DENVER: Nikola Jokic couldn’t take his gaze off the NBA championship trophy sitting next to his arm.
The Denver Nuggets big man stared and stared at the list of teams engraved on the shiny gold prize, before something suddenly hit him.
“They didn’t put our name on here,” he said Monday at media day.
Actually, it was — on the very front, where Jokic couldn’t quite see.
What the two-time NBA MVP and the Nuggets can see quite clearly is a path toward repeating, despite losing veteran leader/sixth-man Bruce Brown through free agency.
That’s provided, of course, they can guard against one thing — complacency.
“No one cares what you did last season,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team beat Miami in five games to win the NBA title. “We had success in that moment. But that moment is gone. We have a new opportunity and challenge in front of us.”
The Nuggets certainly enjoyed the summer after winning the franchise’s first NBA crown. There were parades and parties before scattering for the offseason.
Jokic headed back to Sombor, Serbia, where he did a little bit of everything. He was spotted doing flips into a river off a rubber raft, dancing at a party with family and friends, hanging out with Aaron Gordon who paid him a visit and watching his beloved horses race.
Any chance to touch a basketball?
“A couple times,” Jokic said. “Not much.”
“No, he didn’t,” point guard Jamal Murray playfully chided.
The team simply trusts Jokic to be his triple-double self come the season. He averaged 30 points, 13.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists in the postseason on his way to winning the Finals MVP. It more than made up for the fact he lost out to Philly’s Joel Embiid in his bid to win a third straight NBA MVP.
“I never tell Nikola to go home and work on a lefty jump hook,” Malone said. “The greatest challenge for Nikola is to continue to find ways to be a leader and to be more vocal.”
Just before camps opened, the NBA saw the landscape dramatically change with some big names being traded. Damian Lillard is now with Milwaukee and Jrue Holiday wound up with Boston. Holiday’s older brother, Justin, plays for the Nuggets and said their dad sent a message on the family’s text chain.
“Something like, ‘I’m excited for you. Congrats. You all are going to get a championship,’” Justin Holiday recounted with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Hold on.’ I mean, I’m excited for him, but ...”
The Nuggets have a void to fill with the departure of Brown, who signed a two-year, $45-million deal with the Indiana Pacers. Christian Braun will see a bump in minutes after his dependable play last season as a rookie. So, too, will veteran guard Reggie Jackson. The team also lost the leadership of Jeff Green and Ish Smith.
“I think right now a lot of teams view the league, quite frankly, as wide open,” general manager Calvin Booth said. “We’re going to be hunted — can we still have a hunter’s mindset?“
Murray definitely believes so. So does Michael Porter Jr., who pointed out that Denver won even with Murray (knee) and Porter (back) pretty much rehabbing throughout last season.
“To have this summer to make some steps has been amazing,” Porter said.
Murray raised his game in the postseason, averaging 26.1 points and 7.1 assists.
Next step, carry it through an entire season and earn accolades such as All-Star, which Malone fully believes Murray can.
It would be nice and all, but reaching All-Star status is down on his priority list.
“I’d rather be a champion,” Murray said. “A lot of guys are All-Stars, but not champions.”
Josh Kroenke, the president/governor of the Nuggets, has recently seen how difficult it is to win back-to-back titles. One of his other teams, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, won the Stanley Cup in 2022 but was eliminated in the first-round last season.
“Not to allow complacency to set in,” Kroenke said. “When you achieve the ultimate goal, your natural reaction is to ... relax a little bit. We don’t have the exact same rosters we did last year. We have the same starting five, which we feel is the best in the NBA.”
Kroenke said the team is exploring all avenues to remedy the fact that many Nuggets and Avalanche fans can’t watch their teams on local television.
In 2019, the region’s biggest cable operator, Comcast, stopped carrying Altitude due to a disagreement over fees the cable giant was charging to carry the network. The ensuing legal battle has kept the Nuggets off the local airwaves in millions of homes for the last four seasons.
“I can assure you that we’re doing all we can,” Kroenke said. “We want the best for the fans to see their teams.”