The Denver Nuggets are playing the disrespect card despite being the No. 1 seed who won the Western Conference Finals with a two-time MVP. Their claim is that no one has paid attention to them, that they aren’t treated as a legit contender and are constantly talking about other teams relative to them. After Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, which they would eventually sweep, the conversation was about if the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers had “figured them out.”
And the media has had it.
There’s been pushback in recent days, most notably in this clip from Chris Mannix:
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix talks the Denver Nuggets media gripe.
“they’re just not a compelling team to talk about – to write about”
Worth noting that @SIChrisMannix and his cohort are compelled by attention. And financial return. They peddle NBA sugar, not basketball. pic.twitter.com/RSLKMbb2dl
— n i k o l a e s t h e t i c (@nikolaesthetic) May 25, 2023
Implicitly, the idea is that the Nuggets are “just” a great basketball team, as if that’s not enough to warrant attention.
As someone who has covered the Nuggets as my local squad for the past 11 years, I have a pretty good sense of what’s interesting about this team, so I thought I’d share those things with you.
1. Nikola Jokic would rather be horse riding.
The fact that Jokic likes horses has been out there. But you really need to understand how much he loves it. His horse, Dreamcatcher, won a race in Serbia. The ribbon for that has hung in his locker.
But more to the point, as someone who has covered him for the duration of his career … I think he likes it more. I think he loves high-level basketball, which is why he likes the playoffs. But Jokic’s preferred life would likely be spending time with his horses in Serbia.
You can’t become as great of a player as he is without being super competitive, without wanting to be great. His work ethic has evolved over the years to something different altogether, and his coaches and teammates rave about it. Jokic puts in the work to be great.
But that’s what it is: work. He loves horses, and he loves Serbia.
2. The depths of Jokic’s aversion to credit cannot be overstated.
Jokic has resisted being described as the team’s best player from the very beginning. It was admirable and lovable when he was clearly the best player circa the team’s first playoff run in 2019. It was a little more “this might be working against you” in 2020.
He stopped rejecting the notion as much in 2021 and 2022, but even in these playoffs, he made a reference to it. He still does not seem to think he is, or that the question is even substantive as if there can’t be a best player on the team.
One of the reasons Jokic doesn’t get as much credit as other MVP candidates despite winning two? He doesn’t want it. In the last two seasons, there were in-depth profiles of Joel Embiid in The Athletic and Sports Illustrated the month before the MVP vote. Do you think the timing on those was coincidental?
“They put me in this situation…I’m just first among the equals.”
Nikola Jokic emphasizes the efforts of his @nuggets teammates as he’s named Western Conference Finals MVP and presented with the Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson Trophy! pic.twitter.com/JF7iq3obdk
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
It is, on the other hand, pulling teeth to get Jokic to come to the podium for postgame pressers — though he answers with as much insight as he can muster and is always courteous, ending every presser with, “Thank you guys, a pleasure like always,” which he certainly does not mean. He has rejected requests for one-on-one interviews with just about every major outlet.
Some of this is just the way he approaches life and the little patience he has for attention. Some of this is drawn culturally, coming from a European approach to sports which is dissimilar to the American approach.
And some of it was a challenge he needed to overcome. The Nuggets look to him. He’s their leader, the way all great players are for their teams. In Game 3, when Jokic took the clipboard and was drawing up plays late, that’s leadership we would never have seen from him early in his career. It’s a sign of where he’s evolved to. He’s become the leader Denver needed.
3. After the Nuggets were beaten in Game 7 vs. Portland in Jokic’s first playoff run (2019), he apologized postgame.
Head coach Michael Malone said Jokic took responsibility for the loss in the coach’s office. The relationship between Jokic and Malone is simply not the same as it is with a lot of superstars.
Certainly, some of that has changed four years later, with Jokic older, a two-time MVP and a superstar on a max contract. But much of the relationship stays the same.
Jokic is coachable, the same way Tim Duncan was, and that brings a lot to the table.
4. Jokic doesn’t tactically consider matchups.
One time, a colleague was going to ask Jokic about his approach in a matchup. I tried to tell him it was a waste of time because Jokic isn’t strategic. He doesn’t enter games with the intention to score early or pass early. He reads the game and makes the play.
I said, “He’s a bird.”
Birds are incredibly smart creatures based on their instincts and built across networks of communication. Their flight patterns are not random, they are instinctual.
This may or may not have led to me singing Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” in the locker room when someone attempts to get Jokic to break down the game analytically.
That’s Jokic. If you bring the double from top side, he’s going to kick to the outside shooter. If you help on the weak side, he’s going to sense it — I still don’t know how — and whip a pass to the corner shooter. If you leave him one-on-one and stunt to take away his cutting lanes, he’s going to score one-on-one.
Jokic makes it sound incredibly simple. It’s not. He’s doing advanced quantum mechanics on the fly instinctually and is almost always right.
5. Jokic is deceptive.
When Michael Porter Jr. first got to training camp, he was confused about the hype. He thought (backup center) Mason Plumlee was the best center in those days. He learned pretty quickly.
6. Jokic once asked to be benched.
When the team was struggling in 2017, trying to play Jokic and fellow big man Jusuf Nurkic together, Jokic went to Malone and asked to be benched. He felt there wasn’t room for them both to play their games together and that since he didn’t care, he would come off the bench. Malone acquiesced to the request.
The results, predictably, were terrible, and on Dec. 15, Jokic was reinserted into the starting lineup. The rest is history.
Dec. 15 is now celebrated as “Jokmas” by Nuggets fans.
7. Jokic was drafted during a Taco Bell commercial.
No, seriously. ESPN was playing a Taco Bell commercial when Denver’s selection was made and listed on the screen.
8. Jokic breaks a lot of models.
The statistical arguments for him through the years have been bonkers. #NotSinceWilt is used often when Wilt Chamberlain’s accomplishments should not be considered possible in the modern era. A fun one for these playoffs is that Jokic is only the third player to have 440-plus points, 150-plus assists and (after Game 1 of the Finals) 200+ rebounds in a single playoff run. He’s accomplished those marks in five fewer games than the next guy.
Jokic has 449 points, 154 assists, and 199 rebounds
He’ll get another board, so here are the only players with 440 points, 150 assists and 200 rebounds in a single playoff run in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/HVHLB1OasF
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 25, 2023
9. Jamal Murray went through hell trying to get back from his ACL tear.
The original thought internally by the Nuggets was that he might be back by February of last season. But pretty early on, it became clear that wasn’t the case. (I mistakenly reported there was still an internal optimism towards that as late as January.)
Murray faced a lot of problems during his recovery, but none more so than the mental side of it. He had never been challenged the way he had with powering through the fear of re-injury. Ultimately, he returned to start this season, and along the way, he kept making note of the small steps. First road game. First 30-point game. First back-to-back. First playoff game.
Murray’s glad to have put that behind him, but it was a brutal experience for him. The fact that he averaged 30 points on 50-40-90 shooting in the conference finals, the first player to ever do so — due to Stephen Curry’s 3-point volume dragging down his overall FG% — is a testament to the work he put in.
Malone mentioned this recently, but in reality, he talked about it before the season. Murray cried after he suffered the injury in a meeting, asking if the team was going to trade him as “damaged goods.”
Murray’s the most fierce competitor on the Nuggets, often surly and angry after great games and insightful and open after bad ones.
What he’s done to recover from his injury in the time he has is truly remarkable.
10. Murray is big on mindfulness.
He’s a practitioner of meditation. He studied Bruce Lee as a kid with his father to work on mental toughness.
A running gag about Murray among Nuggets media whenever he tweaks an ankle is he’s about to go off. He seems to play better banged up.
Murray’s focus is razor sharp and it’s a big reason the Nuggets are in the NBA Finals.
11. Michael Porter Jr. is the ultimate story of walking the walk.
MPJ was a high school phenom. He was one of the most highly touted recruits in the country when he signed with Mizzou, only to suffer one of many back injuries and miss essentially the entire season.
He redshirted his rookie season after being drafted by Denver. Late that season, he was in a shooting competition with Will Barton while the media spoke with Michael Malone.
Barton was on fire, nailing everything — except MPJ was matching him constantly. Barton looked at me and said, “You seeing this shit?”
Flash forward to the next training camp. When asked what he was excited to see from Porter this season, veteran Paul Millsap said, “Whether he’s as good as he’s constantly telling us he is.”
MPJ is a born scorer. He’s 6-foot-10 with 50-40-90 capability shooting — he “only” shot 49-41-80 this season. He had to work to get a chance his rookie season, and when he did, was dropping 30-point games. But he would be yanked out of the rotation for mistakes.
To be clear, these mistakes frustrated his teammates, too. He would be lost on offensive possessions in terms of where he was supposed to be. He would lose opponents on defense constantly. And he was constantly held accountable for those mistakes in a way veterans weren’t. It created friction.
It wasn’t clear if Porter would ever go beyond being an individually great shooter who couldn’t operate in a team concept.
Until this season.
Porter, from Day 1, dedicated himself to the things the team asked of him. He sprinted to the corners on fastbreaks to spread the floor. He rebounded at a high level (5.5 per game). And defensively, he simply made fewer mistakes. He stayed locked in.
For years, MPJ has told us he doesn’t care about being a star, he just wants to win. That’s easier when you’re doing that on a max contract, which he signed 18 months ago, but the point remains. Porter has stepped up to be a star scorer when needed and contributed in other ways on every play. He’s an amazing story of what happens when a star talent commits himself to be the best player his team needs him to be.
12. Aaron Gordon proved everyone wrong.
After nearly winning the dunk contest, Gordon put himself on the map a little bit. But in Orlando, he was trying to be a superstar. One executive said before the Nuggets traded for him, “He thinks of himself as Kawhi [Leonard] when he’s more Shawn Marion.”
It was a concern when the Nuggets made their “big move” in trading longtime starter and favorite Gary Harris for him along with draft capital. Gordon was in a contract year, looking for $100 million as a star player. Would he fit?
He did. Brilliantly. Gordon dedicated himself to doing all the things a team needs to win. He’s the Nuggets’ best defender and a solid rebounder. He learned to play with Jokic in the year-and-a-half Murray missed and developed a chemistry with him that tears up teams that switch and play at the perimeter without rim protection.
Gordon wasn’t selected as an All-Star this season and was pretty disappointed. But his contributions have gotten the Nuggets to the Finals.
13. Bruce Brown was what Denver needed.
Brown has been the connector Denver needed the whole way. He plays brilliantly next to Jokic. In the minutes without Jokic, he’s taken to running full sprint to attack the basket in transition, straight line. I’ve taken to calling it “Fullback Dive” because there’s nothing fancy or complicated, and it’s just what the team needs, just like if they’re on the goal line. Just someone to plow ahead.
Brown is a smart player who made his team better when he was in Brooklyn. He came to Denver, in part, because of the recommendation of former Nets teammate Jeff Green.
The Nuggets are limited by the CBA in offering Brown more than $10 million this summer should he opt out of his player option. This will probably be his only season with Denver given what he will command on the market as a guy who clearly is a winner no matter where he goes.
But he was also a brilliant move by a front office with a large starting payroll trying to find the right pieces to complete a contender.
14. Brown is super into country.
He wears cowboy hats and jeans to the arena and postgame pressers. His pregame workouts are sometimes accompanied by country music. If the Nuggets face the Heat in the Finals, it’ll be a point across to Jimmy Butler given his appreciation for country music.
15. Speaking of Jeff Green, he’s been a big part of this group. Green went from hyped prospect to OKC, to trade piece for Kendrick Perkins, to disappointing Celtic, to disappointing Grizzly, to Clipper to Net to Nugget.
Green’s arc is fascinating considering he had heart surgery early in his career and has managed to carve out a 15-year career. It was a terrifying thing he had to recover from, and he’s been a consummate professional through it.
On top of recruiting Bruce Brown, he also recruited DeAndre Jordan to the Nuggets. That may sound like nothing given that Jordan’s not a key player and was removed from the rotation by Christmas. (Though he has had some big moments, like in a win over Cleveland at home.)
Jordan has been an incredible veteran presence on this team. He’s always counseling young players on the bench. He worked with Zeke Nnaji on how to play drop defense. He’s had the ear of players like MPJ and Christian Braun through slumps.
Green and Jordan are the kinds of players who help make a locker room despite not being the kind of on-court stars that fans dazzle over.
“Bust his a*s, Jok! Bust his a*s, Jok!”
DeAndre Jordan was enjoying this 1-on-1 matchup between Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets assistant coach during warm-ups 🤣pic.twitter.com/Csyd6Vj22H
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 20, 2023
16. Christian Braun is going to play a long time.
From the first postgame interview I did with Braun, I walked back in the media room and said, “That kid is going to play for 12 years in this league, at least.” He’s a winner, having won in high school, then a national championship at Kansas, and now is in the NBA Finals.
It’s not that Michael Malone as a rule doesn’t play rookies, but for a team contending, you had better not make many mistakes. And Bruan hasn’t. He’s been a rotation player on a team with championship aspirations in his rookie season. That’s rare.
17. The Kroenkes are winning despite a lot of resentment.
The Rams won the Super Bowl in 2022. The Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2022. The Nuggets are in the Finals.
Kroenke Sports and Entertainment is winning a lot for how they’re perceived.
I would be lying to you if I said I don’t think they deserve criticism. The Nuggets are one of the very few teams not to have a practice facility. They don’t have enough baskets in their arena second-floor facility to always have room for the work they want to do.
They let the 2013 Executive of the Year (Masai Ujiri) walk and the 2013 Coach of the Year (George Karl) walk, both due to contract concerns. (There were other reasons for a change when it came to Karl, including postseason failures, but his contract was a big reason.) The same thing happened with Tim Connelly in 2022.
The team hasn’t been able to broadcast their games on local cable, the largest television provider in the state by far, for three years due to a contract dispute they refuse to let go of. They are not the only team facing this issue; RSNs are a crisis for the league as a whole. But it’s been tough for their own fans to see Jokic’s three-year MVP-caliber run.
Nuggets ownership has a reputation around the league for frugality. That’s just a reality. But they’re also four wins away from their third organizational championship in two years. It’s difficult to criticize the way they’ve operated. They’ve just won.
18. Learn the Sombor Shuffle.
That crazy shot no one could believe in Game 4 vs. Anthony Davis captured the attention of lots of folks.
What was funny was the reaction afterwards. Lakers fans asked: “How many times is he ever going to hit that?” Podcast hosts marveled over this entirely new shot that had never been attempted.
Except it has. It’s the Sombor Shuffle.
The term was invented by the good folks over at DenverStiffs.com years ago to describe the move.
This shot is absolutely in Jokic’s repertoire, and it never ceases to amaze. He doesn’t always go to it, but man, when he does, it feels automatic.
19. The Nuggets bench makes the “mine” noise from the seagulls in “Finding Nemo” when Michael Porter Jr. does something.
That’s it. That’s the thing.
20. Meet superfan Vicki Ray.
That’s it, that’s the other thing.
21. Head strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger is one of the most important people in Nuggets history.
It was Eichenberger who got Jokic to dedicate himself to getting in shape. Jokic was out of shape early in the season and started doing postgame workouts in both weights and sprints. The result had two effects:
- Jokic lost a ton of weight, which put him into MVP mode.
- It helped Jokic become one of the best-conditioned athletes in the game. You may laugh at that because of how he looks, but think about Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, when Jokic was grabbing the ball and racing down the floor, outpacing Anthony Davis by multiple steps.
Eichenberger’s work with Jokic has been transformational. He’s also one of the first to tell Jokic, despite Jokic’s protests, that he would be MVP.
22. Michael Malone still doesn’t wear purple.
Malone was deeply hurt after being fired from the Kings in 2014 despite an excellent start that was derailed when DeMarcus Cousins came down with meningitis. It’s stuck with him bitterly. He still refuses to wear purple after the experience.
This is part of Malone’s identity, though. He’s the son of an NBA coach. He’s been in the league since 2004. He almost became a state trooper before getting his first coaching job offer. He’s a lifer, the son of a lifer in the NBA. He’s coached LeBron James, Chris Paul and Jokic.
In an era where so many coaches don’t last beyond 2-3 seasons, Malone has taken the Nuggets to their first Finals in his eighth season with the team. It’s a testament to the club’s belief in him and the success he’s had that he’s still here.
23. Denver hasn’t talked championship until they reached the moment.
I tried. I really did. I asked Jamal Murray in January if this was the best team he’s been on.
“I dunno, that Bubble team was great,” Murray said.
I asked Aaron Gordon if this team could win a championship in February.
“We have to keep our minds on what’s in front of us, and that’s the next game,” Gordon said.
Denver barely mentioned the word “championship” until they got past the Suns. Their collective message is that they can’t talk about it; they have to be about it. They’ve held to that. It’s one reason why they make fewer headlines; they haven’t put the cart before the horse.
24. Denver has the same defensive rating in the playoffs as the Miami Heat (eighth best), with all teams above them eliminated.
There has been this constant idea that teams would tear up the Jokic pick and roll and that Denver’s defense was terrible. They were 15th in the regular season, but in the stretch where they really put the hammer down to secure the first seed? They were sixth for a three-month stretch.
Denver’s capacity of defense in the playoffs has always been better than people realize. It’s less about overall capability or defensive talent level and more about ability to solve problems. The Nuggets attack offensive weaknesses and mitigate offensive strengths.
For all the conversation about Denver’s defense, it doesn’t need to be elite for them to win a title. It just has to be good enough for the offense to win the title. So far, it has been.
25. The Nuggets were +2000 to win the title in July.
If they win it all, it won’t be a massive surprise. They had a win total of 51.5 at close and were the No. 1 team in the West for a while. But maybe that’s the point. None of this should be surprising.
This might be the Nuggets’ second or third Finals appearance had Murray not been injured. But they’re here now and it’s time that whoever is left sleeping on them wakes up to this new force in the NBA title picture.