For the next few months, hopefully through June, I’m going to write a column every Thursday about the Denver Nuggets championship chase. Having already won last season’s championship, it’s only fitting that this column is all about defending that title. Topics will always focus on that title defense in this column, ranging from Denver’s power level, to their lineup flexibility, to upcoming opponents, and much more.

The goal of this column: to prepare readers for what’s to come and to document the journey along the way.

This is the first time in franchise history that the Denver Nuggets have ever had an opportunity to defend a championship.

Last season’s run to the NBA Finals was magical. The Nuggets were clearly the best team in the Western Conference throughout the regular season, but many had questions about Denver’s ability to extend their success to a playoff setting. It was a season of firsts for the Nuggets. The first time they were the top seed in the Western Conference. The first time they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. The first time they even made it to the NBA Finals in the first place.

And of course, it was the first time the Nuggets were the last team standing. Ever.

After Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and the Nuggets raised the Larry O’Brien trophy last June, things were clearly different. The Nuggets were treated with a level of reverence and belief around the league that they’d never seen before. Frankly, it’s something they’d never earned before, but that’s what winning a championship buys: a level of credit that wasn’t there before.

Jun 15, 2023; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) holds the Larry O’Brien trophy during the championship parade after the Denver Nuggets won the 2023 NBA Finals. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This year, the Nuggets haven’t exactly proven themselves to be a truly elite team, at least statistically. Yes, there are occasional moments where they flash the moments of brilliance that they showed last year. Yes, the starting lineup is the same. Yes, Nikola Jokic is still Nikola Jokic.

But the Nuggets have underwhelmed a bit. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets have just the 10th best point differential in the NBA this year, stemming from the 12th ranked offense and 12th ranked defense. They’ve been above average, but their point differential of +3.5 points per 100 possessions is actually lower than last year’s +3.8 mark, which ranked sixth in the NBA. Last year’s point differential included roughly a month of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. getting up to speed, as well as a month of coasting at the end of the regular season. This year, Denver hasn’t exactly kept their foot on the gas. They’re not coasting, but they’re not pedal to the metal either. Call it a relaxing Sunday drive.

It’s difficult to know how seriously one should take Denver’s regular season results. The team learned last year that they had to be healthy and ready to go heading into the playoffs. As a result, they went 16-4 across four rounds, mostly demolishing the competition. Are the Nuggets simply taking that to a bit of an extreme this year?

Take the month of February for example heading into the All-Star Break. The Nuggets had six games to go and went 3-3, which isn’t that bad. The details weren’t great though. Denver won vs the Portland Trail Blazers in back-to-back home games by nine and 12 points when they could and probably should have demolished Portland in at least one of those matchups. Denver then won the next game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Kobe Night, a hard fought win in a difficult situation that deserves credit. Then they lost three games in a row, a back-to-back against the Sacramento Kings, a blowout vs the Milwaukee Bucks, and another loss to the Kings in which Denver led by double digits in the second half.

Denver was good in exactly one of the final six games of the pre All-Star Break schedule, but it’s those details that they’ve lost this year in their title defense. It’s those moments that they’re struggling to navigate this season.

Perhaps it’s because Denver’s never done this before.

June 16, 1998; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls with their six championship trophies. Left to right in the front row are Luc Longley, Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Dennis Rodman (leaning back), Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley at a championship rally at Grant Park in Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Anne Ryan-USA TODAY

A repeat champion has happened exactly 22 times in NBA history, dating back all the way to 1949. That’s less than a third of the time. There have only been four repeat winners in the NBA this century with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry being at the center of them. Clearly all top 15 players of all-time and were often surrounded by impressive supporting casts as well.

Going even deeper though, repeat champions have only ever happened for the following teams:

  • Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors
  • LeBron James and the Miami Heat
  • Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers
  • Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers (three-peat)
  • Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls (two separate three-peats)
  • Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets
  • Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons
  • Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers
  • Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics (Literally eight in a row, then another back-to-back)
  • George Mikan’s Lakers back in the Stone Age

It’s one thing to win a championship, to go about things the right way. It’s another thing entirely to defend the championship and do everything again. It’s clearly an exhausting experience, and it appears that the modern NBA has trended away from dynasties and multi-time winners in recent seasons. Repeating clearly takes a special level of talent, poise, and perseverance. The Nuggets have those traits, and that’s what makes them special.

But are the Nuggets special enough to join the above list? Can they navigate these uncharted waters? It would appear that they have the right formula with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Malone, but there are always flaws. Denver’s offense is less potent this year because their transition offense has fallen off a cliff. Denver’s defense is solid overall, but are they good enough at making winning plays? Grabbing defensive rebounds and loose balls? Taking charges? It’s a fair question as the Nuggets are relatively low in a lot of hustle metrics, perhaps trying to conserve some energy for what should be a difficult playoff road ahead.

Ultimately though, if Denver gets to the playoffs healthy, then opposing teams still have to stop Jokic and Murray. They still have to score enough on the Nuggets in order to outpace what’s expected to be a potent offensive attack when Denver locks in. The Nuggets have an extra gear, maybe more, than what they’ve showed so far this season.

Perhaps that’s enough of an advantage to make up for Denver’s lack of experience in this part of the journey.