LOS ANGELES -- Bird. Magic. MJ. Kobe.
The best NBA teams are often helmed by an alpha leader -- the unquestioned top voice whose words and actions trickle down to the very fringes of the roster. As the Denver Nuggets sit one win away from the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance, that unequivocal leader isn't quite as distinct -- and that idea fits in perfectly with the unselfish, cohesive style that's made them the favorite to win their first NBA title.
Their top player is easy -- Nikola Jokic is as transcendent and productive of a talent as we've seen in recent years -- but he's never the loudest in the room and at times, he admits, there is a bit of a language barrier -- especially when he tries to speak quickly. Nuggets coach Michael Malone noted that Jokic commandeered the huddle late in their impressive Game 3 win over the Los Angeles Lakers to call out an action that he felt would have success. To no one's surprise, it worked.
But those moments are so few and far between that they're notable, whereas you need only glance across the court to see the opposite example. LeBron James is constantly pointing, shouting, teaching his fellow Lakers (and sometimes even his own coach, as Darvin Ham readily admits). Denver doesn't necessarily have a singular LeBron type, but what they do have is a roster full of veterans who aren't shy about voicing their opinions.
"It's everyone," standout Nuggets sixth man Bruce Brown said on Sunday of his team's leadership. "We've got a lot of vets and a lot of guys who have played in big-time games. So I think it's a collective."
As the best players, Jokic and Jamal Murray lead the charge. But behind them are supporting cast members like Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon. Then you look deeper into Denver's bench and you see elder statesmen like Jeff Green, DeAndre Jordan, Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson, all of whom but Green have been completely dropped from the rotation for months, but continue to put in the behind-the-scenes work to help the Nuggets reach their goal.
Brown, Caldwell-Pope, Jordan, Smith and Jackson are all in their first year with the team, and Malone is the first to credit the front office, led by general manager Calvin Booth, for securing the right kind of players to polish off the roster around their proven core.
"Talent in this business is a given. We all need talent," Malone said on Sunday. "We want to make sure we're bringing in the right guys that understand the culture that they're coming into -- and selflessness is a huge part of that. I think all of our guys exhibit that on a daily basis."
It's fitting that the Nuggets have malleable leadership, with players willing to come to the forefront or fade to the background depending on the team's circumstances. It's the same way they play basketball, with ball movement and passing taking precedent over isolation and individual glory. Five of the seven players who got significant minutes in Saturday's Game 3 win scored in double figures, with five also notching four or more assists. As a group, the Nuggets average more passes per game than any team left in the playoffs.
"My mantra has always been go out there and play for each other and play hard. You live with the results. I think we've done a great job of that through the course of the season," Green said on Sunday. "Throughout the playoffs, we've leaned on each other to get us through each series. It's put us at a point right now where we're up 3-0, and we have a chance to close it out and get to the Finals."
If the Nuggets finally reach the position to which they've aspired, it's not going to be one loud voice dragging them there, as we've seen with teams in the past. It's going to be a collective unit, committed and unselfish, whose leadership and playing style have perfectly coalesced.
"We have much work to do in front of us. Tomorrow night's gonna be the hardest game of the year," Malone said on the eve of Monday's Game 4. "But, could not be more proud of our group for just the chemistry, the brotherhood, the belief they have -- not only in themselves, but their teammates. And that's what's really special about this group."