DENVER — The clock was ticking, on a long and fruitless basketball dry spell in town, and on the 2023 NBA Finals. Ball Arena, so appropriately named, began to shiver inside. Something was about to happen. Everyone sensed it, knew it.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope took the ball, saw the remaining seconds, and began to dribble, dribble, dribble. And just before the buzzer sounded, he grabbed the ball and hurled it skyward. Nobody is still quite sure where it landed, or if it landed.
All that mattered was the Denver Nuggets, finally, were champions. And as fresh champions do, grown men began behaving like kids released at recess. Jamal Murray fell to one knee and welled up. Aaron Gordon grabbed his head with two hands and wore an astonished look while he staggered around the floor.
And Nikola Jokic, the NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic, found his two brothers, said something in their native Serbian language — no doubt one of those words was “love” — then hugged and kissed them on each cheek.
These are your Nuggets, who were crowned after a tense, suspenseful Game 5, when they withstood the Heat, and a late rush by Jimmy Butler, and overcame their shaky 3-point shooting, and leaned once again on Jokic, who dropped 28 points and 16 rebounds in victory.
The Nuggets won 94-89, closing out the series in five games, and therefore there was really no doubt. The Nuggets, one of four surviving teams from the ABA merger in 1976, who never even reached the NBA Finals in their entire existence until now, cashed in on their first trip.
This was for coach Michael Malone, and Jokic, and KCP, and Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr., and the Nuggets fans who waited so long.
But this is also for David Thompson, who put Nuggets basketball on the map. It is for coach Doug Moe and those entertaining teams he coached in the 1980s and early ’90s. For Fat Lever, the 6-foot-3 guard who improbably dropped triple-doubles before Jokic.
And for the great Nuggets scorers Alex English and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and, finally, for Dikembe Mutombo clutching the ball after a massive upset of the top-seeded Seattle Super Sonics in 1994 in what was the franchise’s most vivid postseason moment. Until now.
Here are five takeaways from Game 5 and the first NBA champion from the Western Conference since 1979 that doesn’t hail from California or Texas:
1. How a champion was made
The seed for this team was built, improbably so, with the 41st selection in the 2014 draft. By now, you know the story: Nikola Jokic became the greatest Draft pick in NBA history.
But the incredible story of the construction of the 2022-23 Nuggets didn’t end there. Take the case of Murray. Denver selected him seventh overall in the 2016 draft. That pick came from the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony trade at the February deadline in 2011, a trade that was then, and now, a bad move by New York. ‘Melo was headed to free agency that summer and the Knicks could’ve had him for free (compensation-wise) had they waited. The GM of the Knicks at the time, Donnie Walsh, was adamantly against sending players and picks for two extra months of Anthony. But owner James Dolan stepped in and essentially made the trade himself; Walsh was gone that summer.
There’s more: Gordon was part of an Orlando fire sale (Nikola Vucevic went to the Bulls). The Nuggets included in the package a 2025 top-five protected first-rounder which will likely fall in the late first round.
Porter fell to the Nuggets at No. 14 in 2018 because of back issues, otherwise he would’ve gone top five. Nobody wanted Bruce Brown in free agency last summer, and Caldwell-Pope arrived from the Wizards for Monte Morris and Will Barton in a swap of role players that benefitted Denver more than Washington.
“I feel really fortunate that our journey has been one of patience, one of drafting really well and developing those players, and then adding the right pieces around them,” Malone said. “Everybody does it differently. Some teams want to mortgage their future and go get the surefire player. For us, there’s never been a rushed mentality. That starts with ownership. The Kroenke family has been phenomenal since day one allowing this thing to play itself out and not over-reacting to bumps in the road. I think more teams will try to make this a blueprint.”
This was the work of Tim Connelly (now in Minnesota), Arturas Karnisovas (Chicago) and current GM Calvin Booth. The Nuggets made the choice of drafting and acquiring key players and never strayed from the blueprint, even when Porter and Murray dealt with season-ending injuries. They just patiently waited for those players to heal, and here they are.
“I knew if we were going to win one in Denver, which has never been done before, we’d have to try something different,” said Josh Kroenke, president of the Nuggets. “We tried to do it through continuity and growth and it has been spectacular. We achieved our goal.”
2. The Kroenke family wins again
It must be good to be a member of the new NBA champion ownership group, because winning championships is nothing new to chairman Stanley Kroenke, his wife Ann Walton Kroenke and son Josh. Kroenke Sports and Entertainment — the ownership group’s official name — controls the Los Angeles Rams, Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets, and now has a Super Bowl title, Stanley Cup title and NBA title, all in the last two years.
Yes, the First Family Of American Sports is worth billions, but what is money without championships, one of the main goals of investing in sports properties?
Josh Kroenke oversees the day-to-day of the Nuggets and has made a habit of hiring the right people to run the organization. When Masai Ujiri left for the Toronto Raptors, the Nuggets elevated Connelly as GM. When Connelly left for the Timberwolves last summer, Booth became the man in charge. And Malone was added after he was fired from the Kings.
— AltitudeTV (@AltitudeTV) June 13, 2023
— AltitudeTV (@AltitudeTV) June 13, 2023
“It’s always neat to compete against the best teams in the world in other sports, and so when you’re able to win, it’s a great feeling because you’re going up against other great organizations,” Josh Kroenke said. “The Miami Heat are class in every way, from Mickey Arison to Pat Riley, they’re who we strive to be. To be able to finally win one means a whole lot.”
There’s a new gold rush in the Rockies — the Kroenke family’s run on championship jewelry.
3. Murray, Porter officially overcome odds
This was not only a victory for the Nuggets but for Murray and Porter, who dealt with potentially devastating injuries that robbed each of a season-plus. The knee injury for Murray and the multiple back procedures for Porter are old news now, but winning a championship made those setbacks seem so secondary now.
“Michael is only going to get better,” Malone said. “I think it’s important for everybody to understand that Michael is a young player. He missed his rookie season. He played nine games last year.”
Porter struggled with his 3-point shot throughout the series but in Game 5 contributed in another ways — rebounding, short jumpers, defense. And Murray had moments in this series where he was the best player on the floor.
“Every real hooper wants to be on this stage and play in the game and be in this moment,” said Murray. “To see it full circle, going from my rehab, not being able to walk, go up the stairs, not just for a month or two. I still have different moments where I’m tentative, but I’ve just gotten so much better at that and just putting that behind, not just me, Mike too. A lot of different things going through my head. A lot of tears. A lot of blood, sweat and tears, and real ones.”
The work they put in during rehab, and the patience shown not only by them but their teams and therapists, paid off handsomely. If anything, the Nuggets could wonder what-if — suppose those players didn’t have those injuries? Would the Nuggets have at least another championship by now — considering that Jokic won MVPs in the two years when Porter and/or Murray weren’t on the floor?
4. Butler runs out of time
Let’s pause the praise of the Nuggets and salute Jimmy Butler. He’s now 0-for-2 in trips to the NBA Finals as a member of the Heat, but that doesn’t describe the journey to the fullest. Butler was spectacular in 2020 leading up to and against the Lakers. And while he struggled at various times in this series — none more than the first three quarters in Game 5 — Butler made it close Monday, and that’s all you can ask.
Especially of a player who wasn’t 100% physically. Butler dragged a sore ankle and knee into the Finals; nothing serious, but still enough that robbed him of his best.
He said: “My ankle is fine. We just didn’t win. There’s no excuse. They beat us. That’s all I got.”
Anyway, he nearly rescued the Heat in the fourth. He began with a pair of 3-pointers, then sank three free throws after getting fouled. Miami went to Butler once more in the moment of truth; he drove the lane, became trapped, then forced a pass out of the post that was intercepted in the final minute. Another 3-point attempt by Butler with 16 seconds left was missed and that was a wrap.
Asked what stood out Monday, Butler said: “That I turned the ball over. That’s what stood out.”
But he added the job isn’t finished.
“I’ve had some helluva teammates come through and compete with me and give us the opportunity to win a championship, which I still believe, with everything in me, that we will do as a team here, as an organization.”
5. Malone wants an encore
The champagne hadn’t been sprayed yet when Malone looked ahead. During the trophy ceremony, the coach said: “We want more.”
And he wasn’t talking about applause.
“We talk about the evolution in this game,” he said later. “You go from a nobody to an upstart. You go from an upstart to a winner. From a winner to a contender. And from a contender to a champion. The last step after a champion is to be a dynasty.”
Malone is constantly challenging his players to reach their peak and apparently believes the Nuggets are nowhere near their apex. This is nothing new for champion coaches — remember Pat Riley’s guarantee of a repeat champion during the Lakers’ 1987 parade?
For sure, the Nuggets are built to last. For how long, nobody knows. But Jokic, Murray, Gordon and Porter are all under 30. That means something. And perhaps the Nuggets already had their major injuries, although back injuries, in the case of Porter, are always tricky.
This much is for certain: There’s a slow changing of the guard in the West. The Warriors are getting older and need tweaking. Same for the Lakers with a 39-year-old LeBron James. The new blood in the West flows through Sacramento, Memphis and Denver. And the Nuggets are in the best shape of the three.
There’s still so much to be determined this summer through the draft, free agency and trades. But in order to have a dynasty, you must first win one. The Nuggets just did that.
Jokic had something to say about that.
“I don’t think about the next year. I’m going to ask the coach to give me a couple weeks more off so I can be ready for the season.”
“That’s supposed to be a joke, and you didn’t laugh. Good job, guys.”
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