“Hopefully when we get on that plane, everybody packs some defense with them.”

Michael Malone hasn’t wavered in his vision of championships for the Denver Nuggets. He understands just how talented this group is at full strength. He also knows there’s still a long way to go and is hoping to push the right buttons for Denver to continue on that expected path.

Wednesday’s practice was a lighter day for the Nuggets players. Tuesday involved more live drills, but Wednesday still had some competitive aspects to it.

“When you don’t go live, you can still go hard,” Malone said to local media of the Nuggets effort level in practice on Wednesday. “I felt we went pretty hard today. We got after it. We did a lot of competitive things, which I think our players responded to.”

The calendar turning from October to November is a pretty clear reminder of how long the process can take. The Nuggets have played seven games and have 75 remaining. The playoffs don’t start for another five and a half months. In the grand scheme of things, the early part of the season doesn’t matter a ton.

The past five NBA champions have amassed a total win percentage of 68.6% in each of their championship years. Across a prorated 82-game season, that means the average NBA champion during that stretch won about 56 games. Given the pandemic and the shortened seasons, that total number hasn’t actually been reached in the least three years, though the Lakers were on pace to win roughly 60 games in the 2019-20 season.

The games still count. They matter when it comes to record. What that record actually says about a team depends on who you ask.

In my mind, winning regular season games just isn’t as important as it used to be. What mattered most was the winning habits those teams built along the way and how they dealt with various problems from game-to-game. Often, those champions found different, unique ways to win that they didn’t expect to find, and it saved them in a playoff series or two.

So, how have the Nuggets built good habits over the early portion of the season?

“I think one area of focus and growth, and it has gotten better the last few games, our turnovers have come way down,” Malone shared on Wednesday. “If that number continues to come down, the assist numbers go up.”

When surveying NBA champions, it becomes relatively easy to establish identities for each team. The Nuggets are working on different aspects of their identity right now, but at its core, the Nuggets are an unselfish, unstoppable ball movement team.

Malone continued: “We gave ourselves a goal of 30 assists per game. Last year, we were at 28. Our winning percentage when we get 30 assists is extremely high.”

“If we do that, I think we give ourselves a great chance every night.”

In a way, the Golden State Warriors have completely shifted the way many view basketball and how to generate success. There’s a free-wielding nature to it, a gunslinger mentality at times where mistakes often happen. The payoff can be soooo potent though, so it often doesn’t matter if they mess up on occasion.

The Nuggets are more similar to the Warriors than a lot of teams, but they also have to play a more controlled brand of basketball at times, maximizing every possession, crashing the offensive glass, and doing the traditional things good teams do like limit turnovers and get back in transition. It’s more boring to be traditional, but not every team is anchored by a duo like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, two generational superstars on either side of the ball.

For the Warriors, it’s easy to lock in when they need to. For the Nuggets, it takes time, and repetition, and practice.

For Nikola Jokić, the boring side of basketball isn’t so bad.

“To be honest, it’s a boring sport. You’re doing every time the same thing,” Jokić shared. “You need to love the routine. You need to find the routine that you love. You need to enjoy that routine.”

The Nuggets have been described by many as a team of basketball obsessives. There’s not a lot of drama surrounding Denver other than what happens on the court. They love the process, and that’s embodied by their best player.

“You’re going to come in every day and probably do the same things,” Jokić elaborated. “Maybe it will be different sometimes, but you need to love the routine and create habits that you can enjoy.”

Jokić and the Nuggets are adopting a veteran mentality of approaching every game the same way. Sometimes, that translates to success, highlighted in Denver’s 3-0 home record. Other times, when they have to manufacture some extra effort and intensity in road games, that hasn’t quite manifested. Denver’s just 1-3 on the road, and things don’t get easier with nine of their next 12 on the road too.

Denver’s season hasn’t started with the oomph or hutzpah that many hoped. That extends to Jokić too as the best player.

Offensively, Jokić is focused heavily on getting others involved here at the beginning with his own offense taking a bit of a backseat. He’s averaging fewer touches per game but somehow has more passes per game than last season. It’s funny, because he’s averaging a career high True Shooting percentage right now at 68.3% and has an ultra elite 29.1 Player Efficiency Rating. Looking for his own shot at times will help to simplify matters eventually. Still, it stands to reason that early on, those extra shots going to others will benefit the team in the long run.

Defensively, Jokić is probably not locked all the way in just yet, but his individual defensive numbers remain reasonable. He’s averaging more than a full deflection per game than every center other than Anthony Davis. The rim protection numbers aren’t horrible. The Nuggets are allowing 112.3 points per 100 possessions with Jokić on the floor, which is slightly below average but nothing preposterous.

There’s another level for him and the Nuggets to get to on that end as well.

“Try harder. Guard better. Be more focused,” Jokić declared as the way Denver can defend more successfully going forward. It’s an aspect of the game that must be built into the team’s daily process, their DNA.

The wins and losses don’t matter as much to me as Denver eventually locking in on both sides. Whether it’s passing and cutting and shooting their way to an unstoppable offense or locking in at higher level as a team defensively, the Nuggets have a long way to go. Finding that ultra elite gear is a staple of every championship team. It’s an indescribable feeling when a team reaches that golden point, because that’s when you can really start to dream.

The effort, intensity, and focus should all improve. These guys are professionals. They know what they’re doing.

Whether it’s enough by the end of the year remains to be seen.