Nuggets perfect the drama-free path to their spot on NBA’s big stage

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2023

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DENVER — The Denver Nuggets don’t brawl with other teams or bicker among themselves. It’s been almost a decade since they fired a coach. Their most spectacular highlights often involve sublime skip passes across the court — or a backward, half-court shot from their mascot, Rocky, during a break in the action.

Some might call them downright boring. The Nuggets call it beautiful. Their no-drama way of doing business, both on and off the court, doesn’t grab tons of headlines. But it has set the franchise up for success and brought it to its first NBA Finals in 47 years in the league.

The team that cemented itself into first place in the Western Conference on Dec. 20, then cashed in by making it to the final, is the virtual opposite of those it has mowed down in both the regular and postseasons. 

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Those teams are studded with stars, or in the headlines after big trades, or featuring front-line players who are semiregulars on the police blotter, or filled with injuries and other drama up and down the roster and on the bench.

Even the team they’ll face in the finals, the Miami Heat, will be coming off a drama-soaked series that came close to making history. The Heat jumped to a 3-0 lead against the Celtics before dropping three straight and moving ever-so-close to becoming the first team in NBA history to lose after taking that decisive advantage. They avoided that fate Monday night with a blowout win at Boston Garden and became only the second eighth-seeded team to reach the finals.

The top-seeded Nuggets: They swept the Lakers and have been waiting and practicing for a week.

“If you’re going to win at a high level, you can’t have distractions,” seventh-year coach Michael Malone said during one of his team’s many off days between the conference final and the NBA Finals, which start Thursday. “You have to have guys that get along — on the court, off the court — and come together and share in a common goal.”

Only minutes after the Nuggets dispatched the Lakers last Monday, all the talk after the game was about LeBron James. In this instance it was whether the NBA’s all-time leading scorer would be back for another season (he turns 39 this year) and how that decision would impact one of the league’s glamour teams going forward.

James, though, made sure to shine some of the spotlight on the Nuggets.

“Me and A.D. (Anthony Davis) were talking in the locker room,” James said. “We came to the consensus, this is, if not one of the best teams, probably the best team, we’ve played since we’ve been together for all four years. Just well orchestrated, well put together. They have scoring. They have shooting. They have play-making. They (have) smarts. They have depth.”

They also have a two-time MVP in Nikola Jokic who is part of a roster that seems, for now at least, immune from the wheelings and dealings that capture headlines and can make or break franchises.

Last offseason, Jokic signed a supermax contract that locks him up through 2028. Jamal Murray is signed through 2025. Michael Porter Jr., whose signing of a max contract in 2021 raised some eyebrows considering his history with injuries, is inked with guaranteed money through at least 2026.

“What I also love about this franchise is that when guys don’t fit into the culture, they’re not here anymore,” Malone said. “We have guys that understand that being selfless is a huge part of being a Denver Nugget and guys who continue to buy into that, whether they’re playing or not playing.”

Last season, in a push to find a winning combination while Murray languished with a knee injury, they brought in everyone from DeMarcus Cousins to Bones Hyland to Austin Rivers. That group got dispatched by the Warriors in the first round. Drama came mostly in the debate about whether Murray should have hurried back from his torn ACL in time for the playoffs.

He didn’t, and that decision looks brilliant today.

It’s not to say the Nuggets never produce any head-turning headlines. A few times during minislumps this season, Malone challenged the players by going to the media and suggesting they were getting “soft.” But the players didn’t object; in fact, they mostly agreed with their coach.

There was the moment in Game 4 of the conference semifinals when Jokic made contact with Suns owner Mat Ishbia on the sideline when Joker snatched the ball away to try to quickly get it back into play. That led to about 12 hours of speculation that Jokic might get suspended for a game. Didn’t happen. He got a $25,000 fine and, before the next game in Denver, tossed a ball to Ishbia on the sideline, then walked over to share a handshake and a hug. Denver then sucked the rest of the life from that series by winning Games 5 and 6 by 16 and 25 points.

The Nuggets and their fans have chafed at being overlooked through much of this season — overshadowed by the megatrade that brought Kevin Durant to the Suns, or another chapter in the Kyrie Irving soap opera, or stories about Ja Morant and guns, or anything about the Lakers — or the Warriors, who conceded that a preseason fight in practice between teammates Draymond Green and Jordan Poole undercut trust on the roster and made it hard to win.

When it comes to producing those kind of headlines, the Nuggets couldn’t compete.

On the court — a different story.

“You never hear stories about a Nuggets player getting in trouble,” former Denver player, coach and front-office executive Dan Issel said. “You never read in the press about a Nuggets player shooting his mouth off about somebody else. You don’t read about a Nuggets player putting a screwy tweet out there. They’re just a hard-working team that wants to win a championship, and that’s the part that I admire the most.”