The 2023-24 NBA season is near, so at the end of another eventful summer we take our annual trip too close to the sun, daring you to stand the swelter of these views. This is Hot Takes We Might Actually Believe.
We do not discuss enough just how dominant the Denver Nuggets’ championship run was last season.
The Nuggets played a single Game 6, never faced a Game 7 and lost once in the last two rounds, finishing the playoffs with a 16-4 record and 8.7 net rating, both of which would have led the NBA by a wide margin in the regular season, and three of the four losses were one-possession games inside the final 30 seconds.
Since the playoffs expanded to four rounds in 1984, only seven other championship cores have won 80% of their postseason games: Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics (15-3, 1986), Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers (15-3, 1987), Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons (15-2, 1989), Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls (15-2, 1991; 15-3, 1996), Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs (15-2, 1999; 16-4, 2007), Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers (15-1, 2001) and Stephen Curry‘s Golden State Warriors (16-1, 2017). Detroit’s two titles are the fewest among those squads.
So, yeah, the Nuggets could absolutely be a dynasty in the making.
First, they have a player by the name of Nikola Jokić. Perhaps you have heard of him. He has finished first, first and second in the last three MVP races, and he just averaged an absurd 30-14-10 in the postseason. For perspective, only 15 others in NBA history have even averaged a 15-7-5 on the way to a championship, and each one eligible for the Hall of Fame is enshrined. Eleven won multiple titles; half won four or more.
To say Jokić is doing things on a basketball court we have never before seen is an understatement. He might be the league’s best scorer and facilitator, as evidenced by his league-best efficiency last season (70.1 true shooting percentage) and every ridiculous pass he threads to a teammate as he gets open. He is a 7-footer who shot 46% from deep and 70% inside the restricted area throughout the postseason. Jokić’s playoff player efficiency rating (31.2) is second among champions only to 1991 Michael Jordan. Maybe you have heard of him, too. That was the first of Jordan’s six championships over the next eight seasons.
The Nuggets have built a near-perfect roster around Jokić. The returning starting lineup, featuring Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, outscored opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions, the equivalent of Jordan’s 72-win Bulls from 1996. And they can play better.
Murray, who was phenomenal throughout the playoffs, spent much of the regular season finding his rhythm in a return from ACL surgery. His first All-Star campaign is ahead of him. Porter shot well below (35%) his career 3-point shooting percentage (42%) in the playoffs and worse in the Finals. He is 25 years old and has another level to reach. Gordon returns with the confidence he can absolutely bully smaller lineups on the game’s biggest stage. His strength and athleticism are honed weapons now.
The Nuggets did lose Bruce Brown and Jeff Green from the rotation. Brown, in particular, was integral to Denver’s success. The two of them combined for 16.1 points (on 50/32/87 shooting splits), 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 45.7 minutes per game during the playoffs. This is not irreplaceable production, since the Nuggets have Christian Braun and Zeke Nnaji waiting in the wings. Braun gained more playoff experience than any other rookie last season, and we saw him take over Game 3 of the Finals for a stretch. Nnaji entered the NBA three years ago at age 19 and has shown flashes as a floor spacer and versatile defender.
You forget that Colorado native Reggie Jackson is on the Nuggets. He joined them once he was waived by the Los Angeles Clippers and made only a brief cameo in the Finals. With a full training camp to assimilate into Denver’s system, Jackson should at least be able to fill the point guard part of Brown’s responsibilities.
Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth has also done well to stock the end of the bench with young and cost-effective talent. The organization has high hopes for second-year guard Peyton Watson, and Booth drafted three upperclassmen between pick Nos. 29-37 — wings Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson — anticipating that at least one might become some facsimile of what Braun contributed as a rookie.
Besides, what did Denver’s Western Conference rivals do to improve? The Phoenix Suns added Bradley Beal to Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, banking on a three-time All-Star to close the gap on Denver’s six-game, second-round playoff victory over them last season. The Suns will score a ton, but can they stop a Nuggets offense that outperformed the vaunted 2017 Warriors in the playoffs, scoring 119.5 points per 100 possessions? Can Phoenix trust Jusuf Nurkić to 1) stay healthy and 2) offer any resistance against Jokić?
Beyond the Suns, does a 38-year-old Chris Paul make the Golden State Warriors any more formidable against a Denver team that swept them last regular season? Can Gabe Vincent do for the Los Angeles Lakers what he did for the Miami Heat against the Nuggets and steal a single game in a series?
Likely either the Boston Celtics or Milwaukee Bucks await on the other side of the bracket, and both might be favored against the Nuggets. The Eastern Conference favorites reloaded to unseat the Heat, but they need to rise two levels to meet Denver. There is an air about a champion — the certainty that you have done it before and can again — and that is a frightening thought for a team that dominated its first run to a title.
Giannis Antetokounmpo knows all about that feeling. The championship may come down to who is better, Antetokounmpo or Jokić, and my money is on the reigning Finals MVP to join Curry, James and Kobe Bryant as recent leaders of back-to-back NBA champions — the next brick on Denver’s path to a dynasty.
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