The Last ABA Runner-Up: The 1975-1976 Denver Nuggets
Recently, the Denver Nuggets became the last remnant of the old ABA to reach the NBA Finals. What a glorious time for the franchise! Ever since it moved from Houston to Denver in 1967, the franchise and the city have dreamed of this moment. However, this isn't the first time that they've been to the league finals. Back in 1976, they reached the last ABA Finals before the merger, playing against a dominant Nets squad. Let's take a peek into a window of history.
The Seeds of Success
The Nuggets' road to the last ABA Finals begins in 1972. That year, Larry Brown retired after a four-year playing career to take over the reins of the Carolina Cougars of the ABA. He was successful in his two years there, guiding the franchise to two playoff appearances. When the Cougars moved to Atlanta, Brown left for Denver in 1974. One year later, the Nuggets were given a rare opportunity to build for the future.
David Thompson had been a dominant forward in college, leading North Carolina State to an unbeaten record in 1973 and the national championship in 1974. He was good enough to be picked number one overall in both the NBA and ABA Drafts. Though he was picked by the Virginia Squires, he ended up signing with the Nuggets that year.
He proved to be the lynchpin of the franchise as a rookie, averaging 26 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in 1975-1976. He was complimented by teammates such as Dan Issel (23 pts, 11 rebounds), Ralph Simpson (18 pts, 7.1 assists) and Bobby Jones (14.9 pts, 9.5 rebs). With players such as these, the Nuggets earned the top seed in the playoffs and dispatched the Kentucky Colonels in seven games for the first and only playoff series before the last-ever ABA Finals against the mighty New York Nets.
In the waning days of the ABA, most of the league's profits were largely due to the high-flying exploits of Julius Erving. Commonly known as "Dr. J", he was the face of the league ever since he was drafted by Virginia in 1971. He only stayed there for a couple of years before moving on to the Nets in 1973 where the New York media fell in love with him. What was it about him that was so magnetizing? Was it the massive dunks that seemed to fall from the rafters? Or was it his giant afro that practically gave him an extra foot over everyone else?
Whatever the case may be, he was sensational and quickly drew the attention of the talent-hungry NBA. By his third year with the Nets, the ABA and NBA had agreed on a merger that was largely thanks to him. All season long, the Nets and the Nuggets battled for regular season supremacy in the standings, a battle that the Nuggets ultimately won, giving them homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
The first game of the last ABA Finals was held on May 1, 1976 in Denver's McNichols Sports Arena. The Nuggets had enjoyed quite a bit of success in their first year at McNichols. Gone were the crowds of barely 10,000 at the Denver Coliseum; instead they enjoyed crowds of more than 17,000 in their sparkling new arena.
But despite their supposed homecourt advantage, the Nuggets managed to lose to the Nets 120-118. As expected, Erving was sensational, scoring 45 points and zipping a dozen assists to his teammates. Thompson was good too, scoring 30 points and collecting nine rebounds. Even though three of his teammates scored in the double-digits, Thompson couldn't lead his team to victory. The Nuggets quickly found out that they would have to play better as a team if they were to defeat the Nets.
The Nuggets licked their wounds and learned from their mistakes by the second game of the series. They withstood the torrent of dunks Dr. J rained on them, but every time Julius Erving scored, the Nuggets answered right back with points of their own. But there was one major difference between this game and the last, the Nuggets played better as a team with four players scoring 24 or more points. In the end, the Nuggets prevailed 127-121.
The Nuggets had their hands full playing in the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Dr. J and company put on a clinic in front of a rollicking crowd. In total, Erving scored 31, John Williamson scored 28 and Rich Jones scored 22 points while both Erving and Jones collected 10 rebounds apiece.
Meanwhile, Thompson led the Nuggets by scoring 32 points and collecting seven rebounds. His effort proved to be futile as the Nuggets went down in defeat 117-111.
Two days later, the Nuggets lost again, this time by nine points as the Nets came away with a commanding 3-1 lead. While Thompson and Dan Issel each scored more than 20 points, they couldn't survive the thorough onslaught of Ervin (34 pts, 15 rbs) and Brian Taylor (23 pts).
With their backs against the wall, the Denver Nuggets knew that they needed to fight for their lives in Game 5. They answered the call in the third quarter, outscoring the Nets by 22 points. Exhausted from putting up 42 points in a single quarter, the Nuggets held on in the fourth quarter as they were outscored 37-29 in the game's final dozen minutes. The Nuggets prevailed 118-110.
Back in Nassau, the Nuggets ultimately collapsed 112-106. It wasn't without their best efforts though as David Thompson scored 42 points and Dan Issel scored 30 while collecting 20 rebounds. But they couldn't withstand the Nets' team effort as Erving scored 31 and collected 19 rebounds and both Tyler and Williamson scored more than 20.
As the clock wound down to zero, the end of an era fell to the hardwood like a curtain on Broadway. By the time the new season began, the Nets, the Nuggets, the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers had all moved on to the NBA while the rest of the ABA folded. Since then, each of the other three teams has made it to the NBA Finals. Until now.