How the Nuggets cultivated the NBA’s most dynamic duo

DENVER — The summer of 2010 in the NBA is generally remembered as the year LeBron James left the small-market Cleveland Cavaliers to form a superteam in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. So much of the next decade in NBA history traces back to that event, whether it be small-market teams trying to protect themselves from losing a star of James’ magnitude in free agency, or other teams trying to construct a superteam of their own.

For the Denver Nuggets, though, the summer of 2010 was the year their own star, Carmelo Anthony, told them he didn’t intend to re-sign when his contract was up the following summer and wanted to be traded to the New York Knicks. It was a request more than a demand, and it was beneficial to both parties: The Nuggets wouldn’t be left with the kind of hole James had left in Cleveland, and Anthony could sign a five-year maximum extension with the Knicks.

Nuggets president Josh Kroenke remembers that meeting like it was yesterday.

“I was 30 years old, and my dad [Stan Kroenke] had just put me in charge of the team,” Kroenke told ESPN from inside the Nuggets’ locker room Monday night after Denver closed out its first NBA championship with a 94-89 win against the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

“And my first meeting was to fly to Baltimore where Melo asks to be traded.”

The lessons he learned there, hard as they were, would serve as the foundation for this years-in-the-making championship run.

“I learned we can’t have that sort of instability if we’re going to try to grow,” Kroenke said. “We needed to build through the draft. We needed guys that wanted to be here and guys that played for each other, and over time we eventually found those guys and built around them.”

It sounds so simple now in the glow of a championship locker room. Find two stars in the draft, develop them, add complementary players, watch the team grow, hope it results in a championship.

Every new coach or general manager articulates a vision like this when they get hired. Very few actually have the patience and persistence to see it through like the Nuggets did this season.

Even fewer know how to identify the stars to build around, like Denver did with Finals MVP Nikola Jokic and point guard Jamal Murray, and then stick with them when it takes a while to see results, or there are setbacks like Murray’s knee injury, which kept him out of the previous two playoff runs.

“If you want to be a success, you need a couple years,” Jokic said after Monday’s title game. “You need to be bad, then you need to be good, then when you’re good you need to fail, and then when you fail, you’re going to figure it out.

“There is a process — there are steps that you need to fill — and there are no shortcuts. It’s a journey, and I’m glad that I’m part of the journey.”

THERE’S A CERTAIN irony that the end of the Nuggets’ championship journey came by beating Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, because so many people in the organization point to the final game of the 2018 season when Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Nuggets as the beginning of this run.

Or rather, the moment Denver knew that Jokic and Murray were the stars they wanted to build around.

“I saw a flash of something that I thought could be special,” Kroenke said. “None of those guys had been in a playoff-type atmosphere before, but they weren’t scared of the moment; they embraced it. They read the defense correctly almost every time and adjusted to everything they encountered. They just didn’t quite have the experience necessary to get it done.”

That summer James was again a free agent and the Nuggets tried to earn a pitch meeting with him. The next year, they explored trading for Anthony Davis when he requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, sources said.

But outside of some light tire-kicking on two players who’d soon be named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary team, the Nuggets have remained steadfastly committed to a team built around Jokic and Murray since the end of the 2017-18 season.

General manager Calvin Booth remembers a different moment: a breakfast with Jokic during the 2020 NBA bubble that was unremarkable in every way, except for the way Jokic carried himself.

“We were down 3-1 to the Jazz in the first round,” Booth told ESPN. “And there’s just so much pressure being down in the first round like that after we’d gone to a Game 7 in the second round [against the Portland Trail Blazers] the year before.

“So here we are, like basically on the verge of disaster, and he was just, like, serene. The energy he was emitting was like, ‘We’re OK. We’re fine.'”

Jokic had had a dreadful game a few nights earlier. Had Denver lost to the Jazz, he would’ve faced the brunt of the criticism. But he showed no signs of panic.

“I don’t even remember what we ate,” Booth said. “What I remember was how calm he was.”

Denver came back to beat the Jazz in seven games behind brilliant performances from Jokic and Murray. Then they came back from a 3-1 deficit to the Los Angeles Clippers in the next round to advance to the conference finals against the eventual champion, Los Angeles Lakers.

Murray was sublime during the bubble, averaging 26.5 points, including two 50-point games. He also found his voice as a leader.

“There was a big faction of players that wanted to leave the Bubble,” Booth said. “And [Murray] was like, ‘We’re not leaving. There’s no f—ing way we’re leaving.’ And at that point, everybody kind of turned around.

“There’d been some momentum building in our group to leave, and he basically squashed it and said, ‘We’re not doing that. We’re playing too well. I’m playing too well. We’re not leaving here.'”

THE TWO-MAN GAME between Jokic and Murray has become one of the most effective duos in NBA Finals history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jokic and Murray’s 56.1 points per game ranks behind only Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant (2001) and Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (2017).

But there’s a delicate alchemy to building on-court relationships like this, let alone a team around them. The skill sets have to be complementary, the egos have to enhance each other, rather than compete. The personalities have to be different enough to fill all the types of needs a championship team has. And then, of course, they must come up big in the biggest of moments.

Over the course of the Nuggets’ playoff run, the American public has been both charmed and baffled by Jokic’s personality. He does not love the spotlight or play into any of the traditional narratives written for star players who finally complete their hero’s journey by winning a championship.

He is simply a brilliant basketball player who sees all the attention that comes along with superstardom and the NBA Finals stage as “a little too much.”

Assistant coach Ognjen Stojakovic thinks something is being lost in translation, however. Yes, Jokic was delightfully self-deprecating in bemoaning how many congratulatory text messages he’ll need to respond to, or that he’ll have to stay in town until Thursday for the Nuggets’ championship parade. And yes, he laughed at the viral video of himself lethargically shaking a champagne bottle in the locker room.

But there’s something else. Something Stojakovic says is hard for someone who didn’t grow up in Serbia to understand.

“Ili si pukovnik ili pokojnik.”

You’re either a colonel or you’re dead.

“This is the line we all grew up with,” Stojakovic explains, while writing the phrase down in his native tongue so it can be translated later. “All of us from the ex-Yugoslavia know this saying from the war. They say, either you’re a colonel or you’re dead. There’s no in between.”

Jokic was born in 1995, in the middle of the 10-year conflict between Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina that killed at least 140,000 people. Earlier in his career he spoke about hiding in bomb shelters as a child and living without electricity. But he is rarely asked about that time anymore.

Monday night, a photo of Jokic in a Denver Nuggets sweatshirt shirt when he was about 5 years old went viral on social media after it was shared on Instagram by Serbian agent Misko Raznatovic.

“Back in 2000, when this photo was taken, he is wearing a Nuggets sweatshirt — not because he loved basketball or even knew about the Nuggets — but because he got it as a present. Chances of a kid from a small Serbian town having a sweatshirt from a lesser-known American team back in 2000 were minimal,” Raznatovic wrote. “But chances of that same kid growing up to play basketball and achieve his career high, win two MVP titles and sign a historic agreement with the same club whose sweatshirt he wore at age 5, were — zero.”

It was a wonderful post about destiny and the improbable story that’s led Jokic to the pinnacle of the NBA. It is the kind of story we are used to with superstars who complete their journey by winning a championship.

But it is not the whole story.

“Imagine you are living in Serbia now and you want [Jokic] to win the title,” Stojakovic said. “Tonight you’ll be very happy. But then you have to figure out what’s going to happen tomorrow. It’s just a different world, a different perspective.”

This is why Jokic seemed so serene to Booth back at that breakfast in 2020. Or why he is eager to get home to Serbia and spend his summer with his family and horses, instead of doing the late-night talk show circuit or capitalizing on his fame with endorsement deals.

There is a balance to him off the court, even as he jokes about being unbalanced when he does some of his best work on the court.

“Basketball is not the main thing in my life, and probably never [will] be,” Jokic said before the Finals. “And to be honest, I like it, because I have something more at home, [something] that is more important than basketball. I think that’s [what I’ve] learned. I already knew that, but this kind of proved that I was correct.”



Murray overcome with emotion as Nuggets fans cheer him on

Jamal Murray gets emotional talking about his journey to winning his first NBA championship as Nuggets fans shower him with cheers.

MURRAY IS THE opposite. Basketball has always been his whole life. He was trained by his father, Roger, for this moment and this stage starting at the age of 3. Literally trained in the art of kung fu and the lessons of Bruce Lee, the stories of Murray building his mental toughness by training in the Canadian winters and balancing cups of hot tea on his legs while doing wall squats are legendary.

He is at his best when things are at their worst on the court, or when he’s battling through an injury.

Game 3 was perhaps his finest of the series. Murray finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists as the Nuggets took control of the game and the series. He also suffered a nasty floor burn at some point during the game, which needed to be taped up the rest of the series.

“The thing about Jamal,” Booth says. “When he feels pain, that makes him present. And when he’s fully present, he’s incredible.”

Rowan Barrett, the director of Team Canada, sensed this from Murray the first time he watched him as a 15 year old at the Falstaff Community Center in Toronto.

“If there’s one thing you always notice with him, it’s that the most difficult moments of the game, he seems to always be in the middle of it, making some sort of play,” Barrett told ESPN. “After seeing that for a while, you realize, ‘OK, this is not by chance. It’s not coincidence.'”

Over the next few years, Barrett came to understand how Murray had grown so mentally tough.

He practiced. He practiced quieting his mind when he felt physical pain. And he practiced self-discipline, even when everyone around him was urging him to rest.

“So we’re getting ready for the U17 world championships,” Barrett said. “And it’s one of these things where you’re going to play eight games in nine days or eight games in 10 days.”

Team Canada was running two-a-day practices to prepare for the grind. Murray was doing two extra sessions before and after those practices. The coaching staff was concerned he was overdoing it and worried he’d get hurt.

Murray wouldn’t stop. So the staff took everyone’s shoes after the second practice session with the idea of saving Murray from himself.

It didn’t work.

“After everyone’s leaving the gym, we started hearing the ball bouncing,” Barrett said. “And it’s Jamal on the far end, shooting in bare feet.”

ALL OF THAT changed on the night of April 13, 2021, when Murray crumpled to the ground with a torn ACL in his left knee. This was a pain he could not conquer with his mind.

And it shook him in ways he was still processing Monday night.

“It was really hard to put into words,” Murray said, choking back tears. “Everything was hitting. Everything was hitting at once, from the journey, to the celebration with the guys, to enjoying the moment, to looking back on the rehab, to looking back at myself as a kid.

“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. It was for a long time. A lot of different things going through my head.”

Murray was so shaken by his injury, he asked Malone if he was going to be traded. He couldn’t process how the team could stick with him for as long as he knew the rehabilitation process would take. He also couldn’t process how his mind couldn’t immediately conquer the physical reality of what had happened to him.

“I have to say that I had my doubts,” Murray said. “It’s just natural. Somebody asked me about butterflies. That’s what makes you alive. That’s what makes you care. When you doubt yourself, that’s what makes you try to find a way to turn it around. In whatever sport, in whatever injury, in whatever career you’re in, when you go through adversity, it’s how you envision and visualize yourself at the end of it.”

If anything, rebuilding his mental strength and toughness after his invincibility was shattered was the hardest part of Murray’s journey back. But the fact that the Nuggets waited for him — and Michael Porter Jr. (back surgery) through two postseasons — is what made all of them so strong this year.

“You know, it’s just a stick-to-it-iveness, staying with it, not feeling sorry for yourself,” coach Michael Malone said.

It is a mantra Malone has lived by through his long coaching career. It took him roughly two decades to get his first head-coaching job, and he often wondered if that day would ever come. When he finally did get that first job, with the Sacramento Kings in 2013, he didn’t get much of a chance. The Kings fired him after 106 games and a 39-67 record.

That time was difficult for Malone. His father, Brendan Malone, had only gotten one chance to be a head coach, and it was easy to wonder if that would be his fate as well.

“One of my favorite poems is ‘Self-pity’ by D.H. Lawrence,” Malone said. “I hate people that feel sorry for themselves.”

He was talking about Porter’s performance in Game 5, when he turned in his best game of the Finals (16 points and 13 rebounds) after losing his shooting touch during the first four games (a combined 32 points). But he was also talking about all of it, the whole journey he and his team had been on.

It was an incredible thing to reference a poem like this on the night he and the Nuggets won an NBA title. But it was also fitting.

I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
Without ever having felt sorry for itself.



The Nuggets win their 1st NBA Finals championship

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray lead the Nuggets to the franchise’s first NBA Finals championship.

STAN KROENKE HAS owned professional sports teams for 23 years, but has only recently started winning championships. His Colorado Avalanche (NHL) have been the most successful of his three domestic pro teams, having won two Stanley Cups in the 23 years he’s owned the franchise.

In 2022, his Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl, and now his Denver Nuggets have won an NBA title.

All of these championships were won in different fashions, Kroenke told ESPN. There’s no secret formula.

The Rams made the Super Bowl in 2019 but knew they needed to add more star players to the mix to actually win one. So Kroenke authorized general manager Les Snead to trade multiple draft picks to acquire stars like safety Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Von Miller and quarterback Matthew Stafford.

It worked, and Snead uttered the infamous “F— them picks” line on the championship dais.

“I think with ‘F— them picks,’ Les and I both knew you can only say that for a while and then you don’t do it anymore,” Kroenke said. “We kinda, we pushed the chips in and we were able to get the championship.

“But it’s hard to get these things. I’ve known great owners that have been around leagues for a long time and they’ve never even won one. All you can do is try to build these foundations and let ’em bloom, get great people involved and hopefully it comes out.”

These Nuggets were built very differently than Snead built the Rams. When Booth took over for Tim Connelly last summer, he put together a 34-page packet on the last 15 NBA champions, looking for trends in average size, age, experience and a whole host of other measurements. It’s what guided him in assembling the eight new players who complemented the core group so well during this championship run.

But the story of these Nuggets always comes back to Jokic and Murray. Of picking the right two stars to build around and being patient enough to let them prove you right.

For those who go as far back as Josh Kroenke, that patience is the most fulfilling part.

That meeting when Anthony requested a trade was six years before Murray was drafted. But the roots of this title run go all the way back.

The last piece of the trade the Nuggets made with the Knicks when they finally traded Anthony in 2011 was the right to swap first-round picks in 2016. Denver finished (33-49) that season and would have had the No. 9 overall pick of the first round. The Knicks finished (32-50) and held the seventh pick in the draft.

That pick was Jamal Murray.

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