DENVER — The Denver Nuggets were never demonstrative with the desire to repeat, but they were never subtle about it either.
Let’s call it somewhere in between and leave it at that.
They didn’t call a press conference to declare their intention for this season. At the same time, the confidence, the want-to and the purpose couldn’t be clearer. The mantra for a defending champion has been to do it again, and to try and start a dynasty. It’s been to return and continue to be the hunter.
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For a team coming off a title, those traits are difficult to acquire. It’s why teams that repeat — teams that are remembered for generations — are hard to come by. Don’t allow the Golden State Warriors to fool you. They made it look easy. It’s incredibly hard.
On some level, we should be a bit surprised by the Nuggets that have shown up to this NBA season. It’s normal for title teams to come into a new season with a championship hangover. If you asked the Nuggets, they would tell you they expected that on some levels. There wasn’t any illusion from the franchise that this wouldn’t be an arduous journey.
But heading into Monday night’s matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans at Ball Arena, the Nuggets are 6-1 through the opening weeks. They have the second-best record in the league, behind the Boston Celtics, who have yet to lose. They have the best record in the Western Conference. They have the third-best point differential in the league, behind Boston and Philadelphia. Their only slip has come against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that gave them one of their toughest challenge during the postseason last spring.
“I think we’re playing a very effective brand of basketball,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “Our defense has been pretty good. Our offense, besides turning the ball over too much, has been very good. I’m always looking for improvement, so I think we can be playing so much better on both ends of the floor.
“But there has been no championship hangover from our guys coming into this season. There has been no thought that we can just turn it on because we’re the defending champs, and the guys deserve a lot of credit for that. They have understood the responsibility that comes along with winning a championship. And for most nights of the year, they have come out with that proper mindset and approach.”
In a macro sense, the Nuggets are here to stay, but we should have known that already. Yes, the Warriors look much better than they did last season. Yes, the Celtics, the Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers all made significant changes and talent upgrades to their respective rosters.
The Nuggets still have the best player in the league in Nikola Jokić performing at an MVP level. They still have the best starting five in basketball. They have continuity that is rare in today’s league, and will become increasingly more so once we get a few seasons into the new collective bargaining agreement. They have an offensive symmetry that is difficult to defend, and, so far, they have been one of the best defensive teams in the league.
When a team was the way Denver was before it went on its title run, there is a desire for more success. That’s what we’ve seen from the Nuggets this season. Perhaps the best example of that can be highlighted by their lone loss. The Timberwolves destroyed Denver that night. The Nuggets played without energy. They didn’t defend well. They didn’t play well offensively.
And they weren’t happy about it.
They responded with a terrific all-around performance against the Dallas Mavericks in their first In-Season Tournament matchup. And when asked what changed from 48 hours prior, Malone replied matter of factly.
“Energy,” he said. “We played with more energy, and that’s what I was most happy about.”
Because of the talent in the Western Conference, the regular season holds a bit more meaning than past years. It makes Denver’s 6-1 start important, even if the season has so much farther to go. It makes Monday night’s matchup against New Orleans and Wednesday night’s matchup against the Warriors important, because those are two teams near the top of the standings.
The Nuggets have figured out is they need to take care of business every night. They’re a tight-knit group and they understand what they’re facing.
“I think we understand how good we are, and we understand the standard that we have to play at,” small forward Michael Porter Jr. said. “We understand that everyone knows they are playing the defending champions and that they are going to come in and give us their best shots. And I think beyond that, guys continue to grow their individual games. If we continue to grow as a team, that helps all of us. Even after we won the title, we had our fun, but guys got right back into the gym.”
There’s a bit of irony here in that this season didn’t start without questions. Bruce Brown left in free agency for the Indiana Pacers. Jeff Green left in free agency for the Houston Rockets. Both were important parts of Malone’s rotation during the run through the postseason. Brown was a particularly problematic departure, because he was one of Denver’s best perimeter defenders and the de facto point guard for the second unit, which allowed Jamal Murray to play valuable possessions off the ball.
But a number of things that the Nuggets as an organization needed to go right, have gone right. And the following are subtle things that can allow a championship-level team to stay on top of the mountain.
Most importantly, Jokić is better than he’s ever been. He’s not just the best player in the NBA, but he’s in his own tier as the best player in the NBA. He’s gotten to the point where everyone else is fighting for No. 2. He’s averaging 27 points and 12 rebounds per game. He’s averaging almost eight assists. He’s dominated every marquee matchup — Anthony Davis and Luka Dončić — he’s had so far in the early season. He’s shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. He’s in the prime of his career and he’s playing at an unreal level.
“It’s too bad that people can’t peek behind the curtain and see how hard Nikola works,” Malone said. “Most people go through their pregame routine. Nikola sweats through his routine. When he goes through his weightlifting routine, he goes through it hard. He understands that there’s no magic formula. Yes, he’s incredibly gifted. But his work ethic is great. You don’t get to this level if you aren’t preparing every day at a high level.”
The argument can be made that the Nuggets are improved collectively over the offseason, and that goes beyond Jokić. The little things that have needed to go right have done so. The starting lineup has improved overall because Porter Jr. has made a leap. He’s focused more on the defensive end of the floor. He’s no longer taking over offensive possessions. He’s taking opportunities as they come, and he’s been a better player for it.
His defense on Dončić last Friday night was nothing short of superb. And when Murray exited Saturday night’s win over the Chicago Bulls with an injured hamstring, Porter picked up the slack offensively. Reggie Jackson has re-established himself as an NBA rotation player and he’s been terrific in the backup point guard role. Second-year wings Peyton Watson and Christian Braun give Denver a healthy dose of elite length and athleticism off the bench. And Aaron Gordon has been so versatile that he even played some point guard possessions when Murray was out.
“I like the way we’re playing, but I think we can improve a lot of things,” Gordon said. “But, I think Nikola has been playing great.”
The NBA season is a marathon, and those peaks and valleys that the Nuggets have braced themselves for will probably come in some form. As Murray attests to, and it will be hard for the Nuggets for as long as he is out, (he’s expected to miss at least Monday night). There will be lulls in play, as there always are at some point over 82 games.
But, if the start to the year tells us anything, it tells us that the Nuggets aren’t going to surrender their crown without a real fight. And that’s a message Denver has been sending of resounding order.
(Photo of Nikola Jokić: Garrett Ellwood / NBAE via Getty Images)