Nuggets become the pursued around NBA after their first championship | Inquirer Sports

Nuggets become the pursued around NBA after their first championship

/ 05:41 PM October 18, 2023

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic waits for play to resume in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Denver.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic waits for play to resume in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER — Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets will raise their championship banner on opening night — with LeBron James in the building to witness, no less. The players will also receive their rings.

After that, no more mention of last season’s run that produced the franchise’s first NBA title. No more “remember-when” moments, either.


They have bigger things on their mind. Big picture: Milwaukee, Boston, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix and Golden State, who are among the favorites to challenge for their crown. Closer to home: A Northwest Division that features three teams going through some version of a roster revisions ( Oklahoma City, Utah and Portland) and another trying to take that next step forward (that’s you, Minnesota).


It’s a division that boasts an All-NBA first-team pick (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), rising stars (Lauri Markkanen, Anthony Edwards) and new kids ready to bust out ( Chet Holmgren, Scoot Henderson).

Of course, Jokic and the defending champs reside there, too. Although the Nuggets lost the experience of Bruce Brown ( signed with Indiana ), they still have the combination of Jokic, the finals MVP, and Jamal Murray, a playoff maestro who’s searching for his first All-Star nod.

“This is a new season, new group,” said coach Michael Malone, whose team opens on Oct. 24 by hosting James and the Lakers. “We have to hone in on that challenge and not live in the past, because no one cares what you did last year.”

For decades upon decades, Denver has been a team chasing a champion. Now, the Nuggets are the ones being chased. They went 16-4 in the playoffs — including a sweep of the Lakers — and finished things off by closing out Miami to start a summer of celebrations.

“I have a lot of respect for them,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said. “Murray and Jokic are committed to winning with the Nuggets. The organization is committed to those guys. They have just kept at it. … They’re all in on winning together.”

But this is a determined division:


— Edwards, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns are ready to take the Timberwolves to the next level.

— Holmgren returns for the Thunder after missing last season with a foot injury, which gives Gilgeous-Alexander another scoring threat.

— The Jazz have a youthful mix with Taylor Hendricks and Keyonte George to complement Markkanen.

— The Blazers give the keys to the offense to Henderson after trading Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks.

“If a fighter goes into fight, and he’s not ready to fight, he’s going to get knocked out,” Murray said. “You’ve always got to be the hunter.”

A look at each team in the Northwest Division in predicted order of finish:


Gone is Brown, their versatile sixth man. But they still have “Joker,” who added finals MVP to a resume that already included two NBA MVP awards. His offseason included a return home to Sombor, Serbia, where he spent time with family and doted over his race horses. Now, he’s focused on transforming back into being a triple-double machine. The Nuggets didn’t make many offseason moves, preferring to ride with one of the league’s top lineups — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr.


Anthony Edwards Timberwolves NBA

FILE – Anthony Edwards #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. David Berding/Getty Images/AFP 

Edwards, the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, has become the clear top dog for the Timberwolves. Part of the next wave of potential superstars in the NBA to receive maximum contract extensions during the offseason, Edwards will be trying to build off a strong summer performance with the U.S. national team and forge a stronger pick-and-roll connection with Gobert.

After losing Towns for the bulk of the season to a strained calf muscle, Minnesota is running it back with the two big men complementing Edwards on almost entirely the same roster as last season.

Forward Jaden McDaniels, who missed the first-round series loss to the Nuggets with a broken hand, will be counted on to advance his production after establishing himself as the team’s ace defender.


Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dribbles up the court against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at United Center on January 13, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

FILE–Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Michael Reaves/Getty Images/AFP

Gilgeous-Alexander leads a talented young core that is worth watching after the Thunder reached the Play-In Tournament last season. Gilgeous-Alexander was a first-team All-NBA selection last season after averaging 31.4 points per game.

Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City’s No. 2 scorer last season, is back after averaging 19.4 points for Australia at the World Cup. Jalen Williams was runner-up for rookie of the year last season and Lu Dort returns as the team’s defensive stopper.

Now, Oklahoma City adds Holmgren, the No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft. The versatile 7-foot-1 forward/center missed last season with a foot injury. This team has an extremely high ceiling.


Lauri Markkanen Jazz NBA

FILE–Lauri Markkanen #23 of the Utah Jazz. Alex Goodlett/Getty Images/AFP 

The Jazz drafted three young players in the first round over the summer — Taylor Hendricks (No. 9), Keyonte George (No. 16) and Brice Sensabaugh (No. 28). They have a young coach in Will Hardy who’s trying to mesh it all together.

George is playing his way into the starting lineup, especially after stellar performances in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas during summer league action.

The Jazz march to the beat of Markkanen, who’s coming off a season in which he averaged 25.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. The 7-footer from Finland made his first All-Star team.


Portland Trail Blazers center Deandre Ayton and former Phoenix Suns smiles as he leaves the court after their preseason NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023, in Phoenix.

FILE––Portland Trail Blazers center Deandre Ayton. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

For the first time in a dozen years, there’s no “Dame Time” in Portland.  The longtime face of the franchise was shipped out as part of a three-team trade that included the Bucks and Phoenix Suns.

One of returns for the Blazers was Deandre Ayton. The athletic big man figures to keep up with the pace set by Henderson, who was the third overall pick in the draft.

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Coach Chauncey Billups insisted the Blazers in this post-Lillard era will be more of a group effort. Ayton and Henderson also team with Anfernee Simons, who’s coming off a season in which he averaged a career-best 21.1 points.

TAGS: Denver Nuggets, NBA

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