Can the Denver Nuggets defend their NBA championship? It’s complicated

It seems inevitable the Denver Nuggets will feel nostalgia once they wear their NBA championship rings. The same thing presumably will happen once they see their championship banner unveiled, too.

How could it not? The Nuggets won their first NBA championship in franchise history. They spent the previous four seasons as a playoff contender that could not sniff an NBA title both because of superior competition and injuries.

Moments later, however, reality will hit them. The Nuggets will host their season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, the same opponent that wants to exact retribution for sweeping them in the Western Conference Finals five months ago. How will the Nuggets process dueling emotions?

“It’s hard to handle both,” Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I hope our guys have the mental toughness and the ability to [see] the banner and rings and then think, ‘Okay, now we have a job to do.’ It’s definitely going to be a challenge, but one that we’ll prepare for.”

That will mark the first of many challenges the Nuggets will face entering the 2023-24 season. It will all surround the same persisting theme. Can the Nuggets defend their NBA championship?

Most NBA championship teams have failed to achieve that goal. In the league’s 75-year existence, only 20 teams have defended their title. The common reasons? The incumbent NBA champion entered training camp nursing a championship hangover, both with having a short time to recover from a taxing season and from the following celebrations. Other teams retooled their rosters in hopes to eclipse the defending champions’ talent. And all 29 other teams played nearly every regular-season game against the defending champions with playoff-like intensity.

After already enjoying champagne baths and championship parades in June, those defending championship teams found it difficult to muster the same energy and enthusiasm for regular-season games in the fall and winter.

That explains the theme surrounding the Nuggets’ team dinner before training camp. Before talking Xs and Os, Malone stressed about the need for his players to mind their Ps and Qs.

“‘We’re going to try to be a team that can repeat,’” Malone recalled telling his team. “‘We’re going to try to be a team that can be a dynasty like Golden State and like San Antonio. We have to have a standard of excellence each and every day. It’ my job to make sure we’re living up to those standards and hold guys accountable when they’re not.’”

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Interestingly, the Warriors and Spurs also struggled with fulfilling the Nuggets’ standard. The Spurs won five NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014) by leaning on a generational big man (Tim Duncan) and proven coach (Gregg Popovich).

Yet, the Spurs failed to defend their championships for the familiar reasons outlined above. After winning their first NBA title of this decade (2015), the Warriors squandered a 3-1 Finals series to Cleveland (2016). The Warriors only won consecutive NBA titles (2017, 2018) after Kevin Durant joined a team that already featured Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.

Only the Warriors, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have defended their NBA championship. Out of that group, only the Celtics (1956-66), Lakers (1952-54, 2000-02) and  Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98) ever won three consecutive NBA titles. First things first. Does Denver have what it takes to win at least back-to-back championships?

Internally, the Nuggets like their chances. They still have their two-time regular-season MVP and Finals MVP (Nikola Jokic), a healthy point guard that could make his first All-Star appearance (Jamal Murray), a dynamic forward fully removed from his back injuries (Michael Porter Jr.) and a bruising interior defender (Aaron Gordon).

Technically, the Nuggets lost some of their championship armor. After Denver hoped to sign him on a relative discount, two-way wingman Bruce Brown accepted a more lucrative deal with the Indiana Pacers that the Nuggets couldn’t match because of salary-cap restrictions. They also lost two valued locker-room veterans (Jeff Green, Ish Smith).

During training camp, however, the Nuggets sounded more encouraged with what they have instead of lamenting what they lost.

“We’ll definitely miss Jeff with his leadership in the locker room as well as Ish. Bruce’s play was dynamic. He brought an element to our team that we needed. But at the end of the day, we have Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and so forth,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth told me. “We have to be able to adjust and move on. Bruce is a very, very good NBA player. But everybody knows our team is built around Nikola Jokic. How we go is really how Nikola and Jamal go.”

The Nuggets sense both of those players can take them far.

Jokic reported feeling rejuvenated after spending his offseason hanging out with his family in Serbia and managing his horses. Murray reported no longer feeling constrained with a limited workload in his first season since recovering from an ACL injury that kept him out for the entire 2021-22 season.

Denver expressed optimism that Jokic will win his third regular-season MVP in four years since few opponents have figured out how to limit his mesmerizing step-back jumpers, disciplined post moves and sharp passing. The Nuggets anticipated Murray will make his first appearance on an All-NBA team partly because he would be eligible for a supermax contract extension next summer.

Though the Nuggets’ title chances revolves around their core players,  they believe returning role players (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Christian Braun), a new veteran (Justin Holliday) and a young prospect (Peyton Watson) can give the team enough depth.

 Will that be enough to compete against the other NBA contenders?

The Milwaukee Bucks just paired Giannis Antetokounmpo with an elite point guard (Damian Lillard). The Phoenix Suns also acquired an elite point guard (Bradley Beal) to form a superteam with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker.

The Boston Celtics landed the Bucks’ previously valued two-way player (Jrue Holiday) to complement their productive offense (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis). The Golden State Warriors added a future Hall-of-Famer (Chris Paul) with their championship core (Curry, Thompson, Green). The Lakers kept their roster mostly intact in hopes that rest and continuity can lead to more success to Denver than it did in last season’s Western Conference Finals.

In hopes to maintain distance from those teams, the Nuggets consider it important to secure the No. 1 seed. Some defending championship teams have prioritized health instead. With Denver’s core still in its prime, however, the Nuggets believe they can stay healthy and finish with the Western Conference’s best record.

“I challenged our guys to be vocal, hold themselves accountable and to hold teammates accountable,” Malone said. “Accept coaching and to accept criticism and accountability because a lot of times that’s hard. We know to repeat is going to be one of the hardest things that we’ve ever done.”

Yet, the Nuggets believe they can reach that goal. That starts with knowing how to manage the dueling emotions during Ring Night.  

Mark Medina is an NBA Insider at Sportsnaut. Follow him on TwitterInstagramFacebook, and Threads.

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