10 in scoring and between the three they averaged over 75 points a game in 1982. Issel teamed with Nuggets greats Kiki Vandewege and Alex English to average 77.8 points per game during the 1982 season.
After Issel retired from the Nuggets after the 1985 season he continued to be a visible member of the Nuggets family teaming with the aforementioned Al Albert and later, Irv Brown, broadcasting Nuggets games on Channel 2 for several years. When the Nuggets realized the experiment with Paul Westhead’s run and gun offense would not translate to wins in the NBA, they hired Issel as coach in 1992 and he led the Nuggets back from the brink of dissolution to a magical playoff run in 1994 by beating the 62 win Seattle Supersonics and taking the Jazz to 7 games before bowing out in Salt Lake City. He had a stint as Nuggets GM and was not very good at that job as he was the GM that picked the infamous Mamadou N’Diaya in 1998. He also had a second stint as coach from 1999 to 2001 when he appointed himself coach but resigned halfway through the 2001-2002 season after making a racial slur to a fan after a tough loss at the Pepsi Center.
Issel spent the better part of 3 decades playing, broadcasting, coaching and managing the Denver Nuggets and he is unquestionably one of the most visible figures in the history of the franchise. And that is why my 3rd greatest Denver Nugget of all time is Daniel Paul “Dan” Issel!
I only have 2 great Nuggets left to reveal and I am extremely excited about giving them both to you in the next few days. Training camp is only a couple of months away so keep following all your Nuggets tidbits including the top two Nuggets of all time right here at NuggLove.com.