Michael Porter Jr. (1) of the Denver Nuggets holds the title trophy during the team’s championship parade in downtown Denver on Thursday, June 15, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
A new NBA season means a new cycle of opining eight months into the future from basketball fans and talking heads.
There are 82 games to play, but the question is impossible to avoid: Who will win the title? Here are five reasons the Nuggets will — and won’t — repeat as champions.
Why the Nuggets will repeat
1. Nobody has a defensive answer for the Joker
As busy as this offseason was around the NBA, the Nuggets still hold the highest card in the league. Not one team acquired a big man convincing enough to slow down Nikola Jokic. Kristaps Porzingis is all offense. Jusuf Nurkic? You can bet the two-time MVP isn’t getting clamped by his predecessor, however motivated Nurkic may be. Rui Hachimura worked for a quarter or two in May, and then LeBron James did too, but Los Angeles already knows it’s useless to try one coverage for a whole series. As long as the Nuggets have the best player in the world, they’ll be firmly in the mix.
2. Championship starting five? Rinse, repeat
It’s not just Jokic. The Nuggets are returning the same five players who started all 20 playoff games this spring and went 16-4. Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope form a well-oiled machine of improvisational offense designed to complement Jokic as Jokic complements each of them. Any one action can yield a half-dozen different possibilities. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure exercise, but at the end, there’s almost always an open shot attempt.
3. CB is proof of what Denver can do with rookies
Christian Braun wasn’t exactly a headliner in the 2022 draft class. But the No. 21 pick showed that solid players like him can make an impact as rookies in Denver, a message Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson have taken to heart with so many bench minutes up for grabs. Braun is also proof of general manager Calvin Booth’s savvy eye for prospects who fit the Nuggets’ system. It’s enough to have reasonable faith that at least one of his three 2023 draft picks will hit this season.
4. Multiple players ready to make All-Star leaps
There’s a strong case that neither Murray, nor Porter, nor Gordon has hit their respective ceilings yet. None of them have been named an All-Star in their careers. Murray has money to play for as he chases his first All-NBA selection, while MPJ is hungry to remind basketball fans of his upside after a poorly timed NBA Finals shooting slump. As for Gordon, he had an All-Star campaign behind him last season that ultimately fell short. Michael Malone called the snub a “travesty.” This is a team with playoff pedigree in its DNA, but also with multiple core pieces still trying to prove something.
5. Coaching continuity
The players aren’t the only people with something to prove. If Malone can maintain Denver’s upward trajectory that he started in 2015-16, he can ascend toward elite company in the modern coaching ranks. He’s now the fourth longest-tenured active head coach in the NBA, but there’s a notable gap between him and the top three. Steve Kerr, Eric Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich have made six NBA Finals appearances in their current jobs. Two of the three have repeated as champs, and the only one who hasn’t (Popovich) has five rings. Malone understands his players, motivates like no one else and has overseen a winning system molded around Jokic.
Why the Nuggets won’t repeat
1. Bench regression
It’s a familiar story at Ball Arena: A championship core stays intact, but the team is helpless to stop a crucial role player from walking for a big pay day in free agency. Bruce Brown was a delightfully malleable player, with the length of a wing, the screening and spacing capability of someone who played with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, and the on-ball skillset and intellect of a point guard. On top of that, the Nuggets lost another second-unit staple in Jeff Green, leaving them gambling on youth.
2. Frontcourt depth
The Nuggets’ options at center behind Jokic remain somewhat thin, like last season. Zeke Nnaji is set to be the MVP’s primary backup, but he’s injury-prone and a tad undersized for an NBA five. DeAndre Jordan is priceless in terms of team chemistry, but he’s obviously not the player he was seven years ago in his All-NBA days. Denver could stagger Gordon’s minutes to keep a more reliable big on the floor at all times, but it could be an awkward adjustment for Gordon to have different roles with different lineups. The last thing the Nuggets want is to feel like they can’t trust anyone to play center other than Jokic, leading to a riskier workload.
3. Other contenders upgraded
The Suns turned their big two into a big three by trading for Bradley Beal, the NBA’s leader in points per game over a two-year stretch (2019-20 and 2020-21). So the Warriors went out and got Chris Paul in the domino effect of Phoenix’s blockbuster. So the Bucks went ahead and formed one of the most thrilling superstar duos in years. So the Celtics took the residue of that trade, acquiring Jrue Holiday to complete an offseason that already included Porzingis. Even the Lakers were efficient, signing NBA Finals-minted Gabe Vincent on top of locking up Austin Reaves. The Nuggets were idle while the teams rising to challenge them made flashy additions.
4. An era of parity
Building a dynasty at this current moment in NBA history is simply a high burden. There have been five different NBA champions in as many years and four different Western Conference champs in the last four seasons. Then take into account that every team in the West is either a current contender or decorated with genuinely promising young players, and you have a recipe for wearing down a defending champ. A young roster like Oklahoma City that projects as a play-in team before opening night is capable of trading a handful of its 10,000 draft picks at any moment and transforming into a heavyweight. When someone in the bottom half of the conference has that kind of looming power, nobody is completely safe.
5. Injury luck could run out
Injuries are an inevitable part of the game. Every team can hope for a spotless season from a health standpoint, but no team can avoid setbacks forever. Just ask Murray and Porter, who worked relentlessly to rehab from their respective injuries and stay healthy last season. Coming off a short summer, the next 82 games and change will be physically demanding on the Nuggets. There are multiple “what-if” teams every year in the NBA.