The Denver Nuggets are NBA champions. They have the hats and the trophy and everything. Nikola Jokic has to stay for the parade even though he's dying to go home to his horses. Unbelievable, isn't it?
Actually, no. I can believe it, and so can the Nuggets. After Game 4 of the first round, when Jamal Murray was asked if he could have ever imagined himself thriving on this stage, he said yes. And when Bruce Brown was asked if he was pinching himself, he said no.
It took precisely one game in Denver for Aaron Gordon to feel the championship upside. "I see no limits for this team," Gordon said on March 28, 2021. "It looks like we have all the pieces that we need." Last summer, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who beat the Nuggets in the 2020 conference finals as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, said that he thought Denver would've advanced back then if Anthony Davis had missed his buzzer-beater in Game 2.
These Nuggets will be framed as the antithesis of a superteam, and this championship will be framed as a victory for the concepts of continuity and chemistry. It is true that Denver is not a glamour market, this group is homegrown and and the title represents the ultimate validation for the franchise deciding to stick it out with this coach and this core. But this is not some sort of underdog story. The 2022-23 Nuggets were a juggernaut.
Denver's style is all its own, its offense a reflection of the one-of-a-kind supergenius at the center of it. As far as roster construction goes, though, it is a fairly conventional champion. The Nuggets are led by a two-time MVP big man who had a strong case to win it again this season. Next to him is a point guard who has technically never made an All-Star Game but has widely been considered an All-NBA type when healthy for a while now. Together those two are unpredictable and unstoppable in the two-man game, the backbone of a historically efficient offensive system in which nobody stands still and everybody is a threat.
This is a more-than-the-sum-of-its parts situation, but the parts are awesome. Michael Porter Jr. is on a max contract because he's 6-foot-10 and makes contested 3s on the move. Gordon is a top-tier athlete and defender, and while he didn't ever become Paul George, all that skill work has made him perfectly suited to star in this role, which sometimes calls for him to initiate offense and punish mismatches. Caldwell-Pope is not just the 3-and-D guy they were missing in previous years; he arrived having already done the job for a title team.
Denver's bench is not terribly deep, but in the playoffs it developed an identity: Smallball, speed and switching. There's a veteran big who spaces the floor (Jeff Green) and a rookie wing who doesn't but makes up for it with deflections, timely cuts and offensive rebounds (Christian Braun). Their sixth man (Brown) had already demonstrated in Brooklyn that he could play meaningful minutes for a contender. In training camp, coach Michael Malone predicted that Brown would "close lots of big games for us." Brown closed the clincher on Monday, as well as the previous three games against the Miami Heat, Games 2 and 3 of the conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers and Game 2 against the Phoenix Suns.
Going into the season, it was clear that Denver had enough talent to be in the mix, provided that Murray and Porter could stay healthy. After acquiring Gordon at the 2021 deadline, the Nuggets' new starting lineup was limited to 110 incredible minutes in five games together before Murray tore his ACL. This regular season, in which Denver finished first in the West and the starters were elite on both ends, proved that those 110 minutes were for real.
To survive four rounds in the playoffs -- or, in Denver's case, to storm through the postseason with only four losses -- requires a team to win different ways. The Nuggets swept the Lakers on the strength of their transition game, and, when they couldn't run as much against Miami, they bullied them on the boards. In Game 3 of the Finals, Jokic and Murray combined for 66 points and 20 assists; in Game 4, with the Heat blitzing Murray, Gordon scored a team-high 27, plus six assists, and Brown had 21, including 11 in the fourth.
It is appropriate that, after making scoring look so easy for so much of the season, Denver won the title with defense. The Nuggets' rotations and communication were on point in the final three games, and they won Game 5 despite shooting just 5 for 28 from 3-point range and 13 for 23 from the free throw line and committing 10 first-half turnovers.
Denver is not flawless, and this championship was not inevitable. It is possible that, had the Nuggets happened to run into a team that could space them out with five shooters, their defense might not have held up. It's also possible, though, that this is only the beginning of their story. There are plenty of parallels here to the Golden State Warriors' 2015 title run, and no one knew back then that it was the start of a dynasty. Jokic is only 28, and he's the oldest member of Denver's core. This juggernaut isn't going anywhere.
"We're not satisfied with one," Malone said during the trophy presentation. "We want more!"
Nuggets NBA championship gear released
The Nuggets have won their first NBA title ever. You can now buy Nuggets championship shirts, hats, jerseys, hoodies, and much more to celebrate the historic win. Get Nuggets NBA championship gear here now.
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