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Nuggets’ approach, NBA Finals berth send Warriors signal about winning

Why Warriors should follow Nuggets’ winning example originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The Denver Nuggets went where the Warriors chose not to go, which gave them enough to not just kick the Lakers out of the NBA playoffs but did so by sweeping them into the offseason.

After being first-round victims of the Warriors in five games last season, the Nuggets decided last summer it was time to go for the NBA’s jugular.

They knew high-quality starters Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. – neither of whom was active to face the Warriors last April – would be returning from injury. They then looked at their reigning two-time NBA MVP, Nikola Jokić, and asked themselves a trenchant question: Are we willing to waste a once-in-a-generation talent?

“Nobody can win a championship by themselves,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told ESPN on Monday night, after defeating the Lakers. “We understand how great Nikola is. A two-time MVP averaging a triple-double in these playoffs after three rounds, which is just insane. We know about Jamal’s resurgence, coming back from the ACL injury. Michael Porter coming back from an injury was just as important.”

The Nuggets felt obliged to surround Joker with a supporting cast capable of making the team a legitimate contender. They would add players who could make an immediate contribution.

Veterans. One to start, the other to make an impact off the bench.

While the Warriors, staring not at Stephen Curry but at their payroll, were relying largely on three recent lottery picks – James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody – Denver was trading for 29-year-old Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and 26-year-old former free agent Bruce Brown.

The Nuggets filled two very specific and necessary needs that were mandatory if they were to escape the NBA’s upper mediocrity neighborhood.

Caldwell-Pope and Brown brought versatility and, moreover, a defensive mentality to a team short on both. As a genuine two-way threat, he was an upgrade from Will Barton. Brown, a blast of energy capable of defending at least three positions, was an upgrade from JaMychal Green.

The combined salaries of Caldwell-Pope and Brown, at $21.2 million, more than tripled the combined $7.1 million Golden State would pay its incoming vets, Donte DiVincenzo and JaMychal Green. But Denver’s ownership – a franchise known to caress every nickel with the care and tenderness of a newborn – authorized general manager Calvin Booth to move forward despite the cost.

Hey, why not? When the Kroenke family signed off on a deal 16 months earlier to acquire power forward Aaron Gordon in exchange for two players and their 2025 first-round draft pick, it was the first indication they were investing in today.

Even their 2022 draft pick, Christian Braun, entered the league at age 21, with three seasons of collegiate experience at Kansas.

Adding Caldwell-Pope and Brown last summer changed the entire dynamic of a team and a franchise that knew it was the subject of annual disrespect from the rest of the NBA. The Nuggets were hawks in the regular season, pigeons in the postseason.

The Kroenkes, who had run the franchise since 2000, had grown weary of the customary early playoff flameouts. With Jokić in his prime, they were ambitious enough to shoot for the moon.

The Nuggets would, for once, seriously pursue something they have never experienced. A trip to the NBA Finals, and possibly the first championship in their 46-year history in the league.

“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to our front office,” Malone told ESPN, referring to the moves made last summer.

Sure, credit the front office. But thank you owner for opening the wallet.

Which brings us back to the Warriors, whose massive payroll bought them an exit, courtesy of the Lakers, after six games in the Western Conference semifinals. CEO Joe Lacob despises losing, and this ordinary season will surely re-light the fire that burned before winning.

Warriors general manager Bob Myers hated to lose Gary Payton II last summer, but he was obliged to build a roster with the financial parameters he was given. He and those above and below him crossed their fingers, hoping the youngsters were ready to deliver.

RELATED: Three questions Warriors will face if Myers ends GM tenure

They were not, which left coach Steve Kerr turning to the likes of Anthony Lamb, a two-way player, most of the season.

Another season of that would be akin to competitive sin.

Golden State’s longtime core – Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevon Looney and Curry – would welcome the kind of help Jokić received last summer. Veterans ready to contribute, as was the case years ago. Like, say, Payton, who was reacquired by the Warriors in February.

Vets cost, but sustained winning is never cheap. And, besides, looking Curry – the catalyst for the franchise being valued at $7 billion – in the eye would be a lot more comfortable.

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