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Team building lessons for the Spurs from the NBA Champion Denver Nuggets

How the Spurs can learn from the best to build around their European big man

2023 NBA Finals - Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

In many ways, it was never in question for the Nuggets. They dominated the young Timberwolves, blotted out the Suns, swept the King’s Lakers, and slayed the “zombie Heat.” Through it all, they became legends.

Nikola Jokic cemented himself among the greats with a dominant playoff performance. There wasn’t a single team that had an answer for him, although Bam Adebayo tried his darndest. Averaging 30 points, 13.4 rebounds and 9.5 assists on 55/46/79 splits puts him in legend territory. He is one of, if not the greatest European big men to ever play the game.

Now the Spurs have a chance to draft their own revolutionary Euro big in Victor Wembanyama. It’s hard not to get excited about the future of the franchise after watching a do-it-all center from abroad take his team to the promised land. While Jokic certainly does it with more brawn, Wemby brings a unique skillset that will allow the Spurs to build a winning offense and defense around him.

In a pivotal offseason for San Antonio, what can they learn from Denver about building a team around such a player? What kind of players and strategies will help them build a sustainable roster that can compete for multiple championships? Let’s take a look at a few tips the Spurs should take from the 2023 NBA champions.

Find an identity

The Nuggets work seamlessly together. Everyone is on the same page, accepts their role and knows exactly where they need to be on the floor. They played close to flawlessly against Miami in the finals, despite some poor shooting. It helps to have an excellent coach in Mike Malone who has helped this team maintain it’s identity.

The Nuggets play a fast paced game with a lot of ball movement that operates out of the hands of it’s two main creators: Jokic and Murray. Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and others are there to cut, relocate and spot up. It’s an offensive system that has worked beautifully for the Nuggets, but it needed the correct pieces.

Denver switched out Will Barton, Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Facundo Campazzo and Bones Hyland in favor of Caldwell-Pope, Christian Braun, Bruce Brown and Jeff Green over the course of the season. Essentially swapping out players who are more effective with the ball in their hands, for players who can defend multiple positions and be off-ball weapons. It elevated Jokic and Murray’s games, and strengthened their defense around their stars. They completely bought into the identity and it worked.

The Spurs will need to take the time to shape the roster around Wembanyama’s style of play. What will the next generation’s identity be? Will it be a long, switchable team chocked full of playmakers like Wemby, Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell and others? A hard nose defensive squad who pressures aggressively on the perimeter with a giant looming in the paint? Whatever it is, they should lean into it completely, and find the players that fit what they do best.

There are multiple ways to win a championship

Denver proved to the world that you don’t just need a ball dominant guard and playmaking wings to win it all. A big three or “super team” isn’t a requirement to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. Even Miami showed that you can reach the highest stage in an unconventional manner.

The last center to win Finals MVP was Tim Duncan in 2005. Since then it’s been almost exclusively wings and guards like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephan Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic proved that if there is enough skill around them, a big can still dominate this league. In fact, Joel Embiid and Adebayo have proven that teams can thrive running offense through their big man.

This is great news for the Spurs who will be building around their center (or power forward, depending on who you ask.) There shouldn’t be a copy and paste blueprint to roster building. Find talented players that fit your identity and culture. Specifically super role players like Gordon and Porter Jr. who are willing to sacrifice opportunity for winning. Both are players that could have larger roles on good teams, but bought into the Nuggets vision and elevated the team. Could Keldon Johnson, Tre Jones or Malaki Branham become one of these types of players down the line?

Strategic patience

Denver drafted Jokic in 2014 alongside Garry Harris. The next year they drafted hyped point guard prospect Emmanuel Mudiay. The next season they picked up Murray. They cycled through a number of hyped prospects like Malik Beasley, RJ Hampton and Juan Hernangomez before finding the roster that worked. Despite striking out on a few prospects, they never cut their losses and pushed to acquire another star.

When the right player became available, they struck, trading Harris and Hampton plus a 2025 pick to the Magic for Gordon. They were patient with MPJ, allowing him to deal with his injuries and develop into a high level role player. They didn’t push too hard, but made smart moves when the opportunity was there. Allowing Jokic and Murray to develop into their leading men, while supporting them with veterans and

San Antonio will need to take a similar approach building around Wembanyama. Acquiring talent through the draft is a good way to keep adding to the roster, while watching the market for an impact player who fits and elevates the squad. This summer some fans may be itching for the Spurs to sign veterans in free agency to join Wemby. It’s important that they are the RIGHT vets, who will fit into the scheme and compliment the rookie, rather than signing veterans for veterans sake.

It took the Nuggets nearly a decade to build a championship roster. It doesn’t happen overnight, and the Spurs would be wise to take that lesson to heart as they look to build a new champion.