UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Champions Challenge awaits ’23-24 Nuggets

The NBA champion Denver Nuggets are about to attempt one of the most difficult feats in professional team sports: Repeating.

Training camp opened two days ago in San Diego, and Mike Malone’s team faces several challenges as he prepares it for the 2023-24 National Basketball Association season.

Most obvious is replacing two integral members of the three-man bench rotation Malone relied on during last season’s championship run. (Bruce Brown signed with the Indiana Pacers, and 36-year-old Jeff Green jumped to Houston.)

Most unpredictable is the continued health of two key players, forward Michael Porter Jr., who suffers from chronic back issues, and Nikola Jokic’s mind-reading alter ego, guard Jamal Murray, who is playing on a reconstructed knee. Also critical is the sustained well-being of the magical Joker, selfless Aaron Gordon and seasoned Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Most daunting is matching the individual intensity of last June’s championship run.

How hard is it to successfully defend a title, especially when numerous players must again produce effort to match the level they mustered to reach previously unattained heights?

Just ask the Avalanche. Or most past champions, whether in the National Hockey League, the National Football League, Major League Baseball or the NBA.

After winning the Stanley Cup in ’21-22, the Avs were ousted in the first round of last season’s NHL Playoffs. In the past 30 seasons, only three teams—the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning—won back-to-back titles. 

During that time, 14 franchises have won at least once. The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks flirted with repeating, but the best they could do was win in alternating years, 2012 through 2015.

The Denver Broncos (1998-99) and New England (2004-05) claimed consecutive Super Bowls.  The Dallas Cowboys won two out of three (1994-96), and the Patriots were champs three times in four years (2002, plus their back-to-back years). Fifteen teams won at least once.

Only the Yankees of 1998-2000 have won consecutive World Series since 1994. The San Francisco Giants won three in five years, but each title was followed by not even winning the National League pennant.

Perhaps because the number of championship-caliber players on a title team is smaller, pro basketball teams have successfully defended their titles more often.

The Chicago Bulls won three straight from 1996 through 1998 after Michael Jordan un-retired, and the Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won three in a row in 2000-02. Hakeem Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back titles in ’94-95, and Golden State reprised 2017 in 2018.

But at the same time, the Champions Challenge is readily apparent even in the NBA. San Antonio, led by Tim Duncan, won four titles between 1999 and 2007 but never followed up one with another. And Golden State played in five straight Finals, though won just three of them. Cleveland went 1-3 and Miami 2-2, each in four straight Finals appearances.

Why is it so hard to win again the next season?

“Winning takes talent; to repeat takes character,” explained legendary basketball coach John Wooden, whose UCLA teams won nine collegiate national championships in 10 years, including seven in a row, between 1964 and 1973.

There are more than two dozen definitions for character in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but the ones that correspond to Wooden’s concept deal with personal attributes such as competitiveness, intensity and focus.

That’s the challenge all teams face after hoisting a championship trophy. 

The Nuggets, who return all five starters, have roughly six months to find out who most likely among veterans Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan, draft choices Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson, and second-year forward Peyton Watson can join Christian Braun in a championship bench rotation.

But the key to their encore will be avoiding even the slightest emotional letdown. That’s a tough test.

News last week of the blockbuster trade that will pair Giannis Antetokounmpo with Damian Lillard instantly made the Milwaukee Bucks the betting favorite to win the next NBA championship—ahead of the Nuggets. Right behind Denver are the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns.

The first of five preseason games is next Tuesday, against those Suns. The regular season begins October 24 at home against the Lakers.

The next six months will answer this question:

Can the Nuggets shake off the still-warm satisfaction of having won it all and prevail over the Bucks or any other opponent fortified to relegate them to the list of one-hit wonders?

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.