For most of the 2009-10 season the Denver Nuggets were the second best team in the Western Conference and held the title of the team possessing the best chance to dethrone the Los Angeles Lakers. Things went horribly awry as any hope of earning a shot at a championship vanished on February 17, 2010 when news broke that George Karl had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in his life. Most fans still held out hope that Karl could return and the team would continue chugging along on its current trajectory.
That would simply not be the case and just over two weeks later when it was determined Kenyon Martin would miss a large chunk of the remainder of the season due to a frayed patella tendon the Nuggets ship was sunk. They did manage to hang on to their lead in the Northwest Division and somehow limped into the playoffs with home court advantage against the Utah Jazz. Utah quickly invalidated the Nuggets division crown and higher seed as they walked over the Nuggets in six games.
After watching possibly the most promising season in Denver’s 34 years as a member of the NBA fall apart it is very difficult to gage the current state of the franchise. While it is easy to envision a world where Denver is the team preparing to face off in game six of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers that world is probably further from reality than Nuggets boosters would like to think.
The one of a kind all-time Nugget great coach Doug Moe’s final season as coach of the Denver Nuggets was 1989-90. Up until then the Nuggets had been one of the best teams in the ABA and then the NBA for 16 seasons. Things took a drastic turn for the worse starting with the 1990-91 season. Paul Westhead brought his comically bad offensive brand of basketball to the Mile High City and the result was far and away the worst season in franchise history. Denver won 20 games and became the laughingstock of the league giving up over 130 points per game. Denver’s defensive efficiency that season was an all-time worst 114.7, tied only by the abysmal 1992-93 Dallas Mavericks and the 2008-09 Sacramento Kings.
Starting with the Paul Westhead experiment the Nuggets fell from one of the better franchises to one of the worst. Over the next 13 seasons Denver won an average of 27.9 games. There was more evidence supporting the existence of the Loch Ness Monster than that the Nuggets had ever been in the playoffs (although to be fair they gave us an exciting playoff run consisting of the well known upset over the Seattle Supersonics in the spring of 1994). The franchise bottomed out during the 1997-98 season as Denver flirted with the worst record in league history pulling out a scant 11 victories.
Somehow over a decade plus of losing the Nuggets were never able to land a true franchise player. The Nuggets topped out as a mediocre team under the duo of Nick Van Exel and Antonio McDyess, who to be fair was an Olympian and memorably scored the game winning basket in the semifinals in Sydney to avoid an upset at the hands of Lithuania back when the USA never lost in international competition, and when Dyess went down with a serious knee injury it made it even easier to tear the team down and start over from scratch.
That reclamation project came to fruition in the summer of 2003. It was then that the Nuggets finally acquired a player talented enough to be considered the cornerstone of a winning franchise. Fourteen seasons after the departure of Doug Moe the Carmelo Anthony arrived in town and there was legitimate hope in Denver for the future of the Denver Nuggets.