DENVER — All it took for the Nuggets to reach this lofty perch was a Joker, a dozen flights around the world, a plate of chicken wings, a trail of tears, board-game nights, a billboard.
That’s all it took.
Yes, it is an inarguable fact Nikola Jokic is the best player in the world. Joker is the NBA’s MVP.
But let’s pause for a moment to consider another critical factor in the Nuggets’ relentless ability to stick around despite injuries to starters Jamal Murray and Will Barton and sixth-man supreme Monte Morris: all those times the Nuggets stressed patience with the process, they weren’t lying. They were cultivating a team culture that is showing serious value.
“I’ve never experienced a team or organization like this,” as NBA veteran Austin Rivers said the other day. “It’s so about ‘we’ and not ‘me.’”
It dawned on me last week when a third college coach asked how the Nuggets are still winning despite myriad obstacles — how they built a locker-room culture that’s become a blueprint for basketball leaders at all levels.
How many teams could lose three of its top five scorers and survive — much less flourish? The Nuggets entered Saturday with a 10-3 record since Murray’s season ended with a knee injury April 12. They’d won 18 of 23. They were 23-8 since the All-Star break, best in the NBA.
Murray, Barton and Morris remain unavailable, but there is more at work here than Joker combining the best parts of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in their absence. This all started long ago and continued with something that seems as silly as board-game nights in the NBA bubble.
There were annual trips to Sombor, Serbia, at work. Some combination of Tim Connelly, Michael Malone and Felipe Eichenberger, the sensational trainer, has tripped across the globe to spend time with the Jokic fam during every offseason of his career. They can tell you which Serbian beers to taste and, more important, which ones to avoid. Malone likes to say he’s far more popular in Serbia than he is in Colorado and, after a loss or two, he’s undoubtedly right.
“Over there, I’m the guy who coaches Nikola,” Malone said.
When Jokic heard then-teammates Gary Harris and Juancho Hernangomez were coming up with a plan to pay him a visit in Serbia, the Joker pounced: “I don’t want them to come, to be honest. ... The people there love me. I don’t want them to come and take my crown.”
Joker wears the crown begrudgingly, but it’s five years of culture-building that has allowed the Nuggets to overcome crippling injuries to secure a top-four seed in the Western Conference.
Even players who were not in the team’s long-term plans were treated like family — and word gets around quickly in the NBA. Over six years ago, on the night they traded center Timofey Mozgov, Connelly took him out on the town for wings. The guy he just traded, buffalo wings. It was fair game to wonder then if the Nuggets front office was too nice or too attached to compete in a cutthroat league, where negative recruiting is just as prevalent as it is in the college game. Turns out, their big heart is why players who play here don’t want to leave.
When Harris returned to Denver as a member of the Magic, he wiped back tears during warmups. The Nuggets had purchased a “Thank you, Gary” billboard outside the Magic's team hotel.
“I’ve never played for a team like this,” said Rivers, who is on his sixth team in nine seasons.
The worst of times are no exception. Two weeks ago Murray traveled to Los Angeles for surgery on the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He did not go it alone. The Nuggets’ culture doesn’t allow for going it alone. During a seriously sad time for the 24-year-old guard, Connelly, the president of basketball operations, spent the entire week at Murray’s side.
This Nuggets' experiment as a whole happened in the right city, at the right time, with the right superstar. Otherwise it wouldn’t have happened. Allowing a program to develop over a half-decade is a rare opportunity that wouldn’t fly in New York or Miami. Too much pressure to win now. Through careful planning and with a little luck, they timed the rise for when the West superpowers are running on fumes. Nobody here is allowed to root for the Jazz. But isn't there something delightful about Utah, Phoenix and Denver holding three of the top four seeds?
Joker is going to be the runaway league MVP. Is the Nuggets’ culture eligible for a vote as well?