Under the radar no more

Published June 15, 2023, 9:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

Winning the championship will finally give the Denver Nuggets the recognition they deserve.

Let’s face it. The Denver Nuggets weren’t the most exciting team to follow during this year’s playoffs.

They don’t have a rich history that some other playoff teams have. Teams like the Boston Celtics, LA Lakers, and Golden State Warriors have won multiple championships and have built winning traditions that their generations of fans can be proud of.

The Nuggets also didn’t have a brand name superstar to lead the charge. Nikola Jokic may be a two-time MVP and widely considered as one of the top three players in the league but when it comes to sheer popularity, he doesn’t even crack the top five. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and hell, even Jimmy Butler trump him when it comes to instant recognition.

Denver also didn’t have the most interesting storyline in these playoffs. Their NBA Finals opponents, the Miami Heat, had an improbable run. The Heat were the first play-in team and only the second eighth seed in NBA history to make it to the finals. That was a story that casual fans easily bought into because it was written like a movie.

There’s a reason Coach Mike Malone was ranting about the media mileage his team was getting. Even after they took out the best their conference had to offer, the Nuggets making their first NBA Finals appearance still wasn’t the topic of conversation. It was the Heat. Or the Celtics. Or the Lakers, the team they swept.

Well, now that the confetti has fallen and the champagne has dried up, the Nuggets are finally getting the shine that they rightfully deserve. They proved that you don’t need all that to win a championship.

Who needs a storyline, when you have a virtually unbeatable system?

The Nuggets faced all kinds of teams in these playoffs. They went up against All-Star caliber big men, legendary players, red-hot scorers, tough defenses, and even a team with unbelievable momentum. All the teams that they went through on the way to their first championship posed different kinds of challenges. These teams pulled out all the stops. But in the end, none of it mattered. The Nuggets had an answer to everything that was thrown their way.

That system was built from several years of continuity. This is a team that experienced years of falling short of a championship. Rather than try to find the quick way to a title, they went through the longer, harder grind to get it. 

They didn’t cut bait when Murray got injured. They stayed with him believing that he was the team’s clear-cut second-best player. They stuck with Michael Porter Jr. through his injury. They stuck with Aaron Gordon through his struggles. They believed in their core and put the right players around that group. In the end, it all paid off.

When their best player was out of the game, their second-best player seamlessly stepped in to lead. When Jokic and Murray were struggling, all the other players carried a heavier load to lift the entire team. Jokic and Murray had their moments. But so did Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun. It was obvious by the end that the Nuggets just had no glaring weakness. 

Jokic also proved that brand name recognition doesn’t matter when you can utterly dominate the entire field. The proof is in the numbers. He finished the postseason as the first player in NBA history to lead all players in total points, rebounds, and assists. He’s in a stratosphere that his more popular opponents—James, Durant, Curry, Antetokounmpo, or Butler—have never reached.

Jokic has also made sure to put his stamp on this year’s playoffs with some iconic moments and huge performances. 

He exorcised the demons of 2020 when he carried the Nuggets to the finals past the Lakers, the team that eliminated them three years ago. The play that got them over the Lakers was a strong drive that gave Denver the lead for good. He scored on that play over Anthony Davis, the same player that tormented him in 2020.

In the finals, Jokic and Murray made history as the first players in NBA history to record a 30-point triple-double in the same game. Jokic’s 32-21-10 line was also the first 30-20-10 triple-double in NBA Finals history.

With this championship, the Nuggets finally have a championship tradition that they can brandish around the league. With the way this team is built and how they’re being run, this championship might end up being the first of many. 

Jokic is only getting better. Murray has proven to be a 16-game player. Porter Jr., Gordon, and the rest of the team fit so perfectly next to their two best players. Even veteran players like Jeff Green, Ish Smith, and DeAndre Jordan were solid locker room guys that galvanized the team. Everyone on the team had their moments to shine.

Before the season began, the Nuggets were a dark horse to win the championship, now they’re the favorites to repeat. Which they most likely will do, only making their winning history as a franchise even richer.

So yeah, the Nuggets were boring. They performed just like everyone expected them to. There was no unnecessary drama during their championship run. They won the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the most business-like manner possible. They did their jobs, and they can “go home now.”