Nuggets Claim First Championship Behind Superstar Nikola Jokić: How Did They Get There?

by Tate Hutchinson

Since their merger to the NBA in 1976, the Denver Nuggets had never reached the pinnacle of NBA success, with no NBA Finals appearances in their franchise’s history. Denver was a frequent playoff contender in the 1980s led by the franchise scoring leader, Alex English. Drafting Carmelo Anthony in 2003 led to a run of 10 straight playoff appearances, but they never quite reached their ultimate goal. The man who would lead them to greatness turned out to be an unhyped Serbian center with the 41st pick in 2014, selected during a burrito commercial. It seems no one expected Nikola Jokić to reach superstar status, but nine years later, he would lead the Denver Nuggets to their first-ever championship.

The top seed in the Western Conference, the Nuggets tore through the regular season with a 53-29 record. Denver’s strong front office constructed a contending team with home-grown talent and complementary role players through trades.

Their leader and Finals MVP, Nikola Jokić, made his debut in 2015, quickly taking over the starting center position from Jusuf Nurkić in his second season. Jokić continued to rise up in usage, his generational playmaking skills growing until he broke out in 2018-19, an All-Star and All-NBA player with 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game. The Nuggets were able to advance in the playoffs in four of the next five years under Jokić’s leadership.

Denver’s next building block was Jamal Murray, a playmaking and scoring guard drafted 7th overall in 2016. An All-Rookie recipient, Murray continued to increase his scoring each year, showing flashes of incredible play in the 2020 postseason. He went toe-to-toe with Donovan Mitchell in a duel for the ages, even dropping 50 against the Jazz to force a Game 7 in the Conference Semifinals. Suffering a brutal ACL injury just before the 2021 Playoffs, the Nuggets were not able to fill in for his scoring, failing to advance far in the two following seasons due to his absence. Upon Murray’s return from the injury in 2022, Denver was rejuvenated with the hopes of a fully healthy team contending for their first championship.

With concerns of back injuries, forward Michael Porter Jr. fell into the Nuggets’ lap in the 2018 draft at 14th overall. Despite missing 204 of the Nuggets’ 391 possible games since entering the league, his scoring upside was undeniable. Averaging over 17 points per game when healthy, Porter’s health would be a make-or-break piece when the playoffs came around.

Beyond these crucial draft picks, Nuggets president Tim Connelly built through smart trading. High-flying forward Aaron Gordon was acquired from Orlando in 2021, with his rim pressure and strong team defense fitting in perfectly with a scoring-focused core. On the night of the 2022 Draft, the Nuggets dealt their backup point guard Monte Morris to acquire NBA Champion wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. His shooting, perimeter defense, and veteran pedigree slotted him in as the perfect shooting guard to round out the starting lineup.

Denver’s starters were, by far, the best lineup in the NBA in both the regular season and the playoffs. Their season net rating of 13.1 indicates the lineup scores over 13 more points per game than an average lineup would. The next highest? Only 7.9.

The Nuggets, as the top seed, faced the play-in qualifier Minnesota Timberwolves. Despite the addition of defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert, the growing young scorer Anthony Edwards, and the size and shooting of Karl-Anthony Towns, Denver advanced in a comfortable five games.

They then moved on to face a contending Phoenix team led by superstars Devin Booker and Kevin Durant. While many covering the league expected a very difficult series against a pair of offensive juggernauts, the Nuggets’ all-around talent eclipsed the Suns, winning in six games.

It was then onto a rematch of the 2020 Conference Finals, with the Nuggets seeking revenge on the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, led by the perennially elite LeBron James and Anthony Davis. However, unlike the “bubble” playoffs, this iteration of the Nuggets proved to be far too much, with Denver cruising to the NBA Finals in a sweep.

One week after they booked their Finals ticket, the Nuggets found out their opponent. The Cinderella story of the postseason, the eighth-seeded Miami Heat, toughed out a Game 7 versus Boston, quelling concerns of a never-before-seen blown 3-0 series lead. In their five-game series win, the Nuggets were finally able to calm the playoff breakout of the Heat’s notorious “Jimmy Buckets,” who they held to under 30 points in every game of the 2023 Finals.

Jokić put up legendary numbers in their victory, with averages of 30.2 points, 14.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game, the first player in NBA history to reach these numbers in a playoff series. Jokić alone led the playoffs in total points, rebounds, and assists. Jamal Murray’s playmaking was key, as he joined only three other players in NBA Finals history with four 15 point/10 assist games in the series. Aaron Gordon and bench forward Bruce Brown stepped up their scoring, pouring in a crucial 27 and 21 respective points to ice their Game 4 victory. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope averaged over a block and a steal per game, and Michael Porter, Jr. put up an excellent 8.4 rebounds per game.

As free agency approaches, the Nuggets are poised to only add to their excellent roster. With their core lineup all under contract for two more seasons, their only impending free agency decision is with playoff-rising newcomer Bruce Brown, who is looking to command a high-value multi-year deal. With many suitors for Brown, the Nuggets should plan to replace his production in the open market.

Additionally, the Nuggets can now expand the roles of second-year players Christian Braun and Peyton Watson alongside new draftees Julian Strawther and Jalen Pickett, hoping their development can fill the gaps lost in free agency. With such a well-constructed core of players, the Nuggets’ championship window will carry on as long as a superstar like Jokić is leading the way.

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