Hearts might be broken. Feelings might be hurt, but these Denver All-Stars deserve recognition
The Denver Nuggets might not be the most storied franchise in terms of championships, but the talent throughout the franchise is something to behold. Dating back to ABA days, this franchise has seen 36 playoff appearances in 54 years, and we expect another appearance in their 55th year. Assuming they make the playoffs this year, they have a 67% success rate in making the playoffs. That is pretty impressive for a “small market” franchise that gets ignored year in and year out.
We have seen some greats fly through the Colorado mountains and onto the Denver hardwood. Alex English, David Thompson, Fat Lever, Dan Issel, Dikembe Mutombo, Kiki Vandeweghe, Carmelo Anthony, Bobby Jones, Ralph Simpson, Byron Beck, and many others paved the way to Denver’s current success. They also represented the city on one of basketball’s most prominent stages. The All-Star Game.
That is why I compiled a list of Denver’s greatest All-Stars. Not necessarily the best players in franchise history, but the most productive and impactful All-Stars in a Denver uniform. For those who might be unfamiliar with Denver’s ABA days as the Denver Rockets, those players must be considered and included as well.
Since that is the criteria, I had to leave some of the greatest players in franchise history off the list. For instance, the great Fat Lever had six incredible years with the Nuggets, leading them to a playoff berth every season. Unfortunately as it pertains to this list, he was criminally only named to two All-Star appearances. Dikembe Mutombo is one of Denver’s most decorated players, yet he was named to eight All-Star games but just three with the Nuggets.
With that being said, let us celebrate some of Denver’s most outstanding basketball talents and their representation at the All-Star Game.
Denver’s G.O.A.T.? There were not many arguments before Nikola Jokic came into the fold, and Jokic still has some work to do to catch Enligh. He has been widely regarded as Denver’s greatest player of all time and one of the best scorers of the 1980s. He spent 11 seasons in a Nugget uniform, leading the Nuggets to nine straight playoff berths. In those 11 seasons, he averaged 25.9 PPG, 4.4 assists, and 5.6 rebounds on 50.9% shooting. He is a Hall of Famer along with three All-NBA selections and was the 1982-83 NBA Scoring Champion.
English is an 8x All-Star, the most in franchise history, and all eight of those appearances came in consecutive years. He logged double-digit scoring efforts four times in the All-Star Game including 16 points in his age 35 season. During those eight dominant years, he averaged 27 points and was the first player ever to register eight consecutive years of 2,000 or more points. English was also as durable as they come. He only missed four games throughout that eight-year run and led the Nuggets to the 1985 Western Conference Finals.
Mr. Skywalker himself David Thompson might have been Denver’s most electric player. At 6’4” 195 lbs, you did not want to see Thompson running down the lane because it often meant you might be on a new edition of one of his poster dunks. Not only could he leap high into the night sky, but he was also a walking bucket. His highest scoring game came in 1978 against the Detroit Pistons, where he scored 73 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds on an incredible 73% shooting. He is also one of the most decorated Nuggets/Rockets ever to suit up. He was a 5x All-Star (4 with Denver), 2x All-NBA, 1975-76 All-ABA, All-Rookie Team, and ROY while obtaining honors to the Hall of Fame and ABA’s All-Time Team.
In terms of the All-Star Game, Thompson might have represented Denver the best. In the first-ever dunk contest in 1976, Thompson placed second to the great Julius Irving. He was a two-time All-Star Game MVP and the last ABA All-Star MVP. In a game that included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Irving, George Gervin, Moses Malone, and Pete Maravich, Thompson was named 1979’s All-Star Game MVP by scoring 25 points and leading the West to a victory back when the All-Star Game was competitive.
Nikola Jokic is a 4x All-Star and will likely go down as Denver’s greatest player if he continues this pace of dominance. The word “unicorn” has been thrown around frequently with the addition of new talents to the NBA, but Nikola epitomizes that name as well as anyone has in this day and age. He ushered in a new way of thinking about centers and will eventually change how the game is played at the center position.
Jokic is a 3x All-NBA selection, 2020-21’s NBA MVP, and has a great chance at repeating this year which has not been done in franchise history. During the All-Star festivities, Jokic’s numbers might not be eye-popping, but we know he could care less about dominating a game that does not matter to him. His high score is 6 points, but he has only missed four shots in three years, so hopefully he can obtain more attempts in this year’s contest. Jokic might not produce tremendous numbers at the All-Star Game, but this a guy who breaks a new record just about every week, has his name mentioned among Kareem and Wilt as frequently as the sun comes up, and if he stays healthy, can be Denver’s most recurrent All-Star.
Although there is still some disdain about how Anthony left Denver, he cannot be ignored among Denver’s greatest athletes. In a time when the Nuggets missed the playoffs in eight straight seasons, he led the charge back to the playoffs in his rookie season. Before leaving for New York, he had the Nuggets in seven consecutive playoff appearances, including an appearance in the Western Conference Finals.
Anthony makes my list not only because he revived Denver’s status in the All-Star Game, but he resurrected a sleeping franchise into a consistent contender. In eight seasons with Denver, Anthony complied 24.8 PPG and 6.3 rebounds. He was a 10x All-Star, four of those coming in full seasons with Denver, 6x All-NBA selection, and was named to NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. Carmelo was Denver’s first All-Star in 7 years since Antonio McDyess. In four All-Star Games with the Nuggets, Melo eclipsed 20+ points twice, including a 27 point outing in the 2009-2010 season.
There were several tough decisions I had to make when completing the list, and the last spot was the toughest. It’s challenging to leave names like Fat Lever, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Dikembe Mutombo off the list, but Ralph Simpson deserves his shine among Denver’s greats. There are plenty of bigger guards in today’s game, but at 6’5” Simpson was one of the first ABA guards with the height and skillset to do anything on the basketball court. Among Denver’s all-time leaders, he ranks 9th in PPG at 19.5, 9th in assists at 1,950, and 9th in total games at 519. He was a 5x ABA All-Star, all with Denver, including an All-ABA First Team selection, and was twice named All-ABA Second Team.
Simpson also has the most points scored in the ABA than any Nugget in history. He averaged 19.5 PPG with Denver and led them to six straight playoff seasons. His best year with the franchise came in the 1971-72 season where he averaged 27.4 PPG, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. During his five All-Star appearances, Simpson cracked double digits three times and a 19 point, 7 rebounds, and 5 assist effort in the 1975-76 games. Before Denver’s talented guards of the late ’70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, and so on, there was Ralph Simpson. His accomplishments should not go unnoticed when we discuss Denver’s greats.