A handful of the Denver Nuggets’ front office and players gathered together at a restaurant, incidentally unaware they already possessed a key ingredient needed for an NBA title run.
As they dined together in Los Angeles during the offseason, Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth asked free-agent acquisition Kentavious Caldwell-Pope about his perspective on what fueled the Lakers’ championship in 2020.
“The team that spends time together and eats together,” Caldwell-Pope said. “That’s the team that will have success.”
Caldwell-Pope’s answer resonated with those at the dinner, including the Nuggets’ owner (Stan Kroenke), general manager (Booth), emerging young wing (Michael Porter Jr.) and veteran free-agent signing (Deandre Jordan). That answer provided clairvoyance to explain the Nuggets’ season-long success. After finishing as the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed during the 2022-23 season, the Nuggets advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
“They have really bought into that concept as a team,” Booth said. “They’ve invested in the team dynamic.”
They gather for dinners on trips. They lift weights together after games. They cheer for each other on the court and from the sidelines.
“We’re just a very unselfish team,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said. “Everybody realizes when we need something, we need a spark. Everybody has something they can come in and impact the game with.”
Granted, Denver’s success have gone well beyond its tight bond. After all, other NBA teams have won championships despite having personality conflicts or clashes over roles. That’s because those teams always had top-level talent.
So does Denver. Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has surpassed Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA’s leader for most postseason triple doubles (eight). After missing the past two postseasons with an injured ACL in his left knee, Murray tied Michael Jordan (1997) for the second-most 20-point plus performances in the fourth quarter of a playoff game (four). After missing all but nine games last season while recovering from spinal surgery, Porter has become increasingly dependable and durable as a catch-and-shoot wing player and defender.
Is teamwork the secret sauce for Denver Nuggets?
Yet, the Denver Nuggets’ secret sauce has gone beyond that top-level talent. They also have thrived because of their depth, continuity and teamwork.
“Nikola would be the first one to admit he is not going to win a playoff game, a series or a potential championship by himself,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Just one player doesn’t do it. Obviously, Jamal has played phenomenal in this first postseason back from that ACL, but Jamal is aware of that as well.”
After advancing to the 2020 Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets hardly became content with just overcoming two 3-1 series deficits to the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers. After losing to the Lakers in five games, they wanted to make the next step toward becoming an NBA contender.
So leading into the 2021 trade deadline, the Nuggets then dealt a young two-way player (Gary Harris), a promising rookie (R.J. Hampton) and a first-round pick (2025) to the Orlando Magic for an athletic and versatile front-court player (Aaron Gordon). Denver hoped that additional depth would lead to an NBA title.
The Nuggets put those dreams temporarily on hold. The Phoenix Suns swept them in the second round less than a month after Murray tore his ACL. Denver then lost in the first-round the following year to Golden State, while Murray and Porter remained sidelined with injuries. With Jokic winning the NBA regular-season MVP award in consecutive years, it seemed reasonable if the Nuggets felt they would have won an NBA title the past two seasons if not for those absences.
“Early on, there was that. But I felt like the injuries provided opportunities for us to evaluate our roster,” Booth said. “I felt like last year in the Golden State series, we were short on some defenders. We got to see how important having size around Nikola was. We were able to see some of the holes in our roster, even though Nikola had another MVP campaign. That helped provide guidance on where we needed to go from a personnel standpoint.”
How a role player is helping from the bench
That prompted Booth to acquire two dependable two-way perimeter players (Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown) and a veteran backup center (Jordan) in the offseason. Each of the recent acquisitions have helped in their own way.
Jordan hardly has the same role as he did during his prime. The Nuggets have praised him, though, for pointing out defensive coverages from the sideline. Gordon, Caldwell-Pope and Brown have had a more tangible impact.
Gordon (13 points), Brown (12.2) and Caldwell-Pope (11.7) join Jokic (29.9), Murray (27.7) and Porter (14.6) with averaging double digits in scoring. Gordon has often defended the team’s top front-court player in the playoffs, including Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (combined 10-for-26) and Phoenix’s Kevin Durant (26-for-68) during the playoffs. Gordon and Murray also teamed up to stop LeBron James’ possible game-tying shot near the basket to secure the Nuggets’ decisive win over the Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.
Brown also contributed toward limiting Durant in the playoffs (a combined 4-for-15). In the Denver Nuggets’ Game 5 win over Phoenix, Brown posted a postseason career-high 25 points in 27 minutes off the bench. He became critical again in Denver’s Game 4 win over the Lakers with 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers. No other reserve had posted those numbers in the playoffs since Andre Iguodala did in 2015.
Meanwhile, Caldwell-Pope spearheaded both the Nuggets’ first-quarter run in a closeout Game 6 against Phoenix in the second round as well as their third-quarter run in a closeout Game 4 against the Lakers. He also has shot 47.4% from deep, which ranks second on the team only behind Jokic (47.4%).
“They’ve been playing together for a long time. Their chemistry is already there,” Caldwell-Pope said of Denver. “It was just easy for me to fit in. Playing with Jokic, they made it easy for me to fit right in with the group.”
Nothing captured that more than when the Nuggets welcomed Caldwell-Pope to give a postgame speech after clinching an NBA Finals spot.
“‘Just enjoy this moment. We deserve it,’” Caldwell-Pope recalled telling his teammates. “But we got bigger and better things. We want to be crowned as the king in these playoffs. We want to be the champion.”
The Nuggets will soon find out whether Caldwell-Pope’s words become just as prophetic as his pre-season observations about team bonding over dinner.