Nuggets built a championship team the right way, and built it to last

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This may be just the start for the Denver Nuggets.

The newly crowned NBA champions — they got there Monday night, beating the Miami Heat 94-89 to end the NBA Finals in five games – have five starters that are all 30 and under. They have a superstar leading the way, an elite second option, and a slew of really good players who could have bigger roles elsewhere yet chose to be part of something more meaningful.

All of that could have been said about the Golden State Warriors when they won their first of their four most recent titles in 2015.

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Now, it’s the Nuggets who are following a similar — and proven — formula.

“You know, Pat Riley said something many years ago,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after it was all over. “I used to have it up on my board when I was a head coach in Sacramento, and it talked about the evolution in this game and how you go from a nobody to an upstart, and you go from an upstart to a winner and a winner to a contender and a contender to a champion, and the last step is after a champion is to be a dynasty.”

Even in a championship moment, Malone is already thinking about more. Riley, the Heat president and a nine-time champion as a coach, player and executive, is wired the same way.

It’s not crazy to think the Nuggets can do more. For starters, they have Nikola Jokic.

There are other stars who stand out in their own ways — Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid replaced Jokic as MVP this year, past MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee may be the best two-way player in the league, Dallas’ Luka Doncic is surely going to be an MVP before long — but there’s no other Jokic, who has gone from second-round pick to triple-double machine.

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It’s time to end all debate about Jokic. He’s slow, can’t jump and will never wow anyone with athleticism. And none of that matters. He’s smart, he’s selfless and he’s unstoppable. Period. End of story. The best player in the playoffs, the NBA Finals MVP, and now the big man from Sombor, Serbia is a champion. The days of any Jokic slander being allowed are officially over.

“I think there’s more to come, actually, from Jok,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said. “I think we haven’t seen a side of Jok that we are going to see where he can be just pure dominance all the way, the whole game, even more than he has been.”

Here’s what the other 29 teams should say when they hear that: “Yikes.”

Murray is to Jokic what Dwyane Wade was to LeBron James, what Kobe Bryant was to Shaquille O’Neal (before it became the other way around), and what Scottie Pippen was to Michael Jordan. He is Robin next to Batman, a guy who would be a No. 1 option on many other teams yet checked his ego at the door and made it work in Denver.

Murray has sacrificed some stats. Some spotlight, too. The championship ring that he’ll be getting this fall, however, will have exactly the same amount of diamonds as the one Jokic will get. It all evens out.

“To be here just kind of rounds it out and shows that when we are given the right circumstances and everybody healthy, God willing, we can do it,” Murray said. “I think when we’re playing our best basketball, we are a very hard team to stop.”

It’s difficult to argue that point.

To be fair, this wasn’t the toughest path a team ever took to a title. Denver beat two No. 8 seeds — Minnesota and Miami — along with a No. 7 seed in the Los Angeles Lakers and a No. 4 seed in Phoenix to win this championship. But it was dominant. The Nuggets never trailed in a series. They went 16-4 in the postseason. They won 10 of their final 11 games. They left no doubt.

Malone was an assistant coach in Golden State just as the Warriors were starting down the path of becoming the NBA’s immovable object. He left two years before Stephen Curry’s first title to take over in Sacramento, getting fired early into Year 2 there. Then Denver hired him, and his first three seasons there resulted in zero playoff appearances. Usually, that gets a guy fired.

The Nuggets kept him. The debt was repaid in full on Monday night. Patience paid off, and so did the institutional belief that Malone was the right guy, that Jokic — the greatest No. 41 pick in NBA draft history — would become a great, that Denver was building something the right way.

“You know, it’s not for everybody,” Malone said. “This was the best course for us, and it’s allowed us to get here.”

It very well may allow them to stay there.

Winning isn’t easy and winning a championship is darn near impossible. There have been five different champions in the last five years now. Three of those titlists — Toronto (2019), the Lakers (2020) and Milwaukee (2021) — have since fired the coaches who won those championships. Getting to the top is hard. Staying on top is tougher. Malone knows this, and starting this fall, the Nuggets are going to learn it.

But he thinks they’re also built for whatever comes next.

“We’re not satisfied,” Malone said. “We accomplished something this franchise has never done before, but we have a lot of young talented players in that locker room, and I think we just showed through 16 playoff wins what we’re capable of on the biggest stage in the world.”

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