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Broncos analysis: What we’ve learned about Sean Payton’s team in Week 1 of free agency and what questions remain

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Broncos analysis: What we’ve learned about Sean Payton’s team in Week 1 of free agency and what questions remain


A week’s worth of free agency is in the books for the Broncos.

They’ve added a trio of defenders in safety Brandon Jones, defensive tackle Malcolm Roach and inside linebacker Cody Barton. They’ve retained several more from Sean Payton’s first year in Denver.

They’ve explored several options at quarterback but haven’t come away with a transaction to show for it.

In the process, the Broncos cleared a significant amount of cap space and committed, officially, to using $53 million of it to pay down the first big chunk of former quarterback Russell Wilson’s $85 million in dead salary cap charges.

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General manager George Paton predicted at the NFL combine last month that the Broncos would be “strategic” rather than aggressive and that word fits the bill so far. Denver has proceeded clearly set against overspending in an offseason that is shaping up to look like a re-set.

Here’s what we’ve learned and what questions remain.

Three things we learned

The identity of Vance Joseph’s defense is going to be different

By sheer numbers, the Broncos may not actually have much turnover on defense. By leadership, though, this group is going to look markedly different in 2024.

In and of themselves, the departures of safety Justin Simmons and Josey Jewell aren’t shocking, though seeing Simmons released in the days before free agency was a surprise. Taken together, that pair represented the central nervous system of Denver’s defense for years, a guiding force across several head coaches and coordinators.

Jewell relayed the defensive calls from Joseph on the sideline. Then Simmons served as the quarterback from the back end, ensuring the secondary communicated coverage with the linebackers, corners and nickel Ja’Quan McMillian.

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Now the two communication hubs — and two of Denver’s defensive leaders — are gone. It won’t be entirely new, of course. Alex Singleton called the defense when Jewell was out. P.J. Locke has played a lot. ILB Jonas Griffith and S Caden Sterns have been around and are hoping to stay healthy.

“​​I feel good about the young core on defense, and we will just continue to add depth,” Paton said at the combine before the team signed Jones and Roach in free agency and got Locke back on a two-year deal.

Denver Broncos linebacker Alex Singleton (49) waves his arms up and down trying to get the crowd loader during the second half at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas on Dec. 3, 2023. The Houston Texans beat the Denver Broncos 22 to 17 during week 13 of 2023 NFL season. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Still, if a football defense is something like a baseball defense — you want to be strong up the middle at every level — then Denver is doing the rough equivalent of replacing its shortstop and center fielder.

This is now a group led by cornerback Pat Surtain II, defensive lineman Zach Allen and others like outside linebacker Baron Browning and Singleton. Familiar names, but also a new look and feel in the locker room.

The shakeup may have been anticipated, but it’s still massive

Aside from releasing Simmons rather than trading him or finding a way to extend his deal and lower his cap hit, none of the Broncos’ moves went down as stunners.

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All the same, it is worth taking a step back and considering what’s happened this month.

Draw up a list of the most notable Broncos from the 2023 team. How far down the list do you get before you’ve added Russell Wilson, Jerry Jeudy and Simmons? Five or six, maybe? Jewell’s not far down the list from them, either.

Consider that seismic change and then think back to the middle of the season when Payton summarized his regular conversations with Paton in the lead-up to the trade deadline.

“We’ve got a good handle on this current roster and our vision for the roster a year from now,” Payton said then.

Denver could have worked on several veteran contracts before the 2023 season or during — it now infamously did try to do so with Wilson — but proceeded in a way that allowed the team to make whichever decision it wanted on a host of its most expensive players.

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The first wave of moves on that front played out over the last 10 days. The string of goodbyes and thank-yous on social media is a good reminder that, while sentimentality exists in the NFL, it gets blocked out when making roster decisions.

The enduring trio

Despite the churn, left tackle Garett Bolles and receivers Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton endure. They’re now the longest-tenured trio of Broncos.

Patrick reworked his deal to stay for 2024, while the contracts for Sutton and Bolles remain unchanged. Sutton is due a $2 million roster bonus Sunday.

It’s quite possible that 2024 could be the last hurrah for any one or all of them, but overall the Broncos like Patrick’s leadership and the way Sutton responded in a 10-touchdown season under Payton in 2023. Bolles played steadily in 2023.

Denver cleared enough salary cap space in other ways that it can comfortably move forward with all three on the roster for 2024. The Broncos don’t have to look to trade Sutton or Bolles — they have not been in recent weeks, sources have indicated — though the possibility of moving either can’t be entirely ruled out if the right deal comes along.

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Perhaps the draft will change the equation, either for Denver or another team. Bolles and Patrick are entering the final year of their contracts and the Broncos aren’t meaningfully committed to Sutton in terms of guaranteed money, either.

For now, this is the group that looks like 2024-and-then-we’ll-see.

Three questions that remain unanswered

The big one

The Broncos have been knee-deep in quarterback evaluation — free agency, trade market and next month’s draft — but have made no moves thus far.

Perhaps the most logical candidates from each of the first two categories were Sam Darnold and Sam Howell, respectively. Darnold got a one-year, $10 million deal from Minnesota, more than double what Baker Mayfield got last year as a former top draft pick trying to engineer a career resurgence. Washington got the equivalent of a late third-round draft pick from Seattle in exchange for Howell. Those are pretty strong prices and, in each case, the Broncos were clearly not willing to match or exceed.

The Broncos started the offseason looking for a player to add to their current mix of Jarrett Stidham and Ben DiNucci in addition to a potential rookie. That they haven’t found that player so far might be just fine by them, but when you don’t have your answer at the game’s most important position, every move (or non-move) gets extra scrutiny.

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Just how ready is Sean Payton to let the kids play?

Many of the Broncos’ moves this offseason signal a team getting younger and cheaper. Lloyd Cushenberry’s gone on a four-year, $50 million deal to Tennessee? Either second-year man Alex Forsyth or third-year Luke Wattenberg to replace him. Jeudy traded? In steps Marvin Mims, Jr. Denver views corner Riley Moss as a starting-caliber player but he only saw 23 defensive snaps as a rookie. Safety JL Skinner? One defensive snap

The players who got the most run as rookies were Mims (384 snaps or 35.4%) and linebacker Drew Sanders (23.8%).

The fact that the Broncos had a lack of immediate impact from its 2023 draft class may not come as a big shock since they didn’t pick until the last selection of the second round, but the Year 1 to Year 2 jump for this group — plus college free agents like Jaleel McLaughlin, Nate Adkins and several offensive linemen — is going to be critical. And where Denver was reluctant to put Sanders, Moss and Mims into big roles right away as rookies, the coaching staff may not have the same luxury with its 2024 draft class.

Denver Broncos wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. (19) during warmups before playing the Minnesota Vikings at Empower Field at Mile High Nov. 19, 2023. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
Denver Broncos wide receiver Marvin Mims Jr. (19) during warmups before playing the Minnesota Vikings at Empower Field at Mile High Nov. 19, 2023. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

You’ve got $67 million in dead salary cap so far. You’ve cleared some big contracts off the books by release and trade. Roll with the kids. Let them play, make mistakes and learn. A Los Angeles Rams team in a similar situation (except at quarterback) took that route in 2023 and ended up making a surprise run toward the playoffs after looking like a mess during a 3-6 start.

What’s the best use of remaining cap space?

The Broncos have somewhere between $22.6 million in cap space to work with before Barton’s deal is official, according to OvertheCap data. Their current slate of draft picks projects to take up about $4 million more, though that will change slightly depending on how much the team moves around in the draft.

So for estimate’s sake let’s say Denver has $16 million to work with now. They’ll sign more players, though big, splashy contracts at this point would be a surprise.

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Here’s one path forward: Stuff most of the rest in your pocket and don’t even think about it until 2025. The NFL allows teams to roll cap space over. Denver had been at about $10 million in rollover until having less than $1 million this year.

Get back on that track. Take $10 million and treat it as if you’re actually paying down $63 million of Wilson’s dead cap rather than $53 million. If you surprise and you’re in contention mid-season, go ahead and deploy some of that flexibility for the here and now.

Otherwise, save as much of it as you can and spend it next year on mega-extensions for Pat Surtain II and Quinn Meinerz. Prepare for bigger cap hits from 2023 free-agent additions like Mike McGlinchey, Ben Powers and Zach Allen. After converting all of their salaries to bonuses for 2024, their combined cap charges this year are a paltry $21.65 million. Currently for 2025, the trio combines to charge $61.03 million.

Denver only has 27 players currently under contract for 2025 (28 once Surtain’s fifth-year option is exercised between now and May 2). Play this year right with the remaining cap space, and the team could have ample room to work, a curbed Wilson dead cap figure to clear his money entirely off the books and perhaps, finally, a full draft class to work with on top of the cap flexibility.

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Denver Tops Poll As Country’s Best Weed City

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Denver Tops Poll As Country’s Best Weed City


As one of the top metropolitan cities in the country, Denver boasts a host of attractions—Coors Field, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Denver Art Museum and many breweries. Yet, according to a poll jointly conducted by Real Estate Witch, an online real estate platform and cannabis information and resource site Leafly, the Mile High City has just been named the best weed city in the U.S. for 2024.

Last year, according to the same poll, Denver slipped to number two but now thanks to its number of dispensaries, four times the average city, the city is back sitting pretty in the top spot.

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The metrics that were used to determine the ranking included the following: legality of cannabis, dispensaries per 100,000 residents, cannabis-prescribing doctors per 100,000 residents, average rating of dispensaries out of five stars, affordability of high-quality weed, fast food restaurants per 100,000 residents and local hiking trails according to the AllTrails database.

The poll uncovered some very interesting findings:

*While Denver is the best weed city, Louisville is the worst;

*Kansas City is the most improved weed city, rising 13 spots from No. 22 in 2023 to No. 9 this year;

*Missouri legalized recreational weed just two years ago, but Kansas City already has double the number of dispensaries per capita as Los Angeles, where weed has been fully legal since 2016;

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*Sacramento has the most affordable pot prices while for the third year in a row, Washington, D.C. has the most expensive weed; and,

*Baltimore has more cannabis-prescribing doctors than any other city, with nearly 14 per 100,000 residents;.

According to the poll the top ten weed cities are: 1. Denver, Colorado 2. Portland, Oregon 3: Las Vegas, Nevada 4. Buffalo, New York 5. Baltimore, Maryland 6. Phoenix, Arizona 7. Seattle, Washington 8. Sacramento, California 9. Kansas City, Missouri 10. Providence, Rhode Island.

To see where your city ranks on this 50 best and worst city for cannabis list, click here.

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Check out my website or some of my other work here. 



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Is The Denver Nuggets’ Bench Enough For Them To Go Back-To-Back?

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Is The Denver Nuggets’ Bench Enough For Them To Go Back-To-Back?


Arguably no team in the NBA has a starting five with as much high-end talent and lineup balance as the Denver Nuggets. On the season, the unit of Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic is a +13.1 points per 100 possessions over the course of 1831 non-garbage time possessions (per Cleaning the Glass). That is the exact type of indicator you want to see from a championship lineup.

The one thing plaguing this team as they gear up for the postseason is their bench. As it stands, no one on their bench who has played over 200 non-garbage time minutes on the season has a positive point differential when they are on the floor.

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Denver had a similar problem last year. Their solution was to consolidate their rotation so that they only needed to use three bench players (Christian Braun, Jeff Green, and Bruce Brown).

The issue here is that two of those players (Green and Brown) are no longer employed by the organization, and they didn’t make any trades at the deadline to fill the holes left by them.

That brings us to the central question of this article: do the Nuggets have enough on their current roster to field a three-man bench that can help them repeat as NBA Champions?

What Did Their Bench Bring?

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Before we can answer that question, we need to know what this year’s bench is attempting to replace.

Brown was the headliner of the trio. He was a jack-of-all-trades defender. Not elite in any one defensive skill, but above average in pretty much every facet on that side of the ball. On offense, Brown was the king of spunk — helping to ignite Denver’s offense with his pace-pushing (77th percentile in transition possessions per game in 2022-23, per NBA.com) and secondary on-ball creation.

Green was the sage master of the group. Including last year’s run, Green has been on ten playoff teams, and he’s had some big moments in big games (most notably Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals). Along with his wisdom, Green also offered size (6’8 with a 7’1 wingspan), physicality, and play finishing (as a spot-up shooter, cutter, and roller).

Braun was a rookie last year, but he handled himself like a seasoned veteran. Denver relied on him to handle some of their opponent’s toughest matchups. According to NBA.com matchup data, Braun held Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Jimmy Butler, and Mike Conley to a combined 16-for-41 (39%). And like Green, he also sprinkled in some size (6’6 with a 6’6.5 wingspan), physicality, and play finishing (he put on a clinic in cutting during Game 3 of the NBA Finals).

Christian Braun

Let’s make one thing clear. The Nuggets don’t need to replace the individual pieces they lost. They just need to replace the production lost from the three players in the aggregate — akin to the problem faced by the Oakland Athletics in Moneyball.

Braun will be the easiest player to replace. You know, considering he’s still on the team! Braun has already proven that what he does will translate to the playoffs. However, with Green no longer in the picture. Braun will need to bring even more physicality to the table.

Peyton Watson (more on him in a moment) is taller/longer than Braun (6’7 with a 7’0.5 wingspan). But Watson doesn’t like getting his hands dirty the way Braun does, as evidenced by his contested rebounding percentage only being in the 39th percentile (compared to Braun’s 59th percentile contested rebounding percentage).

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We saw this come into play in Denver’s recent matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves. When they shared the floor, Watson guarded the smaller/shiftier Conley while Braun took on the assignment of keeping the raging bull that is Anthony Edwards in front of him. After scoring 15 points on 4-for-6 shooting in the third, Edwards was relegated to a goose egg on 0-for-3 shooting in the final frame.

[Sidebar#1:Braun also offers some transition punch (more so as a finisher than an initiator), ranking in the 60th percentile in transition possessions per game this season.]

Reggie Jackson

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Reggie Jackson was also on the team last year, but he only played 18 minutes throughout the entirety of their 16-game run. On the surface, that seems worrisome. Why wouldn’t Denver play him if he could help them?

My suspicion is that the Nuggets were already getting the secondary on-ball creation they needed from Brown. So, they didn’t feel like putting another smaller player on the court (small players often get picked on in the playoffs) that’s best skill is one they already had enough of (recall our lesson on redundancies).

Now, the Nuggets need Jackson’s secondary creation. Jackson is in the 81st percentile in Box Creation (a metric that estimates playmaking ability) and the 80th percentile in Passer Rating (a metric that estimates passing ability).

Jackson can create for himself too. He maintains solid midrange (43rd percentile, per Dunks & Threes) and 3-point (50th percentile) percentages, despite being in the 79th and 85th percentile in unassisted midrange and 3-point shots, respectively.

When Murray is on the bench, Jackson can fill in as The Joker’s partner-in-crime. In the 1,012 minutes the two have shared together this season, the Nuggets have a net rating of +7.2 and an offensive rating of 120.0.

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[Sidebar#2: Jackson also gives Denver the veteran element that they lost with Green.]

Peyton Watson

Lastly, we have Watson. Watson is the member of this trio with the most pressure on him, especially after the comments made by Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth prior to the start of the season.

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“Some of these teams were trying to get Bruce, trying to make it worth it; it’s like, just be careful what you wish for,” Booth told The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. “Peyton’s bigger. He’s longer. He’s more athletic. He guards better. He passes better. He doesn’t have the experience, and he’s not as good offensively yet, but we need defense more than we need offense on our team.”

For the most part, Booth wasn’t wrong. Watson has been a better defender this year (95th percentile Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus) than Brown was last year (74th percentile). And it’s because he’s all the things Booth said he was — longer, more athletic, and a better on-ball defender.

I can’t say Watson is a better passer yet. But the flashes he’s demonstrated are certainly intriguing. Booth was also correct in citing Watson’s lack of experience/offense. Fortunately, Jackson should be able to handle those departments.

Watson does provide something that no one on Denver’s playoff bench gave them last year: rim protection. Watson is in the 93rd percentile in block rate, and that isn’t just a byproduct of meaningless block-hunting. His impact is present on a team-wide level. When Watson is on the floor, Denver is in the 98th percentile in opponent rim accuracy.

The only thing holding Watson back from being a guaranteed playoff performer are the concerns surrounding his perimeter spacing (or should we say lack thereof). Last season, Brown was hitting a respectable 35.8% of his threes. This year, Watson is only converting on 29.3% of his triples. The hope there is that Jackson playing more minutes will help make up for that gap.

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The Bottom Line

In general, it normally isn’t wise to over-index on a single regular season game. However, Denver’s aforementioned recent clash with the Timberwolves feels like an exception since it was a late-season contest between two teams clashing for the number one seed in the West.

In that playoff-lite outing, Braun (27:17), Jackson (20:20), and Watson (23:01) all logged positive +/- totals — Braun was a +9, Jackson was a +3, and Watson was a +4. And they posted those marks by doing all the things we outlined above.

Braun and Watson, in particular, were so good in the fourth quarter (Braun a +7, Watson a +9) that they didn’t even need to bring in Gordon and Caldwell-Pope down the stretch.

Because Denver’s starting five is so damn good, their bench players need only fulfill very carved-out roles. And while we won’t know for sure until we see them in action in a playoff series, it does look like the trio of Braun/Jackson/Watson has just enough ponies in the stable to help give Denver a legitimate shot at being back-to-back NBA Champions.

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***All stats are updated as of April 11, 2024.



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Family on 3 – The rare bond of these Denver Nuggets – DNVR Sports

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Family on 3 – The rare bond of these Denver Nuggets – DNVR Sports


The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.
– Richard Bach

There’s a moment in most people’s young adulthood in which you’re deeply trying to establish your YOU. Your uniqueness, what makes you one of one. Those first forays into new territory can also come with a rejection of what got you there, as they did with me. I remember several years of feeling as if I had a closer bond with friends than family, as I’d PICKED those friends. I’d had no say in whatever shape my family had taken, I’d simply gotten stuck with what I’d gotten, even if that getting was very good.

A few decades later, I’m simply grateful for every last bit of what I was “stuck” with.

Moreover, I was glad for all I’d stuck myself with, as well. I tend more to the Richard Bach line of thought up top when it comes to family, and am so blessed that there are also a few people in my life external to my family tree that are still as much “kin” as anyone I share DNA with. How much luckier am I to have both. That concept, family. It’s one of the things that has stuck with me about the chant these Denver Nuggets wrap most practices and games with. Coach Mike Malone standing in the midst of his team, shouting:

“Family on three! One, two three…” “FAMILY”

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Now, some of those teams chants are surely more enthusiastic than others, just like how so many people feel day over day about their family. But for the Nuggets, these aren’t just words. Family not only runs across the top of Denver basketball literally, but is one of the core tenets of the organization holistically. In the abstract, it sounds hokey, and maybe over the top. It’s a multi-billion dollar business, and tough decisions sometimes have to be made. There also have certainly been guys who have come and gone who have decidedly NOT felt a part of the family here, even during these idyllic days (koff, Bones Hyland). On the whole, the description is so apt, it’s clear this team has clearly internalized the concept, is living it, and that is a part of what makes them so utterly rare.

On Wednesday night, when the Nuggets were distancing themselves from the Minnesota Timberwolves in the fourth quarter, two of the vaunted five starters stayed seated on the bench, with second year stars Peyton Watson and Christian Braun playing so impressively as to warrant staying in the game. What made that even more impressive was the two players they were supplanting for that moment, Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. AG and KCP are the most-valued pieces in the defensive chain the Nuggets run their crunchtime D upon, and yet there they sat…

Well, maybe “sat” isn’t the right word…

There they celebrated. There they joined the rest of their team in the barbaric yawp that was P-Wat and CB feeling themselves.

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You know who would not celebrate those plays as Gordon and Caldwell-Pope did? Selfish guys. Guys who are thinking about how they look or worrying about whether a DNP in the fourth quarter might reflect on their standing. Guys who aren’t a part of the family. A guy who’s shooting for First Team Defense like KCP could sure feel a certain sort of a way about the two kids playing out the string and also grabbing the defensive player of the game chains. Instead, Kenny was as thrilled as the rest.

The same feelings went a few games prior, when backup point guard Reggie Jackson had spent a few games in a bit of a slump, and was finally breaking out of that shell in a spectacular way, and in a needed fourth quarter run. The guy who told Malone to leave him in? Jamal Murray, who ceded his spot that night to let Reggie cook. When Jackson scored seven straight points to put the Nuggets out of reach at games end, Murray was one of the first to greet him off the floor, overjoyed and celebrating as much as if he’d been the one to sling those arrows.

Heck, even rarely used center Jay Huff is a part of this Nuggets family, loved to the as much as any of the rest. When the Nuggets had banked a recent game to the point of bringing the far end of the bench in, Huff came into the game. In his short time, Jay had a block and then a pair of offensive plays – a finger roll layup and a dunk – that brought the starters back to their feet and cheering. Hell, Moach was actually the first one running out. On a less cohesive team, those starters are discussing plans in their relative cliques as the nobodys salt the game with absolutely no one still watching. In Denver, it’s an event. Because here we celebrate the success of our family.

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That feeling of family extends beyond the players having that uncommon bond, and their rejoicing in each other’s games. That feeling extends to Malone’s deep and concerted efforts to let a badly injured Jamal Murray know that the team would stick with him a couple years back. That extends to Gordon traveling halfway across the globe to hang with Nikola Jokic in his hometown. That extends to Jokic breaking his usual media silence to lift up the podcast of teammate Michael Porter, Jr., who himself has sacrificed ego in abundance for the greater good. To Caldwell-Pope and Murray both proclaiming in recent postgame interviews that they are Nuggets for life. To Malone telling the press he has “two daughters and 18 boys”. To a team that seems to have found harmony from top to bottom, this Denver Nuggets family has bought in.

It’s family. It is celebration, it’s true. Rejoicing and all the good stuff. But it is sacrifice as well. Hardship and frustrations and tears and blood and sweat and cohesion in moments that would test a lesser bond. It’s utter familiarity. It’s a subtraction of self for that greater good, and with that a bond that is so much harder to break than a “buddy”. What these Denver Nggets have already done together will be something that connects them for the rest of their lives. That they keep coming back to it every day willing to give of themselves, build those bonds even deeper and keep the larger goals in mind is something that only a family – of blood or bond – can do.

We are family. Get up everybody and sing!
-Sister Sledge

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