Congratulations to the 2023 Denver Nuggets, who won their first NBA championship after dispatching the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
Whenever a new winner is crowned, it’s natural to wonder about where that championship fits into the larger fabric of sports champions in a particular sport or city.
Thus, I dove into the history of great Denver sports teams to imagine what the Mount Rushmore of Denver championships might look like. Here’s my list:
One of the commonalities among great sports teams is that they play looser – and thus better – when they finally win the elusive championship and get the monkey off their back.
The 1998 Denver Broncos are a perfect example of this, which is why they so often top lists for the greatest Denver sports teams of all time. Between 1983 and 1996, John Elway’s Broncos made the NFL playoffs eight times, advancing as far as the Super Bowl in 1986, 1987, and 1989. As older Broncos fans know, the NFL community started to ask the dreaded “Can Elway Win the Big One?” question.
But the Broncos finally did in 1997, rattling off 12 regular season wins before surging through the playoffs. Elway didn’t have a particularly strong game in the Super Bowl, but it didn’t matter. The threshold was lifted.
So in 1998, the Broncos relaxed…and dominated the NFL. Their 14-2 record was far and away the best record in the AFC. The defense, still led by Steve Atwater, jolted opposing offenses.
Elway, then experienced and playing with house money at age 38, commanded a dangerous and balanced offense. Terrell Davis ran for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns, while Elway’s play action off the ground game was outstanding.
Plenty of guys threw for more yards in ‘98, but Elway’s 6.2% touchdown rate trailed only Randall Cunningham, Chris Chandler, Steve Young, and Vinny Testaverde.
In the 1998 playoffs, the Broncos rolled the Dolphins and Jets, outscoring them by a combined 61-13. In Super Bowl XXXIII, the Broncos easily handled the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19, becoming the fifth NFL franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
The ‘98 Broncos were one of the top teams of their era and carry a very good case for the greatest Denver team of all time.
In a mythical, time-traveling tournament that pits Super Bowl champions against one another, the NFL odds market would have very few teams laying points to the ‘98 Broncos.
The 1995-96 Avalanche immediately found a home in Denver. They relocated from Quebec prior to that season and won it all right away, quickly removing themselves from the list of teams that have never won the Stanley Cup.
However, it was the 2001 team that will likely stand the test of time as a legendary championship team. Their 118 points in the regular season earned them the Presidents’ Trophy and set a new record.
Joe Sakic was the captain of the ‘96 squad, and he was still captain in 2001. But he was joined by Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, and goalie Patrick Roy – all of whom were first-ballot Hall of Famers. That’s before even getting to guys like Milan Hejduk, and Alex Tanguay, who were legitimate scoring threats that any team would have wanted.
In the Stanley Cup Final, Colorado got an epic challenge from the New Jersey Devils, who matched Roy with Martin Brodeur, setting off one of the great goaltending series in the history of the sport. But in Game 7 of the final, it was the Avs’ scoring talent that won the day. Roy won the Conn Smythe Trophy, and the Avs secured their place in Denver lore.
2015 Denver Pioneers Lacrosse
Lacrosse is famously dominated by mid-Atlantic teams, but there are breakthroughs from outside of Eastern Standard Time.
The University of Denver’s 2015 championship deserves status on the Mount Rushmore of Denver sports teams.
Denver opened the season with an impressive 17-13 win against No. 3 Duke. A month later, the team scored an overtime win against No. 3 Notre Dame after midfielder Zach Miller tied the game with 1:19 left in regulation, then scored again in the extra period.
Earning the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Denver opened postseason play with wins against Brown and Ohio State before ultimately drawing No. 1 Notre Dame in a rematch. The game again went to overtime, and this time, it was Tewaaraton finalist Wesley Berg who found the back of the net, ending the season for the top-seeded Irish.
No lacrosse season would be complete without a high-stakes game against a team from Maryland, so Denver played the Terps in the finale. Denver won, 10-5. After the game, Berg was named Most Outstanding Player for the NCAA Tournament.
Ultimately, the Pioneers secured four spots on Inside Lacrosse’s top two All-American teams: Berg, Connor Cannizzaro, Trevor Baptiste, and Christian Burgdorf. Miller notched a third-team honor.
2023 Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are far from a listless franchise. They won the West in their final year before the ABA merger and have consistently been a solid playoff team (though rarely a championship contender) ever since.
What feels obvious from this Nuggets run, even days after it happened, is that it’s a momentous and validating win for the franchise. There were far too many good teams for Denver to still be associated with the list of NBA teams who have never won a championship. If anything, it illuminates just how hard it is to win the final game of the regular season.
I think what basketball fans will come to realize in the years to come is that the 2023 Nuggets weren’t just a great Denver team, but a historically great NBA team.
Nikola Jokic’s offensive dynamism is unprecedented. Some of the Jokic playoff stats and analytics suggest his performance has been ultra-historic. His 31.5 PER in these playoffs ranks sixth all-time, behind only performances from LeBron James and Michael Jordan. His win share stats project similar implications.
Add in the two-man game with Jamal Murray, the x-factor of Michael Porter Jr., and the defensive contributions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon, and this is a championship core that’s not even fully formed.
It’s far too early to talk about dynasties, but Denver appears to be at the start of something, while many other key players and teams are coming to their end.
Honorable Mention: 2007 Colorado Rockies, 1990 Colorado Buffaloes Football
It didn’t feel right to put either of these teams on the list, but I did want to mention them.
The 2007 Rockies didn’t win a World Series. They were a .500 team or worse for most of the regular season. But something bizarre and spectacular happened to this team in mid-September.
The Rockies went 14-1 over the final portion of the regular season, then went thermonuclear during the National League playoffs. They swept the Phillies and the Diamondbacks in seven straight games. On October 15, they were crowned NL champs and headed to the World Series…and they had lost just one game over the previous month of baseball.
Then, the Rockies sat around for nine days while the American League playoffs played out, and they lost all their mojo. The Red Sox swept them, outscoring them 29-10 in the World Series. But that month of Rockies baseball sure was fun!
I also want to mention the 1990 Colorado football team. I’m not sure it’s really eligible for this kind of list, unless you count Boulder as part of Denver. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)
Still, the Buffs were on a tear in 1990, posting an impressive win at No. 3 Nebraska, late in the year, where Eric Bieniemy famously ran for a bazillion yards in the fourth quarter to take control of the game.
To end the season, No. 1 Colorado faced No. 5 Notre Dame in an Orange Bowl rematch. Colorado avenged its loss, edging Notre Dame 10-9, and winning a share of the national championship.
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