SAN DIEGO — Fewer than 24 hours before the beginning of a long week, the team dinner, as it typically does, featured a bunch of food, a steady choice of libation, a healthy dose of conversation chatter, jokes and laughter. The Denver Nuggets were on the brink of training camp, together for the first time since a championship parade through the streets of downtown Denver.
They were a team again, nostalgic about the past, but preparing for what’s to come.
“It was good to see each other, and to just generally be in the same company,” point guard Reggie Jackson said.
Head coach Michael Malone then spoke up. He talked about the road the Nuggets are about to face. He talked about the responsibility the Nuggets will have as an NBA champion ready to defend a title. He urged his team to have fun on this night, to make the most of it. Then, get to the task at hand, which is to put themselves in a position to get back to the promised land.
The Denver Nuggets don’t want to be a one-year wonder or the team that caught fire at the right time. Of course, when they open the regular season against the Los Angeles Lakers in three weeks, a championship banner will be raised to the rafters of Ball Arena and will stay there forever. That’s the indelible part.
But, what the Nuggets want to be is the team with staying power. They want to be the team that’s a title contender, year in and year out. They want to be one of those ones. The team that’s talked about for years to come.
Denver hasn’t shied away from this goal during training camp week in San Diego. Scrimmages have been lively. Malone has been tinkering with different combinations during live play. The search for new pieces in a second unit that lost Bruce Brown and Jeff Green in free agency is well underway. But the overall theme? Protect what’s theirs. Become legendary. Win another championship.
And that’s something the Nuggets want to embrace.
“We talked about doing something that hasn’t been done since the Golden State Warriors: winning back-to-back titles,” Malone said. “How do we do that? By working. By not skipping steps. We have to realize that last year is over and that we can’t live in the past. We won a championship, the first in 47 years. We’re excited for ring night, to get those rings.
“But once we do, it’s over. If we want to try and be the team that can repeat, and the team that can be a dynasty, we have to have a standard of excellence each and every day. And it’s going to be my job to hold the guys accountable when we’re not playing well.”
Nuggets offseason: The intrigue and concerns surrounding defending champs
The Nuggets understand that as good as they are, the rest of the league improved around them, in both conferences. In the Western Conference, the Lakers fortified their roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Phoenix Suns acquired Bradley Beal. The Golden State Warriors traded for Chris Paul. The Memphis Grizzlies traded for Marcus Smart. In the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks acquired Damian Lillard and the Boston Celtics have a new look with Kristaps Porziņģis and Jrue Holiday around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Denver knows it won’t be easy navigating through 82 games and getting through a grueling playoff, especially because it has to replace Bruce Brown, who signed with the Indiana Pacers, and Green, who left for the Houston Rockets. What Denver has, and what it can always lean on, of course, is the brilliance of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, and a starting lineup that’s arguably the best collective in the NBA.
But what Nuggets decision-makers also know is that it will be important to give themselves some grace. They just won a championship, so what if there is a championship hangover? What if a team that enjoyed good health last season sustains an injury? What if the second unit doesn’t gel right away? What if young players like Christian Braun and Peyton Watson struggle with elevated roles and responsibility within Malone’s rotation?
The good news for Denver is the core of Jokić, Murray, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. is as good as it comes in the league and isn’t close to aging out. There are teams that can match Denver’s top-end talent, but there aren’t many, if any, that can match what the Nuggets will put out every night in the starting five. Jokić and Murray aren’t the kind to rest on a bit of success. Most importantly, there’s enough to prove with this Denver team throughout the roster that complacency shouldn’t become an issue this season.
“What we want to do is come out and try and make sure that we’re on the same basketball level as last year,” Jokić said. “So that means coming in and working hard every day. We have to make sure that we do the little things well.”
And that’s what a lot of training camp has been focused on this week. Denver’s made a point to try and integrate wing free-agent signee Justin Holiday in with the rest of the rotation players, so Malone has been giving him reps with the starting unit. The Nuggets are expecting bigger things from Braun this year after a strong rookie season and excellent playoffs, so he’s done more with the ball in his hands.
The symmetry between the starters has been there, which is to be expected. On Tuesday, Malone was happy with the first day, but thought his team got a little sloppy with turnovers in Wednesday’s practice. Porter Jr. sprained an ankle in Wednesday’s practice, but the injury isn’t expected to be serious
And, oh yeah. Malone told the Lakers they have a “you” problem if they are still talking about the Nuggets.
“What was that, four months ago?” Malone asked, when informed Los Angeles players commented on the victory parade trash talk of June.
Mostly, the week so far has served as a ramp up for what’s to come. The Nuggets want to be the team that can repeat, and they know how difficult that will be. Truthfully, it makes for a fascinating balance, as Malone attempts to fine tune the things the starters do well while trying to get the younger players and newcomers up to the speed of the core of the roster. A first preseason game comes next week. The regular season looms large on the horizon.
And now, the reality of defending a championship is almost here.
(Photo of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray: Bart Young / NBAE via Getty Images)