The Denver Nuggets are entering the 2018-19 campaign with more hype and higher expectations than any season in recent memory. Not since the days of Carmelo Anthony has the attention of both the local and national audience been fixated on Denver to such a degree.
This dynamic has emerged from a medley of factors. Of course, there’s the budding stardom of of Nikola Jokic, the seeming lack of a ceiling to Gary Harris’ game, and the mouth-watering prospect of Jamal Murray reaching his full potential. But what has head coach Michael Malone so excited about the upcoming season isn’t just the talent his front office as amassed, nor is it the return of the hype. It’s rooted in something they haven’t had in a long time. Something they’ve been working towards since Malone was tasked with rebuilding the culture in Denver from the ground up.
The Nuggets have an identity.
“I think we are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA to watch,” Malone proclaimed after the first day of training camp at San Diego State. “If you’re just an average fan—we are a team that is really unselfish, that plays up tempo, that plays the game the right way. You’re not gonna see 17 dribble possessions with one-on-one isolations. The ball is going to move.”
Denver has risen to the top of the unofficial ‘League Pass darling’ rankings, and a lot of it has to do with what Malone described. Their play style is unique—a free flowing offense that requires the ball to keep moving and is initiated not by a guard, but by their playmaking center. How the Nuggets play the game of basketball is reflective of, and predicated on, the type of player that Jokic has become.
“We have an identity now,” Malone remarked during his Media Day press conference. “And Nikola is a huge part of that identity. Once we all realized that, hey, Nikola’s our best player, were going to play through him—he is the centerpiece of all that we do and everybody else has to fit in around him, it made things a lot easier and simpler.”
Serbia’s favorite son serves as Denver’s celestial one, every piece of their roster orbiting around his star-power and benefiting from his egalitarian inclinations on the offensive end. What happens on the court is dictated by how he plays, but after Tuesday’s training camp session, Malone explained that their identity runs deeper than what happens on the hardwood.
What makes the Nuggets who they are, what has them on the verge of tapping into something “special”—a word Malone seems to have grown fond of in the last year—is not just how they play the game, but why.
“We got guys that genuinely care for each other,” Malone said when asked to elaborate on just what that identity is. “And you can see it. I can say it, but I think you as a fan—when you watch us play—you can see it on the floor, that they are really invested in each other. We don’t play just with each other, we play for each other. And I think that’s a big difference.”
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That’s a quote you might expect from a head coach on day one of training camp, but it’s far from an unsubstantiated claim. For evidence, look no further than how—and where—the Nuggets spent their respective summers.
“Our players are so invested in this season that they were in Denver all summer. They were in Vegas, they were in Atlanta, they were back in the last week of August, before labor day,” Malone said. “We’re ahead of the curve. We have hit the ground running. We are ahead of probably a lot of teams because of that continuity that we have, and I think that’s a great luxury.”
It’s something that Malone has worked hard to establish. When he was hired, this team was in a liminal, and frankly, potentially toxic phase. Instability was the closest thing to Denver’s identity at the time, and as Malone points out, the door to the Pepsi Center has been a revolving one in the years since.
“Since I first got here, this team has changed quite a lot. Think of all the guys that have come and gone,” Malone said on Tuesday. “You know, it’s funny. This might be the first training camp, definitely since I’ve been a head coach, but maybe even as an assistant, but we went 5 on 5 scrimmage at the end of practice, on day one. I think the advantage that we have (now) is continuity. Year 4. We know each other.”
For the first time in the Malone era, this team enters the season with a sense of who they are, what’s expected of them, and what it will take to turn a corner. What’s clear now more than ever is that whether or not those aspirations are realized, it will be a group effort. They’ll chase it with everything they have and they won’t just do it together—they’ll do it for each other.