The Winning Culture of the Denver Nuggets is Rare in Today’s NBA

May 22, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone celebrates beating the Los Angeles Lakers in game four of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA playoffs at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In an era symbolized by social media clout and player marketing, the league’s quietest superstar has risen to the summit of basketball nirvana. But unlike the prototypical flashy NBA star, Nikola Jokic simply doesn’t care. Fame or social media attention doesn’t affect the scoreboard. Losing an MVP race doesn’t necessarily equivalate to losing a limb. He brands himself on the basic essence of the sport – teamwork. It amazes me how the world’s best basketball league has become more distant from the game itself. Instead of acknowledging the basic essence and beauty of basketball, the league (and especially its broadcasting networks) bat an eye. Clicks on Twitter and ratings are more essential. Teams are now valued on star power and player recognition. Hell, I bet more people in the United States know who Tristan Thompson is than Nikola Jokic. 

The Winning Culture of the Denver Nuggets is Rare in Today’s NBA

ESPN’s Lisa Salters stated last week, “This is really the first time I’ve had a chance to watch him [Jokic] play, and I’ve got to admit, I’ve been sleeping on this guy”. As a Denver native and an avid follower of this Denver Nuggets team, this quote didn’t surprise me one bit. Denver isn’t as big as Los Angeles or New York, and Jokic won’t be throwing down a tomahawk Ja Morant-esque poster dunk anytime soon. But this is what it takes to be noticed by the sports community at large. Jokic won’t be competing in dunk contests in the near future and the Met Gala will never take place in downtown Denver.

This is why 90% of NBA fans think that Kobe Bryant had a better career than Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental wouldn’t blow your mind with a double crossover or a highlight dunk. Tim Duncan never won less than 50 games in an NBA regular season over his 19-year career, and somehow this is never brought into drunk bar debates. Tim Duncan never threw his teammates under the bus. Instead, he was the catalyst for the Spurs-loving culture. But apparently wasn’t better than Kobe because of his empty highlight reels. 

Comparing the culture of the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers

The same narrative abides for Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid over the last three years. Nearly every major media outlet preferred Embiid over Jokic (looking at you, Brian Windhorst and Nick Wright) nearly for the same reasons why people prefer Kobe over Duncan. Kendrick Perkins permanently tarnished his reputation by using racism and countless amounts of incorrect data to not even support Embiid’s MVP case but to smear Jokic’s legacy.

 I don’t want to get into any deep Embiid discussion at this time because I am permanently burnt out from the Jokic-Embiid narrative (my brain cells will never recover from the stupidity of others). However, I do want to point out the differences in team culture between Denver and Philadelphia. In the Nikola Jokic era, there have been zero culture-damaging altercations on the roster or coaching staff. The only altercation in the Jokic era occurred this season with Bones Hyland, who was dealt at the trade deadline. Denver has an immense love for former players who set the cultural tone for this team to succeed. In Ball Arena, you can still see Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Paul Millsap, and Will Barton jerseys (maybe a Mason Plumlee or Torrey Craig, too, once every blue moon). All this is possible when the franchise cornerstone is willing to commit his entire life to winning.

This all starts with culture. On the other hand, I can count a handful of toxic situations that have occurred during “The Process” Joel Embiid’s era in Philadelphia. Just to name a few: The entire organization threw Ben Simmons under the bus, prioritizing Tobias Harris over Jimmy Butler, giving up on Markelle Fultz, and Bryan Colangelo leaking confidential information on Twitter under burner accounts. Most recently, Embiid failed to take responsibility for the Sixers’ embarrassing game 7 loss against Boston. 

How to Construct a Winning Team

The recipe for a winning team is not as complex as people think. As the podfather Bill Simmons points out, there are seven secrets to a winning culture. 

  1. Like each other
  2. Know and accept your role
  3. Sacrifice personal statistics
  4. Prioritize winning
  5. The best player has to sacrifice the most to make everyone happy
  6. Remain on the same page
  7. Don’t cut corners. Do the little things

You might be rolling your eyes because these steps seem too obvious, yet they work time and time again (unless you’re the 2017-2018 Warriors and have Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green).  

Let’s look at the 2022-2023 Denver Nuggets. The same can be said for the Miami Heat too. 

  1. They like each other….. a lot.
  2. Jokic is the orbital piece, Jamal Murray is the second man in charge, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the 3&D wing, Aaron Gordon is the defensive leader, Michael Porter Jr is the ultimate shooting threat, and Bruce Brown is the do-it-all spark plug.
  3. Jokic could be averaging 45 points a game but chooses to get his teammates better shots.
  4. Look at this clip. Malone wants to win more than anyone in the league. 
  5. Reference point three.
  6. Take the best shot possible and play tough defense. Michael Malone has embedded this simple blueprint into the team’s identity since 2015. This is beyond evident this postseason. Instead of hucking 30-footers with 14 seconds left on the shot clock (hello, Trae Young), find open teammates and constantly be moving off the ball. You wonder why Golden State has been so successful in the past decade. 
  7. Make the extra pass. Get the best possible shot. I can’t emphasize this enough.

As a gist, basketball teams don’t need to be flashy or superstar filled to win a championship. Basketball teams need an irreplaceable culture with an unselfish superstar. ESPN won’t talk about this on First Take because, in theory, it’s boring. But the Denver Nuggets are content. This championship run has been years in the making. People are just only realizing this now.