The Local newsletter is your free, daily guide to life in Colorado. For locals, by locals. Sign up today!
Here’s the formula: Draft a future Hall of Famer in the second round, then comb Calipari’s college roster for a sidekick, and, boom, you have a roster ready-made for a championship. Easy-peasy…right?
Make no bones (Hyland) about it, these Nuggets are in the NBA Finals because Nikola Jokić will someday rank among the game’s greatest-ever players and Jamal Murray can knock down every big-game shot imaginable. But Denver is two wins away from its first NBA title because of its depth—and a devotion to the kind of selflessness that has defined every chip-winning team in sports history. From Aaron Gordon’s intimidating play on both sides to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s lockdown defense to the unassuming Brown/Braun combo to the (relatively) healthy Michael Porter Jr., these Nuggets have been unafraid to go toe-to-toe with all-comers.
Give One Year of 5280 for just $16.
So how did they get here?
When Jokić was taken in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Serbia (during a Quesarito commercial, no less), there was no indication he’d eventually become a two-time Most Valuable Player. Every champion needs a Jordan or Bird or LeBron or Kobe, and Jokić fits the bill in the Mile High City. Murray arrived two years later and developed into the supporting star necessary to make big things happen in short playoffs series.
From there is where things get fun, though. A mix of perfectly timed trades and free-agent signings paired with successful drafts pushed the Nuggets from star-studded to Finals-bound. Denver had the foresight to take advantage of MPJ’s injury history and nab him with a late lottery pick in 2018—and then had the patience to rest him for a season and maintain hope during a few injury-riddled years. Layer the Jokić/Murray/Porter Jr. draft goodness with Gordon, who landed in Denver via a trade in 2021, but only after then-General Manager Tim Connelly asked Joker if he was cool with the idea. Jeff Green arrived the same year as bench player and playoff veteran, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was flipped to Denver in 2022 in a trade that jettisoned fan favorites Will Barton and Monte Morris out of town and showed that new-General Manager Calvin Booth had the kind of ruthlessness it takes to see a team’s shortcomings and build a competitive roster.
Take a breath and bask in the brand of smart roster construction that can take a mid-market team at the edge of the Rocky Mountains and turn it into a potential champion.
- Nikola Jokić, 2014
- Jamal Murray, 2016
- Michael Porter Jr., 2018
- Aaron Gordon, 2021
- Jeff Green, 2021
- Christian Braun, 2022
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, 2022
- Bruce Brown, 2022
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Nikola Jokić, Center
Acquired: Second round, 2014 draft
Once the butt of chubby-boy jokes across the NBA, the former second-rounder out of Serbia outworked everyone in the league to become the stuff of legend. Whether it’s running the length of the court for a dunk, hitting a fall-away three with the shot clock running out, or making a blind pass to a streaking teammate, the two-time MVP is a future Hall of Famer with preternatural skills who’s destined to become one of the game’s all-timers. But his panache belies the off-the-court demeanor of a plainspoken, aw-shucks teammate who’s always sure to give credit to everyone but himself—even as he’s dropping nightly triple-doubles on his opponents this postseason. Simply put: Jokić is a transformational player.
Jamal Murray, Guard
Acquired: First round, 2016 draft
It’s easy to get overlooked on a roster with a two-time Most Valuable Player, but the Blue Arrow stands out with slick offensive skills befitting his spot as the seventh-overall pick in 2016. At just 26, Murray is the Nuggets’ all-time leader in three-pointers and has already made himself a legacy player within the franchise. After missing nearly half of the 2020–’21 season with an ACL tear—and all of the subsequent year rehabbing the injury—Murray reclaimed his spot as the Nuggets’ number two offensive star and is solidifying himself among the pantheon big-time playoff performers in NBA history. In the first round, against Minnesota, he dropped 40 points (a franchise-best fifth time in the playoffs in his career) and has averaged nearly 30 per game since. Last night in Miami, Murray and Jokić became the first teammates in NBA history to record 30-point triple doubles in the same game.
Junior in Name Only
Michael Porter Jr., Forward
Acquired: First round, 2018 draft
For a guy with every offensive talent but a body that hasn’t always held up, the stars finally seem to have aligned for Porter Jr. A dice-roll as a first-rounder out of the University of Missouri (where he didn’t even log an hour of playing time during his lone year with the Tigers), a healthy MPJ can be the kind of player on which tight contests are decided. Despite the limitations that come with three back surgeries, Porter Jr. has had what might be regarded as a second breakout season. The 24-year-old topped this year’s team with three three-pointers per game and is consistently the third-best offensive option in the starting lineup. And once a liability on the other side of the ball, Porter Jr. seems more committed on defense, teammates and coaches have said, and his extra effort has freed up Murray—always a good thing.
Aaron Gordon, Forward
Acquired: March 2021 via a trade (with Gary Clark) from the Orlando Magic, in exchange for Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton, and a first-round draft pick
Imagine going to your job, day after day, and being given the most difficult task of all your co-workers. That’s how it’s been for Gordon, whose 6-foot-8 frame is regularly matched against every opponent’s best big man night in and night out. Ask Kevin Durant about his playoffs experience with Gordon this season—KD missed 10 three-pointers in Phoenix’s game two loss to Denver—and you’re likely to hear his grumbles from a beach somewhere in Cabo. Head coach Michael Malone admits Gordon was asked to do too much on an injury-riddled team last season; with a healthy Murray and Porter Jr. this year, though, Gordon has had undeniable chemistry with the starting rotation and has played the best two-way ball of his career. (Jokić has called him “the soul of this team.”)
The Glue Guy
Jeff Green, Forward
Acquired: August 2021 via free agency
Joker is the undeniable face of the Nuggets franchise, but when team execs and fans point to the cohesiveness of this roster, they’re giving props to Denver’s elder statesman. At 36, Uncle Jeff is the oldest guy on the Nuggets’ roster and a bona fide locker room presence whose leadership has gotten top marks from the rest of the team. He showed that early in this year’s playoffs—against the overmatched Minnesota Timberwolves—when the veteran forward absorbed three body-shaking charges during the series and made it clear to all-comers that these Nuggets weren’t afraid to mix it up on the defensive side. Not bad for a guy who started his career during the George W. Bush administration.
Christian Braun, Guard
Acquired: First round, 2022 draft
Braun was Calvin Booth’s first draftee as the head roster formulator in the Mile High City, and the kid has done everything the front office has asked of him. Part of the three-headed bench group—along with Green and Bruce Brown—the 6-foot-7 rookie from the University of Kansas established himself this season as a confident, rim-attacking player who didn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. (Last night, however, he proved that having the ball in his hands can be a great thing—15 points in 19 minutes.) Every good team needs a young buck unafraid to bang with veteran opponents, and Braun already is proving himself a stalwart who’s prepared to do whatever he needs to stick in the rotation and win.
You Down with KCP?
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Guard
Acquired: July 2022 via a trade (with Ish Smith) from the Washington Wizards, in exchange for Will Barton and Monte Morris
Jokić aside, it’s easy to make an argument that no player was more needed for this 2022–’23 roster than Caldwell-Pope. The frequent recipient of head coach Michael Malone’s Defensive Player of the Game chain, KCP became the desperately needed lock-down anchor Nuggets’ executives expected when they targeted the 6-foot-5 point guard at last year’s trade deadline. A champ with the 2020 Lakers team that bumped Denver from the Western Conference Finals, Caldwell-Pope helped push last season’s 28th-ranked defense to number 15 this season. He’s also got a three-point stroke that hits at a 42 percent clip—11th overall in the NBA.
Bruce Brown, Guard
Acquired: July 2022 via free agency
A low-key free-agent addition to this season’s roster, the Nuggets’ sixth man has added much-needed flexibility on both ends of the court. He’s a serviceable guard and modest shooter who can post up when needed, then transition to a Swiss Army knife on defense. Brown played every perimeter position for Denver this season—on both ends of the floor—and led the team with 80 regular season games played. In game two of the Western Conference Finals, Brown turned into an offensive microwave—knocking down 16 bench points in just 24 minutes.