clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Denver Nuggets Were Built to Last

Not every franchise can be so lucky as to draft the best player in the game, but any can afford to be patient—and the Nuggets’ long, steady march carried them all the way to the NBA title

AP Images/Ringer illustration

With the job finally done and the first of his media obligations reluctantly attended to, Nikola Jokic—his daughter in one arm and the NBA Finals MVP trophy in the other—ran one last pick-and-roll, clearing space for his teammate of seven years. It was Jamal Murray’s turn on the presentation stage. ESPN’s Lisa Salters had a question for him about his grueling road back from an ACL tear, but the moment completely overwhelmed it; the Ball Arena crowd erupted at the sight of their franchise point guard before Salters could even finish her thought, and Murray looked up in recognition, trying and failing to hold back tears through a wide, toothy grin.

Over the years, Murray has explained that his incredible poise on the court comes from intense preparation—not only by drilling for every possible shot he could take in a game, but also through visualizing outcomes in his mental practice. He’ll sometimes ask the Nuggets’ equipment manager in advance what jersey the team will be wearing, just to create a more accurate picture in his mind. To put him in a time and a place so vivid he can see the red and gold trim of his uniform. But even years of envisioning what it would be like to stand on that stage with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in his arms couldn’t prepare him for it.

“It’s just an amazing feeling,” Murray said. “Blood, sweat, and tears to get back to this point. Everybody on my team in here, everybody on the floor believed in me—believed in me to get back to myself. We proved a lot of doubters wrong, and …” He trailed off, smiling and shaking his head, as the crowd roared louder and louder. “I mean, look at this.” This is what it feels like to finally achieve what you’ve spent decades striving for. It’s what it means to have a place in the world. The members of the Nuggets may be from Kitchener or Sombor or Queens or San Jose, but they’ll always be from Denver, too. They built something here that no one can ever take away.

How they built it is now the biggest story in the league. There is magic in any run to the NBA Finals—in the way a miracle shot falls, a role player transcends their limitations, or a star comes into their own. But behind those dramatic developments, propping them up, is the monotonous work required to make magic happen. “Two-a-days and three-a-days and four-a-days for years and years and years, just so you can make maybe one big shot,” Denver’s Aaron Gordon said. No one just becomes a champion; they shape themselves into one over a basketball lifetime.

Patience is understood to be part of the process. Yet when it comes to building a championship team, vanishingly few organizations have shown any real capacity to wait out the work. There’s always a free agent to chase or lose, a coach to hire or blame, a trend in the league to follow or counter. Nothing in the NBA is really built to last anymore—except, apparently, the Nuggets. “For us,” head coach Michael Malone said, “there’s never been a rushed mentality.” There are very explicable basketball reasons the Denver Nuggets are now champions; most of them begin with the fact that Jokic is the best basketball player in the world. But he wasn’t always.

“Nikola, he grew into who he is now,” Jeff Green said. “It took time. Jamal grew into who he is now. It took time.” For as talented as Jokic is, that’s the secret ingredient of the Jokic Era in Denver thus far, and the differentiating factor in the way the Nuggets operate relative to the rest of the league. Time.

“You need to be bad, then you need to be good,” Jokic said. “Then when you’re good, you need to fail, and then when you fail, you’re going to figure it out. I think experience is something that is not what happened to you—it’s what you’re going to do with what happened to you.”

Jokic and Murray were allowed to play and grow together for seven years. There are only two current star duos who have played together for longer: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in Milwaukee. Those are the backbones of the last three champions. But they’re also the long-haulers—the exceptions to the rule. There are only five teams in the NBA whose stars have been on their roster together for even five seasons (and there could soon be four, if Boston decides to move on from Jaylen Brown), meaning the shelf life of a typical core is shorter than the length of a single max contract.

Some of the reason for that is well beyond a team’s control; there are few things in the modern NBA more difficult than keeping a team together. Yet Denver has done exactly that, first by drafting incredibly well, and then by committing (both conceptually and financially) to the long-term development of those players. “It’s something that we really built,” Jokic said. “I was drafted by the Nuggets. Jamal was drafted by the Nuggets. [Michael Porter Jr.] was drafted by the Nuggets.” Beyond that: Denver wouldn’t have been able to trade for Gordon without Gary Harris, who was a hit with the 19th pick in the 2014 draft, and wouldn’t have been able to trade for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope if not for Monte Morris, who turned out to be a steal with the 51st pick in 2017. There is a lineage that goes beyond the blank void of filling cap space—a sense of progress reflected in the way Harris and Morris came out to watch their former teammates in person during these Finals, just to see how it all came together.

This championship was drawn in through lines. Jokic received texts during the series from Mike Miller and Jameer Nelson, Nuggets veterans from his first season in the league. (Miller, as outlined in The Denver Post, was responsible for giving the future MVP his nickname.) Former Nugget Wilson Chandler, who played two seasons with Jokic and Murray, has been tweeting out commentary on the series and casually dunking on Skip Bayless. Denver took the long way here. This wasn’t just the Nuggets’ first championship since joining the NBA in 1976, but also the franchise’s first trip to the Finals in all that time. In the intervening years, Denver cycled through charismatic teams that didn’t have enough and deeply flawed ones that never really had a chance.

“I remember the days when nobody was in our [arena],” Jokic said. “You could hear the ball bounce on the floor.” In time, people came—first to see this 7-footer sling impossible passes, and then to celebrate him as an utterly transcendent player. On Monday night, Ball Arena was packed to the rafters, and so enthusiastic in its support as to make Murray lose his train of thought in the middle of an interview. A sensational homegrown core, a resounding home-court advantage—even before they won the title, the Nuggets should have been a model for the entire league. Not every franchise can be so lucky as to draft the best player in the game, but any can afford to be patient.

Everybody—every individual, and more importantly, every team, collectively—has to pick a path and stay true to it,” Malone said. “I feel really fortunate that our journey has been one of patience, one of drafting really well and developing those players, and then adding the right pieces around them.” Rather than futzing around by allowing young players to enter restricted free agency, the Nuggets offered sizable contract extensions at the earliest opportunity—both as an affirmation of the players they drafted and as a way to ensure the longest possible deal to keep them around. It may seem easier for a small-market team to take the long view, but most don’t. When Gordon was in Orlando, he played alongside a revolving door of teammates under five head coaches in six years.

“Not only was I 19 or 18 coming into the NBA, I was also having to learn a system each and every year,” Gordon said. “I’m learning a new system, trying to make my way. It’s hard.”

Jokic and Murray have played for only Malone, who at this point is the fourth-longest-tenured head coach in the league, behind Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Malone’s Finals counterpart, Erik Spoelstra. Those lucky few are also the only NBA coaches to have been in their posts for even five seasons, with the vast majority of their peers barely able to move into a rental home before it’s time to pack back up again.

Most young NBA stars will have played under two or three coaches by the time they come into their own. There’s no continuity of message or process, but beyond that, the frequency with which organizations can and recycle coaches means that few of them ever have a chance to grow with their teams. Before Malone came to the Nuggets, he was fired by the Kings after less than two seasons because, as best as anyone can tell, DeMarcus Cousins got meningitis. Sacramento didn’t even have the patience to wait out a bacterial infection. Denver is here, planning a parade, because it gave an out-of-shape, unprecedented prospect time to figure out how to dominate in the most athletic basketball league in the world. Because it was willing to put contention on pause while Murray went 555 days between NBA games due to injury. Because it believed in what stacking season upon season could do for a team, and for Malone as he found his way.

He’s built trust with his stars and role players alike—the kind that can really come only from going through the fire together. You can see the ways he’s learned to manage a roster through outreach, like by walking the line during the Nuggets’ pre-practice stretching routine to check in with every player, from Nikola to Ish. Even within this championship season, Malone adapted to feedback from Murray about how to communicate his criticisms. There was enough trust built over time that a defensive breakdown didn’t have to be met with fire and brimstone. There’s a time to call out the team publicly and emphatically (like after the Game 2 loss to the Heat, the Nuggets’ only loss in the Finals), and a time to simply tell a now-experienced team what needs to be done.

“When we weren’t that good, he had to have that kind of authority and defensive mindset and just get on us and pull it out of us,” Murray said. “Now it’s like we know what we need to do to win. We know what to expect from each other, and we can get on each other to push each other to be better. I just thought he’s—not just this year, but each year that we’ve been together—he’s just grown in how to handle us. I think that’s so important, the way you handle people in the locker room on and off the court, and he’s done an amazing job of just keeping us positive, coming to timeouts, keeping us positive, moving on to the next play when we make a mistake.”

In NBA terms, giving a coach eight years with a team is a radical display of patience. “Most places,” Malone said, “that does not happen.” But given what the Nuggets have accomplished, why couldn’t it happen more often? Denver’s playoff run has been heralded as a triumph of continuity, and to some extent that’s true; Jokic, Murray, and Malone have a unique working relationship that gave the Nuggets an edge over every opponent they came up against in these playoffs. There is an invaluable shorthand that comes with the bond Denver’s stars share. All three of the Nuggets’ Western Conference playoff opponents were hastily assembled in their own way, without the baked-in familiarity that makes the Nuggets so buoyant. No matter what a series looks like, Jokic and Murray know each other well enough to navigate it.

“A lot of guys play with each other,” Malone said. “I think those two guys play for each other.”

Yet in terms of comparing who played this season relative to last, Denver had some of the worst minute continuity in the entire league—because of significant turnover in the supporting cast (Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun were all new to the team this season) and injuries that had knocked Murray and Porter completely out of the mix last season. Porter rehabbed his way from back surgery to reassert himself as one of the best shooters in the world—before his shot abandoned him in the Finals, and he showed all the other ways he can make an impact. Murray missed two playoff runs because of the extended recovery from his ACL tear but was outstanding in these playoffs and historically great in these Finals. In the afterglow of the biggest moment of his basketball life, Murray sought out Nuggets team governor Stan Kroenke on the confetti-strewn court—just to thank him.

“I appreciate you staying patient with me,” Murray told Kroenke. “Y’all could have gone a different route—I appreciate you staying with me, and we got it done.”

When Murray’s knee gave out in April of 2021, he was distraught. There was the pain of the injury, the anguish of knowing he would miss extended time, and beyond that, the fear that the Nuggets—a small-market team eager to contend—would trade him. Malone assured him that wouldn’t be the case, but the greater assurance came in the way the Nuggets have navigated the last two years. Since Murray’s injury, the Nuggets re-signed Gordon on a four-year deal, extended Porter on a five-year max, traded for KCP and immediately gave him a contract extension, signed Brown and Green, and gladly gave Jokic the full supermax. The Nuggets amassed one of the most expensive cores in the league and rounded out its edges with role players who fit to championship perfection.

“That was always the vision, but once it happens, it’s surreal,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth said during the celebration, a champion in his first year on the job after taking over for Tim Connelly. “You never know when you can actually get it done.” But through all their setbacks, the Nuggets always believed they could. They bided their time and made smart additions. They didn’t pressure Murray to return before he was ready—trusting that the fleeting vision of a team that existed for eight games between the Gordon trade and the Murray injury would spring back to life when he returned.

And they were right. It took time for Murray to feel comfortable again playing in crowds, by his own admission. “I was so lost,” he said. “I had never felt being that lost on the court before. I just didn’t want to go in the paint or jump or land or feel contact.” Murray didn’t play back-to-backs early in the season, and even when he did play, he didn’t always look like himself. It took time. Denver weathered all that and still claimed the top seed in the West because of the luxury afforded by Jokic and a talented roster, but time is a luxury, too—one that’s rarely afforded from the highest levels of an organization, and one that squeezes general managers and pressures coaches and weighs on the players themselves. The Nuggets don’t have a flawless track record in terms of spending and decision-making, but over the last decade, they got the biggest thing right: They knew they had something great and refused to give it up.

“And I think our team is getting better,” Kroenke said in the Nuggets locker room after the closeout game. “If you look at guys like Mike: He’s getting better. Watch him through these playoffs. Watch Jamal—he can play differently [than he used to]. He doesn’t have to be the guy that scores 30 or 40 or 50. He can go ahead and dish out 12 assists and make no turnovers and win you a game. That’s maturity.”

But there’s a time for maturity, and there’s a time for jubilation. All around the locker room, Nuggets players sprayed one another with champagne, took swigs from magnum-sized bottles, and puffed cigars. One of the best things about a title-winning locker room is that it feels like every few minutes, one of the victorious players or coaches—in the haze of the evening—seems to remember that they won all over again and explodes in celebration, shaking up another bottle. The entire locker room is a splash zone, to the point that Moet literally drips off the ceiling.

“I’ve got champagne in my eyes and it’s burning and I LOVE IT!” Gordon yelled to no one in particular.

Reserve big man Thomas Bryant went to work in the middle of a dance circle. Green, Ish Smith, and DeAndre Jordan—the veterans who helped guide the Nuggets through the playoff gauntlet—posed for a picture kissing the trophy together. At least until their photo was crashed by a shirtless, dancing Jokic, who had just returned from luring Murray into the back, ambushing him with a bear hug, and throwing him into a training pool. (Vlatko Cancar followed up with a cannonball.) Some Nuggets players were practically in shock. Others were full-throated in their exuberance. And through the smoke and champagne spray, you could see a warm embrace between Jokic and John Beckett, a player-development turned assistant coach who’s been with the Nuggets since before Malone, Murray, and the two-time MVP even showed up. Off to the side, Green and Murray brought their heads together to share a moment amid the chaos, and the 15-year veteran thanked his younger teammate for getting him here.

It’s been a long time coming.

“After everything we’ve been through as a team, knowing we could’ve been here before if we were healthy—it’s just real sweet to see it through,” Murray said. “To prove everybody wrong. I’m just so happy for the guys in here. Everybody was so unselfish throughout the year, and this is what it’s all about. This is why we’re the best team in the world.”