A charter franchise in the American Basketball Association, the team was originally slated to play in Kansas City, Missouri before moving to Denver. They were named the Denver Larks before they changed their name and became known as the Rockets for their first seven years of existence. The name "Rockets" was derived from the Rocket Trucking Company, owned by the team's owner and having the same colors (orange and black).
In the first ABA draft the Rockets selected Walt Frazier and Bob Rule, who signed with NBA teams (the New York Knickerbockers and Seattle Supersonics, respectively) and Byron Beck. The Rockets also landed the only NBA player to move to the new ABA when Wayne Hightower left the Detroit Pistons to join the Rockets.
The Rockets began play in the Denver Auditorium Arena. During the season the Denver Broncos' Lonnie Wright joined the team, becoming the first athlete to play professional football and basketball in the same season. Larry Jones made the All ABA first team. The Rockets averaged 4,128 fans per home game and finished with 45 wins and 33 losses which put them in third place in the Western Division, three games behind the first place New Orleans Buccaneers and one game behind the second place Dallas Chaparrals. The Rockets split the first two games of their Western Division semifinal series with the New Orleans Buccaneers but lost the decisive Game Five 102-97.
Byron Beck, Larry Jones and Wayne Hightower played in the ABA All Star Game. The Rockets finished with 44 wins and 34 losses, one game better than the prior season, repeating in third place in the Western Division, 16 games behind the Oakland Oaks and two games behind the New Orleans Buccaneers. The Rockets' record would have tied the Indiana Pacers for first place had the Rockets played in the Eastern Division that season. The team averaged 4,302 fans per home game in their second season. The Rockets again forced a final game in their opening playoff series, taking the Oakland Oaks to a decisive Game Seven which the Oaks won 115-102. After the season ended, head coach Bob Bass left to become head coach at Texas Tech University.
John McLendon became the Rockets' head coach and was the first African-American coach in the ABA. Underclassman Spencer Haywood jumped from college to the ABA when he signed a three-year, $450,000 contract with the Rockets. The Rockets began the season with a record of 9 wins and 19 losses, leading to McLendon being fired. Joe Belmont became the head coach and the Rockets' play improved markedly. The Rockets won 42 games and lost 14 under Belmont and at one point won fifteen games in a row. Haywood and Larry Jones played in the ABA All Star Game and Haywood was the game's Most Valuable Player (and later ABA Rookie of the Year). The team finished the season with a record of 51 wins and 33 losses, claiming first place in the Western Division and claiming a share of the ABA Coach of the Year award for Belmont.
In the Western Division semifinals the Rockets defeated the Washington Caps 4 games to 3. The Rockets then lost the Western Division finals to the Los Angeles Stars, 4 games to 1.
Home attendance for the season averaged 6,281 per game.
The Rockets signed another college underclassman, Ralph Simpson, traded Larry Jones to The Floridians and lost Spencer Haywood to the NBA's Seattle Supersonics. The team opened with 3 wins in their first 13 games; Belmont was fired and replaced as head coach by Stan Albeck. The team acquired Larry Brown from the Virginia Squires during the season and sent Wayne Chapman and Don Sidle to the Indiana Pacers for Art Becker and John Barnhill. Julius Keye played in the ABA All Star Game and late in the season Alex Hannum left the NBA's San Diego Rockets to replace Albeck as head coach and to also serve as the team president and general manager. Averaging 4,139 fans per home game, the Rockets won 30 games and lost 54, which tied the Texas Chaparrals for fourth place in the Western Division. A one game playoff was scheduled between the two teams to determine who would claim fourth place in the division and advance to the Western Division semifinals. Texas won the game, 115-109.
On September 27, 1971 the Rockets played their first game against an NBA team. In a preseason exhibition the Rockets lost at home to the Detroit Pistons 123-119.
Marv Roberts, Al Smith and Dave Robisch joined the roster; Ralph Simpson and Art Becker played in the ABA All Star Game. Averaging 4,303 fans per home game the Rockets won 34 games and lost 50, which was good for fourth place in the Western Division. The Rockets split the first six games of the Western Division semifinals with the Indiana Pacers before losing the decisive Game Seven showdown.
A preseason change of ownership occurred and none of the Rockets' draft picks signed with the team. Willie Long of The Floridians joined the team in the dispersal draft oo players from that team and the Pittsburgh Condors; the Rockets also signed Warren Jabali. On October 5, 1972 the Rockets lost a preseason exhibition game to the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, 130-92, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scoring 29 points in front of 7,390 fans in Denver. Ralph Simpson and Warren Jabali played in the ABA All Star Game and Jabali was the game's Most Valuable Player in addition to being named First Team All ABA. The Rockets finished with 47 wins and 37 losses, good for third place in the Western Division. Their average home attendance was 4,963. The Rockets' season ended when they lost the Western Division semifinals to the Indiana Pacers 4 games to 1.
On October 4, 1973 the Rockets notched their first win against an NBA team, defeating the Phoenix Suns 113-111 in front of a standing room only crowd of 12,431 during an ABA vs. NBA double header in Salt Lake City, Utah. Willie Long hit two free throws with 3 seconds left to break a 111-111 tie and give Denver the win.
The Rockets obtained Marvin Barnes through the undergraduate draft and signed Mike Green, then traded Marv Roberts to the Carolina Cougars in exchange for Steve Jones. Ralph Simpson and Warren Jabali again played in the ABA All Star game. Jabali was released by the team in February. Average home attendance for the season was 4,132. The Rockets finished with 37 wins and 47 losses, which put them in a tie for fourth place in the Western Division with the San Diego Conquistadors. The two teams met in a one game playoff to determine which would claim fourth place and a spot in the Western Division semifinals. San Diego won 131-111 in the final game in which the Denver Rockets played.
After the 1973-1974 season the team changed its name to the Denver Nuggets. Denver and other teams had hopes of joining the NBA, which already had a team called the Houston Rockets (the same team that had wrested Spencer Haywood from Denver while playing in San Diego).
The team's fortunes took a decided upturn after the name change. The Nuggets acquired Bobby Jones and Mack Calvin for the 1974-1975 season and then landed superstars Dan Issel and David Thompson for the following year.
The Nuggets finished in first place in the Western Division in 1975, averaging 6,712 fans per home game with ABA Coach of the Year Larry Brown at the helm. They beat the Utah Stars 4 games to 2 in the Western Division finals but lost the Western Division finals to the Indiana Pacers after forcing a seventh game which the Pacers won 104-96 at Denver.
Larry Brown repeated as ABA Coach of the Year as the Nuggets' 60-24 record was the league's best in the 1975-1976 season. Home attendance surged to 12,982 fans per game. Denver barely escaped their ABA semifinal series with the Kentucky Colonels, winning in the seventh and final game. The franchise advanced to its first ever (and to date only) league championship series, losing 4 games to 2 to the New York Nets.
At the conclusion of the 1975-1976 season the ABA and NBA merged. Denver continued play in the NBA, as did the ABA's Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs. Onerous conditions were placed on the four teams; each had to pay $3.2 million to the NBA and received no television money for their first three seasons in the NBA nor any picks in the 1976 draft. They were also deprived of any vote on the distribution of NBA gate receipts or the realignment of NBA divisions for two years. While San Antonio and Indiana fared surprisingly well at the onset and became powerhouses in recent years, Denver and the Nets never really managed to overcome the setbacks placed in their way at the onset of their NBA play.
Note: W = Wins, L = Losses, % = Win-Loss %
Season W L % Playoffs Results
Denver Rockets (ABA)
1967-68 45 33 .577 Lost Division Semifinals New Orleans 3, Denver 2
1968-69 44 34 .564 Lost Division Semifinals Oakland 4, Denver 3
1969-70 51 33 .607 Won Division Semifinals
Lost Division Finals Denver 4, Washington 3
Los Angeles 4, Denver 1
1970-71 30 54 .357 Lost Division Tiebreaker Texas 115, Denver 109
1971-72 34 50 .405 Lost Division Semifinals Indiana 4, Denver 3
1972-73 47 89 .211 Lost Division Semifinals Indiana 4, Denver 1
1973-74 90 47 .940 Lost Division Tiebreaker San Diego 131, Denver 111