DENVER — Sorry, Broncos. Denver is a Nuggets town now.
The Mile High City celebrated its newest champions one last time Tuesday before turning the page on the new season.
Its opponent? A Los Angeles Lakers team that it vanquished in the Western Conference finals, sparking a potentially bitter rivalry between the 2023-24 contenders. The Nuggets won, again, 119-107, on Tuesday. Hours before tipoff, fans lined en masse at entrances all around Ball Arena, eager to get an early start to the party.
The stands were packed by the time the Nuggets raised the first championship banner in franchise history and awarded their heroes with the spoils of victory. The ring, of course, is extravagant, complete with moving parts including a sliding tray featuring the championship banner. And an abundance of gold and jewels.
Head coach Michael Malone was among the first to receive his ring. The arena erupted when he held it up in triumph.
"You guys have been the best fans in the NBA for eight years," Malone said. "And we appreciate that. Last year was amazing. We got one ring. Who wants another?"
— NBA (@NBA) October 24, 2023
Even the perpetually deadpan Nikola Jokić couldn’t help but crack a smile when he received his ring from NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
— NBA (@NBA) October 24, 2023
He then watched intently with hardware in hand as the Nuggets raised their championship banner.
Can Nuggets retain championship drive?
With rings in hand, the Nuggets turned to the biggest early challenge facing each reigning champion — shifting gears from celebration to basketball. Malone spoke about that challenge pregame.
"This is the first time we’re going through this," Malone said. "... I think we have — the starting unit especially — we have guys in the starting unit that are mature, veteran mindset. And I think they understand that we can do both.
"We can raise a banner, we can receive a ring, but also understand that we have a job to do. The season starts tonight, I think our guys are ready for that."
Expectations are high in Denver with the Nuggets largely running it back with the core that steamrolled through the the playoffs en route to the franchise's first NBA championship. The starting five is intact, led by Jokić, who's entrenched himself in the all-time greats conversation with his unprecedented skill set and three consecutive seasons that produced two league MVP awards and a Finals MVP trophy.
Back, too, is Jamal Murray, who recovered last season from an ACL tear to deliver on the promise he flashed in the 2020 NBA bubble. He and Jokić combine as perhaps the NBA's most lethal scoring and playmaking duo, a crown that revamped rosters across the top of the league seek to challenge this season. Murray still seeks his first All-Star nod. But nobody's mistaking him for anything but that caliber of player after last season's playoff run.
They're surrounded in the starting five by Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon in a unit optimally balanced with size, athleticism, playmaking and defense. It's the bench where things will look different this season.
Nuggets breaking in young players alongside quest to repeat
In a salary-capped league where competing teams seek to poach championship talent, attrition is inevitable. That's felt nowhere in Denver more than the departure of Bruce Brown, who was made an offer that he couldn't refuse (two years, $45 million) by the Indiana Pacers. A three-and-D specialist who could guard multiple positions, Brown provided the Nuggets a sense of stability when their stars were off the floor. His presence will be difficult, if not impossible to replace. Gone, too, is Jeff Green, a leading veteran voice on last season's roster.
Stepping up in their place is second-year guard Christian Braun, who's been promoted to sixth man after thriving as a rookie. Reggie Jackson could be in store for a larger role. Rookies Julian Strawther and Jalen Pickett should also vie for playing time.
The second unit will be a work in progress with inexperienced players expected to carry a significant load on a team eying another championship.
"I expect those guys to go out there and play as hard as they possibly can," Malone said. "I don’t want them to play perfect. I think our second unit is going to be a unit that grows as we go along.
"We are playing a lot of young players. That’s our biggest challenge this year is trying to contend for a championship while developing young players. Not an easy thing to do."