In any other instance, a basketball team featuring a two-time league MVP, one of the best shooters in the world, and an unmatched home-court advantage would have no reasonable claim to being counted an underdog. The Denver Nuggets, however, aren’t your average franchise.

If it feels improbable that they’re four games away from their first NBA championship, it’s because it is.

Until this season, the Denver Nuggets were one of only six franchises to have never made the NBA Finals—and they were the longest-tenured members of that group. They’ve lacked a clear and consistent identity, with a slew of different logos and color schemes across various eras. For much of their existence, the Nuggets have been an also-ran, an afterthought in their own city.

But that’s all changing. The Nuggets have captured the attention of not only the region, but hoops at large, too. They’re becoming the model for how to build a championship-caliber team without gobs of capital or top draft picks—or that coastal je ne sais quoi.

To get a better sense of the Nuggets’ remarkable emergence, let’s look at some of the defining moments in their—yes, sometimes painful—history.

  • Denver is awarded a team for the newly formed American Basketball Association, replacing Kansas City (which was unable to secure an arena for “sufficient playing dates”). Originally named the Larks, they rebranded to the Denver Rockets, named after owner Bill Ringsby’s long-haul trucks.

  • Led by stars David Thompson and Dan Issel, the Nuggets—the winning moniker in a contest to rename the team—defeat the Kentucky Colonels to make their first-ever American Basketball Association championship game. But Coach Larry Brown and his team would fall to Julius Erving and the New York Nets in six games.

  • The American Basketball Association merges with the National Basketball Association, sending the Nuggets, Nets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs to the then-30-year-old league as expansion teams.

  • Behind 37 points from Thompson, the Nuggets defeat the Milwaukee Bucks to advance to the Western Conference Finals in just their second season in the NBA. Once there, they fall to the Seattle SuperSonics in six games.

  • In exchange for power forward George McGinnis, the Nuggets acquire Alex English in a trade with the Pacers. In 11 seasons in Denver, English would become an eight-time All-Star. Today, he remains the Nuggets’ all-time leader in points, games, minutes played, and field goals.

  • After a putrid 11-20 start—which followed a horrific 30-52 season—Coach Donnie Walsh is dismissed, and assistant Doug Moe is appointed the interim head coach. Three months later, he would sign a multi-year contract to remain Denver’s head coach, where he remained for a decade. He would lead the Nuggets to the playoffs nine straight years, including during their then-record 54-win season in 1987–’88. Moe’s 432 career wins are the most by a coach in Nuggets history.

  • With 31 points in a win over the Kansas City Kings, English clinches the NBA scoring title, averaging 28.4 points per game. He’s the first and only Nuggets player to ever do so. Teammate Kiki VanDeWeghe finishes second. Despite that potent one-two scoring punch, the Nuggets lose in five games to the Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals.

  • After trading VanDeWeghe in the offseason, Denver defeats the Utah Jazz to advance to the Western Conference Finals. It goes on to lose to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in five games. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, this particular shred of history would seem to repeat itself over the years.

  • Despite going 54-28, tied for the third-best record in the league and the franchise’s best winning percentage since joining the NBA, the Nuggets bow out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Semifinals, losing in six games to the Dallas Mavericks. It’s the sixth time in the past seven years they fail to get past the second round of the playoffs.

  • After a 43-39 season and the Nuggets’ fifth first-round playoff exit over the past nine years, Moe is fired. He’s replaced by Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead, who led the Lakers to a title in 1980.

  • Following a 24-58 season—which brought his two-year record to 44-120—the worst of any NBA coach during that span—Westhead is let go. In his first season, Denver scored an NBA-best 119.9 points per game but surrendered an astonishing 130.8 points per game, prompting local sports writers to dub the team the “Enver Nuggets.” At the ensuing news conference, Nuggets General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff says, “We feel it was imperative we move in a different direction.”

  • Despite sneaking into the playoffs as the Western Conference’s final team and falling behind two games in a best-of-five first-round series against the NBA-best SuperSonics who won 63 games in the regular season, the Nuggets win three straight games to advance. Center Dikembe Mutombo records eight blocks in the elimination game in Seattle, and Denver becomes the first number eight seed to defeat a number one seed in playoff history. The Nuggets would fall in seven games in the ensuing round to the Jazz.

  • The NBA suspends Nuggets leading scorer Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for refusing to stand for the national anthem, a move the guard said he made because the United States flag is “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” “My beliefs are more important than anything,” he said at the time of his suspension. “If I have to give up basketball, I will.” The season was his last in Denver and within three years, he would be out of the league.

  • Denver finishes the season 11-71. At the time, it’s tied for the second-worst winning percentage by a team in NBA history.

  • The Nuggets finish a lockout-shortened season at just 14-36, missing the playoffs for the fourth-consecutive season, and first-year coach Mike D’Antoni is fired. He would go on to win NBA Coach of the Year honors six years later with the Phoenix Suns.

  • Wal-Mart heir Stan Kroenke buys the Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche, and the then-Pepsi Center for a cool $450 million, ending a prolonged and contentious selling process. He outbids a group led by John Elway.

  • The Nuggets cap off a 17-65 season and miss the playoffs for the 11th time in 13 years. They are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the worst record in the league, and in the following month’s NBA Draft lottery, lose out on the number one overall pick—and the chance to select high school phenom LeBron James.

  • Denver drafts forward Carmelo Anthony with the number three overall pick in the NBA Draft. Three months earlier, Anthony, a freshman, led Syracuse to its first and only NCAA championship. In his first pro season, Anthony would average a team-high 21 points per game and lead the Nuggets to their first playoff berth since 1995 while finishing second to James in Rookie of the Year voting.

  • George Karl is hired as the Nuggets’ head coach. The former SuperSonics and Bucks frontman holds the position for the next eight seasons, leading Denver to the playoffs each year and amassing 423 wins, second most in franchise history.

  • The Nuggets trade for Philadelphia 76ers superstar Allen Iverson, which gives Denver two of the top 10 scorers in the NBA. But even with Iverson and Anthony on the court, Denver loses in the first round of the playoffs each of the next two seasons.

  • Three games into the season, Iverson is traded to the Detroit Pistons for a package highlighted by former NBA Finals MVP and Denver native Chauncey Billups.

  • Led by the trio of Anthony, Billups, and J.R. Smith, the Nuggets beat the Mavericks in six games to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 24 years. There, they are defeated by the eventual NBA champion Lakers in six games.

  • Months after reportedly demanding to be moved, Anthony is traded to the New York Knicks in a three-team deal that brings Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, and Kosta Koufos to Denver. With that core, the Nuggets make the playoffs each of the next three seasons.

  • Despite being named NBA Coach of the Year one month earlier, Karl is fired. Denver went 57-25, still the best record in the franchise’s NBA history, but it lost in the first round of the playoffs for the eighth time in the nine seasons under Karl’s leadership. He is replaced by Brian Shaw, who goes 56-85 before being let go in March 2015.

  • Serbian big man Nikola Jokić is selected by Denver with the 41st pick of the NBA Draft, which is now-famously unveiled during a Taco Bell commercial on ESPN’s broadcast.

  • Michael Malone is hired as the Nuggets’ head coach. In his previous head-coaching stint, he went 39-67 over parts of two seasons with the Sacramento Kings, who fired him after an 11-13 start in December 2014 despite the coach earning the respect of mercurial star DeMarcus Cousins.

  • Using the final draft pick given to them by the Knicks in the Anthony trade, the Nuggets select Kentucky sharpshooter Jamal Murray with the draft’s number seven overall pick.

  • Denver picks Michael Porter Jr. with the 14th selection in the NBA Draft. Porter was the number one high school player in the 2017 recruiting class, but a lower back injury and a subsequent surgery limited him to just three games as a freshman at Missouri.

  • With top scorers Jokić and Murray, the Nuggets make the playoffs for the first time in six years and win their first postseason series since 2009. They would lose to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Semifinals.

  • In the NBA Bubble in Orlando, the Nuggets come back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers and advance to the Western Conference Finals, where they would lose (once again) to the Lakers. In the pandemic-affected playoffs, Murray blossoms into a star, averaging 26.5 points and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 45.3 percent from three-point range.

  • Forward Aaron Gordon, a former top-five NBA Draft pick, is acquired in a trade with the Orlando Magic.

  • Murray tears the ACL in his left knee in a loss to the Golden State Warriors. The injury forces him to miss the remainder of the 2020–’21 season and the entirety of the 2021–’22 season.

  • After averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game, Jokić is named the 2020–’21 NBA MVP. He’s the first Nuggets player and the lowest-drafted player to earn the honor.

  • Without Murray and Porter Jr., the latter of whom was sidelined by season-ending back surgery, the sixth-seeded Nuggets lose in the first round in five games against the eventual NBA champion Warriors.

  • Jokić wins his second-consecutive league MVP, becoming the 12th player in NBA history to win it in back-to-back years, after a season in which he is the first player to ever record 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 500 assists. He receives the award after riding a small, horse-drawn carriage in his native Serbia.

  • Guard Bruce Brown signs a two-year contract with the Nuggets, providing Denver with a valuable piece off its bench.

  • The Nuggets secure the Western Conference’s top seed and home-court advantage, the first time they have ever done so in the NBA.

  • Behind 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 13 assists from Jokić, the Nuggets beat the Lakers 113-111 to complete a Western Conference Finals sweep that sends them to their first-ever NBA Finals.

Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer
Craig Meyer is a Denver-based freelance writer. Before moving to Colorado in June 2022, he spent the previous 10 years as a sports writer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, primarily covering college basketball and football.