Jump on championship bandwagon while good seats are still available


Nuggets center Nikola Jokic stood alone near center court in a noisy arena, blowing his breath into hands cupped in the shape of a genie’s lamp, giving sweet life to basketball magic previously unknown around here.

Could this be the most magical season in franchise history? Is it finally the Nuggets’ time to win it all?

At the risk of awakening the grouch inside coach Michael Malone, I say: Yes!

Go ahead. Dream big. At this point in the young season, with a long winter ahead and the playoffs more than four months away, it’s not too early for the Nuggets to start the serious business of bringing home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Since Denver joined the NBA way back in 1976, long before the Broncos won a Super Bowl or the Avs lifted the Stanley Cup, never have we seen a Nuggets team as talented or well-balanced as this one. Dan Issel, Carmelo Anthony or any player who has worn a rainbow skyline jersey never had the legit opportunity to win a championship that Joker and his mates do now.

After a lopsided victory Wednesday completed a two-game home sweep of lowly Houston, the Nuggets improved their record to 14-7, second in the Western Conference to Phoenix. The start is particularly impressive because Denver has already played 13 road games and Malone is still tinkering as he integrates Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. into the lineup from major injuries that crippled this team a season ago.

Malone, however, reacted to a 20-point thrashing of the Rockets with a scowl, chewing on the stat sheet and citing a lack of resolve in his team. He stole a page from the Book of Pop, echoing the often-grumpy, never-satisfied disposition of wildly successful San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who has served as a mentor to Malone.

“I know this team. I’ve seen it time, time and time and time and time and time and time and time again. It’s frustrating,” groused Malone. He told assistant coaches at halftime the Nuggets’ 74-47 lead made him nervous, because he has yet to detect a killer instinct in these players, still learning how to maintain championship focus for the grind of 48 minutes.

“We talk about all the things we want to do. Well, it can’t be trusted. Let’s go out there and be pros. Be some grown-(arse) men and handle your business. I’m not Debbie Downer, I’m really excited we won the game and protected our home court … But I just want to see our team mature and understand consistency is going to be what allows us to be a team that can go deep (in the NBA playoffs).”

With two MVP trophies, Jokic has firmly established himself as a franchise player with the capability to perform the same magic we’ve seen from Steph, LeBron and Giannis while carrying teammates to a championship. With every game, Murray shakes off rust from his 18 months away and sharpens his blue arrow.

The window for Denver to win a championship will never be open wider than it is now. Enough with the defeatist attitude that it can’t happen here. And no more waiting until next year. Boston, Milwaukee and Phoenix boast rosters with serious talent, but there’s no super team in the league.

What makes me buy the Nuggets as a legit contender, however, is the toughness that allows Malone to coach these players hard and demand better.

Winning a championship is difficult. The Avs hoisted the Cup in no small measure because Nathan MacKinnon spit nails and gave icy glares to anyone in the Colorado locker room not fully committed to the quest. While the Broncos talk about accountability, it’s hard to break a cycle of losing when you’re as soft as a hug.

Yes, there are big questions the Nuggets need to answer. The unresolved issues are as simple as: Can they protect the rim at crunch time? And the concerns as mysterious as: Will the health of Michael Porter Jr., currently nursing a heel injury, ever be solid enough to be trusted?


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