Denver Nuggets Roundtable: The best and the underrated power forwards in franchise history

by Eric Spyropoulos, Alex Labidou

Former, or current for that matter, Nuggets aren’t usually mentioned when discussing the best power forwards league history, but there are quite a few talented players at the position who have starred in the Mile High City. Kiki Vandeweghe, Paul Millsap, Kenyon Martin and Antonio McDyess are among at least a dozen who thrived in the role during their time in Denver. Who was the best? Eric Spyropoulos and Alex Labidou weigh in with their opinions at the position. 

1.    Who is the best power forward in Nuggets history?

Spyropoulos: If Dan Issel is classified as a center (which he should be, as Basketball Reference has him listed as a center for his years in Denver), then Kiki Vandeweghe should get this nod. Although Vandeweghe only played four seasons with the Nuggets in the early-to-mid 1980s, those seasons arguably represented the peak of his NBA career. 

Vandeweghe made two consecutive All-Star teams in 1983 and 1984 as an incredible scorer at the power forward position. In 1982-83, Vandeweghe averaged 26.7 points per game, which he topped a year later with a 29.4 points per game scoring average. 

Across his four seasons in Denver, Vandeweghe averaged 23.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on 54.1 percent shooting from the field. The two-time All-Star also accrued 30.2 win shares across those four years and led the league in offensive win shares (10.5) during that 1982-83 season, highlighting his dominance on the offensive end of the floor. 

Labidou: It’s tough to dispute Vandeweghe, even though he was more of a three-man playing at the four spot to accompany Alex English. Ironically, Vandeweghe might have put up even better numbers today at the position than he did in the 80s. If I’m playing contrarian, two names to consider are Antonio McDyess and Bobby Jones. 

I used to love catching highlights of Nick Van Exel lobbing up alleys to McDyess in a basketball hipster move without much exposure to the Nuggets in New York City in the late 90s and early 2000s. I might be slightly partial, but you can’t really dispute 18.2 points and nine boards a game. Bobby Jones’ numbers aren’t as gaudy as either of the two players I just mentioned, but he was arguably a top five defender at his position while playing in Denver. He eventually became an NBA champion with the Sixers later in his career and the fact he was inducted in the Hall of Fame with averages of 12.1 points and 6.1 speaks to his impact on the defensive end. Jones’ 40.3 win shares are ninth all-time for the Nuggets’ franchise, according to Basketball Reference. 

2.  Which power forwards from the team’s history are underrated? 

Spyropoulos: While the Nuggets have had some dominant players at the center position (Issel, Dikembe Mutombo, Marcus Camby and now Nikola Jokić), the power forward position has been a little more under-the-radar for Denver. 

However, the team has definitely had some quality players man the four position over the years, ranging from Kenyon Martin, Nenê, Antonio McDyess, Kenneth Faried, Bobby Jones, LaPhonso Ellis and most recently, Paul Millsap.

McDyess made his lone All-Star appearance as a Nugget in 2000-01 with dominant averages of 20.8 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, although his peak was relatively short. Faried impressed with his hustle and rebounding prowess (he averaged 11.9 rebounds per-36 minutes as a Nugget despite being listed at 6’8”). 

Martin joined the Nuggets following his peak seasons with the New Jersey Nets, but he still brought hustle and defense to Denver’s frontcourt for seven seasons and played a key role on the 2008-09 team that made the Western Conference Finals. 

While one could argue that all of the players mentioned above have flown under the radar, I’ll go with Nenê and Millsap. Ironically, the Nuggets received Nenê in a draft night trade in 2002 that saw them ship McDyess to the New York Knicks. 

Nenê brought plenty of skill on the offensive floor to Denver and played his first 10 seasons in the league with the Nuggets. At his peak, Nenê averaged around 14-15 points and about 7.5 rebounds per game on impressive shooting efficiency. In fact, during his final full season with the Nuggets in 2010-11, Nenê led the league in field-goal and effective field-goal percentage. Nenê also ranks near the top of several statistics in Nuggets franchise history, especially those related to shooting efficiency. 

Just for good measure, I did a straw Twitter poll about this question and Nenê was a popular response. 

As the Nuggets were looking to take the next step to true playoff contention, the team signed Millsap, with the vision being that the addition of his defense and veteran experience would take the team to the next level. 

For the most part, that has come true, as Denver came within a few minutes of the 2019 Western Conference Finals and has had plenty of regular season success over the past two years. 

Despite being past his peak performance levels (in which he was a four-time All-Star), Millsap has brought strong defense to Denver and has expanded his offensive game to fit around Jokić. Although the traditional counting stats have declined in his two-plus seasons in Denver, Millsap’s advanced metrics paint the picture of his impact. 

Millsap has ranked in the top three in Win Shares per 48 minutes in each of the past two seasons, while his 44 percent 3-point shooting this season marked a career-high, showcasing the work he has put in to evolve his offensive game as he transitioned into a new role during the past three years. 

Labidou: Once again, Eric has beaten me to the punch. It’s difficult to argue the under-the-radar impact Nene and Paul Millsap had in improving Denver on defense. 

Before Nene’s arrival, the Nuggets had a 107.8 defensive rating (26th). While the Nuggets still struggled in his rookie campaign, going 17-65, his effectiveness in the low post and rebounding were instant. The Brazilian joined forces with Marcus Camby to create a formidable frontcourt tandem. Nene would average 10.5 points, 6.1 rebounds on 51.9 shooting and securing All-Rookie First Team honors in 2003. 

Millsap joined the Nuggets as a marquee signing, a player who was supposed to a No. 1 option on offense, so it’s difficult to call him underrated. Although Millsap has passed being the lead scoring option torch to Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, his influence on the defensive end helped turn the Nuggets into a contender.  

The Nuggets had a defensive rating of 112.7 (29th) the season prior to Millsap becoming a part of the team. Injuries blunted his impact in Millsap’s first season, but he would rebound significantly in his second. Denver would climb up to 10th in defensive rating at 108.9, with several players praising the four-time All-Star’s presence as the quarterback of the defense as a reason. 

Millsap’s evolution on the offensive end might give him a slight edge over Nene. The former Jazz and Hawks star entered the NBA as a low post scorer, but his willingness to adapt to modern offenses has made Millsap a potent offensive threat in his mid-30s. The fact Millsap at age 34 is shooting the best three-point percentage of his career at 44 percent this season proves his desire to improve even in his 14th season. 

 

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