OPINION: Stern: Why Nuggets' championship signifies start of dynasty

Nikola Jokic
Photo credit Matthew Stockman / Staff / Getty Images

In many cases, all it takes for a sleeping giant to be awakened in professional sports is a pivotal, momentum-swinging victory. And for a dominant Nuggets squad, which captured its first NBA title on Monday -- eliminating the Heat in five games -- winning one championship with its current core was a minimum requirement. It wasn't an end goal.

The similarities between Nikola Jokic's first title and other NBA legends' firsts are evident. Just like Jokic, Michael Jordan won his first championship at age 28. LeBron James was 27. The Bulls' series victory over the Lakers in 1991 also went five games, and Jordan had two regular season MVP awards at the time. James had three. Jokic could've knotted James' MVP mark this season, but he was robbed of the prize by Sixers superstar Joel Embiid. Jokic and Jordan also hoisted their first Larry O'Brien Trophy in their seventh league season.

Jokic's flashiness and abilities as a center, in an NBA era obsessed with high-flying, highlight-reel plays and deep three balls, are so impressive. Ascending to the peak of the basketball world is that much harder for a 6-foot-11 physical force, who makes his living in the paint. And, considering his supporting cast, these Nuggets are uniquely positioned for future playoff success.

This NBA Finals journey was the first for Denver in its 47-year history. While the franchise enjoyed successful runs under coaches Doug Moe and George Karl during the 1980s and 2000s, they also had a fair share of downturns. For five straight seasons (2013-18), they failed to reach the West playoffs.

But, quietly, the Nuggets have built one of the NBA's top rosters. They drafted Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr., and signed complimentary pieces Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown. Both Jokic and Murray were impressive finds among talented prospect groups. And having faith that Porter Jr. would return to form, amid a slew of severe back injuries, was remarkable.

Denver's decision to stick with head coach Michael Malone, after he finished a combined 18 games below .500 through his first two campaigns in the Mile High City, was also impressive. And doing so on the heels of a dismissal from the Kings -- just 24 games into his second season there -- is that much more impressive.

Michael Malone
Photo credit Justin Edmonds / Stringer / Getty Images

Nuggets owner Stan Kronke saw something special in Malone, and was willing to endure rough years at the beginning with a clear end goal in mind. Allowing growth to occur with a specific coach has backfired in the league (see: Bruce Brown with the Sixers), which is why Denver deserves so much more credit in not allowing outside noise to influence their evaluation of Malone.

The pairing of Malone with a two-time MVP in Jokic, who's determined to stay humble and not become a distraction in the spotlight, feels like a duo created by a pro matchmaker. Two guys obsessed with the process of improving, who view a championship as sweet icing on the cake. They're bound to be hungry for more, in fortifying their long-term legacies as two of the game's best.

"The last step after a championship is to be a dynasty. So we're not satisfied," Malone said while celebrating a championship. "We accomplished something this franchise has never done before, but we have a lot of young and talented players in the locker room, and we just showed through 16 playoff wins what we're capable of."

No one doubted the Nuggets' ability to win games. A disappointing first-round playoff exit last season -- which came against the eventual champion Warriors -- fueled the fire. Denver entered the 2022-23 campaign with determination to elevate its game. And this explains why, despite playing in a crowded Western Conference that features the Grizzlies, new-look Kings, and Lakers, there was always a sense of confidence that these Nuggets could reach new heights.

"I felt there was something different about this team, a different energy," Jokic explained after Game 5. "And every day since Day 1 I've had the same feeling."

Battling through adversity and growing pains helped these Nuggets play their best basketball in 2023. The will to put last season's one-and-done exit in the rearview mirror, paired with the squad's collective stamina, explains why they lost just four games this entire postseason. And unlike NBA one-hit wonders that win a championship, only to never be heard from again, Denver's talent, mental makeup, and experience make them the next candidate to pursue a storied run that rewrites the next chapter of NBA history.

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman / Staff / Getty Images