The 25 Best Players in Nuggets’ History: Honorable Mentions and 25-21

(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /

With COVID-19 putting an indefinite pause on the NBA season, why not wander down the annals of Denver Nuggets history and update the rankings for the best players in franchise history?

Before unveiling the honorable mentions and the players who make up spots 25-21 for the Denver Nuggets, here are a few notes on my decision-making/thought process as I made the list:

  • I only looked at time spent with the Nuggets. The career averages and accolades are only what these players achieved during their time in Denver.
  • Games played in Denver was a significant factor in the rankings. For example, an average player who spent 5+ seasons in Denver will likely outrank a good player who spent 1-2 seasons in Denver.
  • An average-to-good player who played on a great team will outrank a great player who played on a bad team most of the time.
  • The Nuggets time in the ABA was considered. The Nuggets spent nine seasons in the ABA before the ABA-NBA merger after the 1975-76 season. There are a few players in the rankings that only played for Denver when they were an ABA franchise.
    • That includes the Denver Rockets! Before the 1974-75 season, the Nuggets went by the “Denver Rockets,” but had to change their name before transitioning to the NBA because of the Houston Rockets. There may be players who technically never played for the “Denver Nuggets,” but I incorporated them into the rankings anyway.
  • Lastly and probably the least important note, I only included a player’s career three-point percentage if they took more than one three per game.

Honorable Mentions:

Spencer Haywood

Career with the Rockets: 84 games, 45.3 minutes, 30.0 points, 19.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists .493% FG, .776% FT

Career Accolades: 1x ABA All-Star, ABA All-Star Game MVP, All-ABA First Team, ABA Rookie of the Year, ABA All-Rookie First Team, ABA MVP, ABA All-Time Team

Although he spent most of his career with the Seattle Supersonics, Haywood did play one season with the Denver Rockets.

During the 1969-70 season, the Rockets finished with a 51-33 record, first in the Western Division and second in the ABA overall.

Haywood led the league in points that year, and his 19.5 rebounds per game, 1,637 total rebounds and 986 made field goals all rank first all-time for a single ABA season. Haywood was named the MVP and Rookie of the Year, becoming the youngest player to ever win MVP at just 21 years old.

After leaving Denver, Haywood would go on to have a Hall of Fame career with career averages of 20.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists.

George McGinnis

Career with the Nuggets: 121 games, 32.9 minutes, 20.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.6 blocks 469% FG, .630% FT

Career Accolades: 1x NBA All-Star

Similar to Haywood, McGinnis had a short stint in Denver, but a productive one nevertheless.

After being acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers, McGinnis played one-and-a-half seasons with the Nuggets. In 76 games during the 1978-79 season, playing alongside David Thompson and Dan Issel, McGinnis averaged 22.6 points and 11.4 rebounds and made his sixth and final All-Star game.

Denver finished 47-35 that season, fourth in the Western Conference, and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Lakers.

During the 1979-80 season, McGinnis played just 45 games for the Nuggets and was traded to the Indiana Pacers for some guy named Alex English. McGinnis retired after three seasons in Indiana and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.

Nick Van Exel

Career with the Nuggets: 245 games, 37.5 minutes, 17.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.2 blocks .402% FG, .341% 3PT, .809% FT

Primarily known for his time with the Lakers, “Nick the Quick” did spend a few seasons in Denver.

On draft night in 1998, the Nuggets sent Tony Battie and first-round pick Tyronn Lue to the Los Angeles Lakers for Van Exel.

Van Exel prospered during his first year in Denver, as he averaged 16.5 points and a team-high 7.4 assists per game, but the same could not be said about the team. The Nuggets finished 14-36 that year (lockout shortened the season that year) and 12th in the Western Conference.

Van Exel’s best year in Denver was his last, playing in just 45 games before being traded to Dallas, he averaged 21.4 points and 8.1 assists a night.

The Denver Nuggets never finished higher than 10th place in the Western Conference while Van Exel was the lead guard in Denver, but he was a consistent offensive threat in his three full seasons there.

Jamal Murray

Career with the Nuggets: 293 games, 29.3 minutes, 15.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks .439% FG, .358% 3PT, .882% FT

Career Accolades: NBA All-Rookie Second Team, NBA Rising Stars Challenge MVP

Jamal Murray is off to a promising start in his young career, but it didn’t seem fair to boot a more tenured player off the Top 25 list.

Selected by the Denver Nuggets with the seventh overall pick in 2016, Murray immediately made an impact for the Nuggets. He was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for the months of October and November, and made the All-Rookie Second Team at the end of the season.

Murray was also named the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge in 2017 when he scored a game-high 36 points and dished out 11 assists in Team World’s 150-139 win over Team USA.

Before the 2019-20 season was suspended, Murray was averaging 18.8 points, 4.8 assists and 1.2 steals per game, all career-highs. Murray signed a five-year, $170 million contract extension with the Nuggets this past summer, assuming he plays out his contract in Denver, he will be in the Nuggets’ Top 25 in no time.

Allen Iverson

Career with the Denver Nuggets: 135 games, 42.0 minutes, 25.6 points, 3.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks .456% FG, .344% 3PT, .790%

Career Accolades: 2x NBA-All Star

I’m going to take a lot of heat for this one.

Allen Iverson was one of the best guards the NBA had ever seen. Widely remembered for his MVP-caliber days in Philadelphia, the Nuggets’ all-time leader in minutes per game did play one-and-a-half seasons in Denver.

The Nuggets sent Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first-round picks to the 76ers for Iverson during the 2006-07 season. This came one day after Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith and Nenê were suspended for their involvement in a brawl with the New York Knicks on December 16, 2006.

Iverson was a great addition to Denver’s up-tempo offense (2nd in the league in pace that season) and he was named to the Western Conference All-Star team for both seasons he spent in Denver.

During the 2007-08 season, Iverson helped the Nuggets reach 50 wins for the first time since the 1997-98 season, but the Nuggets still finished as the 8th seed in one of the most competitive Western Conferences in recent memory.

Like the previous four names on this list, since Iverson’s time in Denver was so short, I left him out of the Top 25. But Iverson was one of the most talented players to ever wear to Denver Nuggets’ uniform.

25. Kenyon Martin

Career with the Nuggets: 371 games, 30.6 minutes, 12.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.0 blocks .496% FG, .615% FT

Kenyon Martin spent seven seasons in Denver and never missed the playoffs.

Although Martin was never a number one scoring option, he was a reliable second or third option on offense that either had Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller, Anthony and Allen Iverson, or Anthony and Chauncey Billups. Martin was also a great fit next to his front court partners Marcus Camby and Nenê.

Martin’s best year was during the 2004-05 season, his first year in Denver. Martin played 70 games and averaged 15.5 points and 7.3 rebounds, both of which ranked second on the team, but his 49-33 Nuggets would lose to the eventual NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs.

Had knee injuries not forced Martin to miss nearly 200 games over his next six seasons, he probably would have ranked higher on this list. That said, Martin deserves credit for having a 15-year career in the NBA despite an injury history that dates back to his time at Cincinnati.

24. J.R. Smith

Career with the Nuggets: 372 games, 24.7 minutes, 13.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.2 blocks .438% FG, .382% 3PT, .741% FT

J.R. Smith is the Nuggets’ all-time leader in three-point field goals made (although there are three active Nuggets in the top-six), and he provided instant offense off the bench for the Carmelo Anthony-led Nuggets in the late 2000s.

Although Smith started just 48 games in his five-year career with the Denver Nuggets, he constantly ranked near the top of the team in points per game.

Smith’s best season in Denver was during the 2008-09 season. Smith finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting and averaged 15.2 points (3rd on team) and shot .397% from three on 5.6 attempts per game. Smith also went for his career high in points that season, dropping in 45 off the bench in Denver’s second to last game of the year against the Sacramento Kings.

23. Ty Lawson

Career with the Nuggets: 416 games, 31.1 minutes, 14.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.1 blocks .466% FG, .369% 3PT, .771% FT

Ty Lawson was the Nuggets’ star player during the post-Melo, pre-Jokic era.

Taken with the 18th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Nuggets traded a future first-round pick for the speedy, 5-foot-11 guard out of North Carolina.

Lawson was Chauncey Billups’ backup for the first year-and-a-half in Denver, but then became a full-time starter when Anthony and Billups were traded to the Knicks in 2011.

Lawson’s best season was during the 2012-13 season. The Nuggets had just acquired Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried was looking to build on a promising rookie season, and wings Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari were good for a combined 30 points a night.

The Nuggets finished 57-25 that year, 3rd in the Western Conference, and Lawson averaged a team-high 16.7 points and 6.9 assists a game. The Denver Nuggets would eventually lose to Mark Jackson’s Warriors in the first round of the playoffs, but Lawson gave Nuggets’ fan hope just two years after trading away arguably the best player in franchise history.

Lawson upped his averages to 17.6 points and 8.8 assists the next season, but the Nuggets finished 11th in the Western Conference that year. Lawson averaged a career-high 9.6 assists per game in his final year in Denver, but the Nuggets lost six more games than they had the previous season and Lawson was traded to the Houston Rockets during the offseason.

22. Nenê

Career with the Nuggets: 555 games, 29.6 minutes, 12.4 points 7.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.9 blocks .560% FG, .678 FT

Career Accolades: NBA All-Rookie First Team

Nenê was consistently one of the best rebounders and defenders on the Nuggets from his rookie season in 2002, up until he was traded to Washington in 2012.

Nenê’s best season came during the 2008-09 season (although he led the league in field goal percentage during the 2010-11 season) when he played 77 games and averaged 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds a night. Nenê’s .604 field goal percentage ranked 2nd in league, trailing only Shaquille O’Neal, and his 1.3 blocks per game was 17th in the league (Denver’s Chris Andersen was 2nd with 2.5).

Nenê played the 7th most games in Denver Nuggets’ history, ranks 9th all-time in blocks and 3rd in field goal percentage.

21. T.R. Dunn

Career with the Nuggets: 734 games, 25.0 minutes, 4.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks .467% FG, .717% FT

Career Accolades: 3x NBA All-Defensive Second Team

While his career averages look underwhelming, Theodore Roosevelt Dunn didn’t play the fourth most games in Nuggets’ history because of his offense.

Dunn is one of, if not, the best defenders in Nuggets’ history.

While Alex English and Dan Issel were scoring 20+ points a night, Dunn was tasked with guarding the best perimeter players of the 1980s. John Stockton, Isiah Thomas, Sidney Moncrief and Magic Johnson, the list goes on.

Dunn was also the human embodiment of durability, as he missed just four games in an eight-year span from 1980-1988.

His best season with the Denver Nuggets came during the 1985-86 season. On a 47-35 Nuggets’ team that finished fourth in the Western Conference, Dunn was 8th in the league in defensive box plus/minus and 12th in both steal percentage and steals per game.

As productive as Dunn was though, he was acquired in arguably the worst trade in the franchise’s history. In 1980, Denver sent a 1983 first-round pick to the Portland Trailblazers for Dunn, who did that pick become? None other than Clyde ‘The Glide’ Drexler. Just imagine an offense consisting of English, Issel, Fat Lever and Drexler during the 1980s.

The Nuggets almost had Dunn and Drexler though, as Drexler was taken just one pick before the Nuggets’ 15th overall selection in the 1983 NBA Draft.

That being said, Dunn ranks 2nd all-time in career steals for Denver and will forever be one of the most underrated Denver Nuggets and defenders in NBA history.