The present (Nikola Jokic) and the future (Victor Wembanyama) of the NBA collided Tuesday night in spectacular fashion. To understand why the Nuggets can repeat as champions, however, we must look to the past.

And the San Antonio Spurs, who methodically won four NBA titles from 1999 to 2007.

When the Nuggets paraded downtown after their championship, the euphoria was intoxicating. The coaches and players could not be blamed for wanting to live in that snapshot forever. They did something never accomplished — not by Alex English, not by Dan Issel, not by David Thompson, not by Doug Moe — in franchise history and ended a 47-year drought in the process.

Yet in the offices at Ball Arena, in the text messages, in the conversations, the Nuggets were thinking much bigger. They had no interest in becoming basketball’s latest Dexys Midnight Runners, lovable one-hit wonders. They sought sustainable success. Sought to be like San Antonio. It was not something they expressed publicly, but it would be accurate to call it an internal mantra.

“It is of utmost importance and something I believe in a lot. As a front office, we understand the importance of studying historical patterns and what things have worked,” Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth explained. “The Spurs are the standard.”

I roll my eyes when executives talk about emulating championship teams. It is so difficult on multiple levels. The easy part is to say it. Can you do it? When it comes to the Nuggets mirroring the Spurs, it does not require squinting to see the similarities.

It starts with the stars, the hubs of the universe. The Spurs featured Tim Duncan, the greatest power forward of all-time. He was as selfless as a monk. He barely spoke, except when he was grousing to the referees.

The Nuggets boast Jokic, who will win his third MVP next month. Jokic changed the way the Nuggets play the game. He is the most unselfish great our state has ever seen. He is about winning, about making the right play, about involving teammates, caring zero about who gets the credit or how it is done.

A basketball in Jokic’s hand is Whitney Houston with a song.

“A basketball savant,” Spurs legendary boss Gregg Popovich said.

It continues with the coaches. Popovich guided Spurs teams speckled with talent — most notably Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker — and rooted in fundamentals. He is a known grump, famous for not suffering fools in the media. But when I asked him about the Nuggets-Spurs comparisons, he answered without hesitation, praising Denver coach Michael Malone.

“We all know basketball. It’s pretty simple. It’s a game of players. You need really good players. But you also have to put together a team. And the team has to focus on what wins and loses and Mike’s gotten them to do that for sure. And Nikola is a great base like Timmy was,” Popovich said. “And the team passes the ball. They have all gotten over themselves. They play for each other.”

It sounds simple. Repeating, though, is fraught with potholes, especially after bathing in the spotlight. The gravitational pull of Me over We is strong.

The front office and Malone have created a culture of accountability, of playing for something bigger than themselves. This did not happen by accident. The Spurs dynasty provided a blueprint — even if they never actually repeated as champions themselves.

“It’s what we all strive for. And it’s how they did it. Playing the game the right way. The beautiful game,” Malone said. “They aren’t going to lead the game in ISOs (isolation plays). They are going to lead in passing and assists. And you have the generational talents in Nikola Jokic and Tim Duncan. And the similarities are not just on the floor. It’s how they are truly embarrassed by attention. They just want to be left alone with their teammates and family. If people are comparing us to the Spurs of old that’s a (heck) of a compliment.”

Following in the footsteps of the Spurs is more difficult now because of the red tape. The collective bargaining agreement works against dynasties, creating stiff penalties for big spenders. It prevented the Nuggets from retaining free agent Bruce Brown.

The Nuggets, however, are positioned for a long run because their best players are under contract and in their 20s, including stone cold shooter Jamal Murray, evolving Michael Porter Jr. and power forward Aaron Gordon.

It took years to bake this fabulous concoction. Booth remains cognizant of this, recognizing that he cannot just add any ingredient.

“Look at how we handled the team as an organization this season. It was very Spurs-like. It was about keeping continuity,” Booth said. “We were not doing anything crazy. We are adding young players to the pipeline. It’s about the environment we have created. The players are open to it and understand it.”

In a few weeks, the Nuggets will begin their title defense. The idea was never to win one. It was to win another one. The first one is the greatest. Each that follows the hardest.

The Nuggets probably won’t be favored to hold another parade. But when I watch them play, watch Jokic turn defenders dizzy with his assists, watch teammates pull and care for each other, I know it is possible. The Spurs already showed us.

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets puts Victor Wembanyama (1) of the San Antonio Spurs on a poster during the first quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets puts Victor Wembanyama (1) of the San Antonio Spurs on a poster during the first quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

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