This year the NBA Finals does not feature super teams or legacy defining clashes, but instead a matchup of two teams that have taken two very different paths to success
It is often said that the NBA is a league of stars, and to win in this league you need multiple stars on your team. With a few exceptions (1979 Seattle SuperSonics and 2004 Detroit Pistons), this is mostly true. But what it also suggests is that there is only one way to win and one way to reach the Finals. Since the year 2000, 39 of the possible 46 Finals participants were top 3 seeds in their conference.
It has been understood that lower seeds in the playoffs were there to show a possibility of success, but were ultimately good for one shocking first round upset or as a tune up for the truly great teams in the league. But this year's Finals are different. In the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat we have a clash between two paths. There is the slow build of Denver that was the best team in the Western Conference all year, going up against a team that barely made it out of the play-in tournament in the Heat. In the grand scheme of things, this Finals shows the basketball-watching world that there is more than one way to find success in this league.
The Denver Nuggets and the Traditional Path
The Denver Nuggets are a team with a story that we have seen before. The Nuggets have a superstar player in Nikola Jokic who is at the peak of his powers, with a homegrown supporting cast of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. that were developed by the team and fully healthy. Mix in some key role players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Aaron Gordon and you have a team that was the best in the Western Conference this season with a 53-29 record.
Now firmly in the Jokic era, the Nuggets are in their 5th consecutive playoff appearance and finally a Finals breakthrough after losing in the first round last year, making the conference finals in 2020, and two second round exits in between that conference finals appearance. This is a team that has steadily improved, with a player that has won league MVP twice. The team has won over 46 games every single season in this 5 year stretch. If there’s one thing that the Nuggets don’t do it’s take the regular season lightly.
And in today’s NBA that’s a bigger deal than you might imagine. All of the Nuggets core rotation players played over 56 games this season, and the team prided itself on a deep roster to maintain its position throughout the regular season into the playoffs. In a league that has become known for load management and disregarding the importance of winning regular season games, the Nuggets are the type of team that the NBA should feel is a poster child for the mentality of a franchise.
What the Nuggets prove in this league is that seeding matters, that winning regular season games matter. Being the number one seed meant that they played the average Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round as opposed to the dangerous Los Angeles Lakers, who they played in the Conference Finals. It meant having home court advantage throughout the playoffs in an arena where they have been excellent all season (the team had a 34-7 record at home this season). So as league critics bemoan the regular season and how little it means in the grand scheme of crowning a champion, the Nuggets are the counter to that argument. That is a stark contrast to the road that their opponent in the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat, have taken to get where they are.
The Miami Heat and a Most Unlikely Run
The NBA a number of years ago had a problem on its hands. Teams would be midway through the season and not want to be stuck in the middle, affectionately known as purgatory, so they would trade their veterans and play a bunch of nondescript young players in an effort to lose games and increase their Draft Lottery odds. That process is called tanking. The NBA has implemented some changes to deter this practice, which in the view of many devalues multiple regular seasons.
There are two notable ways that the league has sought to accomplish this. The first was to flatten the Draft Lottery odds. This meant that the worst team in the NBA went from having a 25% chance at the top pick to now having a 14% chance. The odds of winning the lottery were reduced, thus making losing on purpose a more risky endeavor.
The second measure has been the institution of the Play-In Tournament. This change in playoff format meant that the 7 & 8 seeds in each conference no longer had automatic playoff berths. Instead, they had to survive a double elimination tournament with the 9 & 10 seeds to determine who would advance to the playoffs. The result of this has been more teams fighting for positioning later in the season and fewer teams outright tanking. The play-in has only been around for a few years but it has produced an NBA finalist this season: the Miami Heat.
The Heat’s playoff story is one that is fascinating and likely one of the most historic runs we’ve seen in recent memory. The team looked lost in the regular season. Jimmy Butler appeared to have lost a step, Duncan Robinson was unplayable, and Kyle Lowry looked like a massive mistake. Then they played Atlanta in the first play-in game and lost, which was followed by a near defeat against Chicago that saw Miami squeak into the playoffs. Many people, myself included, thought that they would get swept in the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks. Then everything changed.
Jimmy Butler once suggested that he doesn’t give 100% effort until after the All-Star break. If there was ever any doubt about the validity of that statement, it was removed after the Heat dispatched the Bucks in 5 games. During that series, he averaged 36 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game while shooting 60% from the field and 44% from three. The Heat were only the 5th team that was an 8-seed to beat a 1-seed in the history of the NBA Playoffs. The following round saw a tough 6-game series against the Knicks, which led to a Conference Finals appearance against the Celtics.
This series showed the best and the worst in Miami, a reflection of the rollercoaster ride this season has been for the club. The Heat jumped out to 3-0 series lead, only to then lose three games in a row and flirt with the infamy of being the only team to ever lose a series after being up 3-0. But Game 7 was a victory for the Heat, and they punched their ticket to a matchup with Denver. An outcome that no one saw coming. What is more fascinating, is the way that the Heat did it. While Butler was magnificent against the Bucks, he was incredibly inefficient against the Knicks and above average against the Celtics. It was the Heat’s cadre of undrafted free agents and reclamation projects like Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Max Strus that helped guide the Heat to the Finals. And much like Denver, the Heat have shown a different formula to winning in the NBA. A formula that many have forgotten in the LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant era.
Winning with Continuity and Culture
When the prospect of a Heat vs Nuggets Final became a reality, the thought that entered my head was that this is the perfect series for basketball fans and for fans of great coaching. What it is not, is a great series for people that are stuck on legacy narratives and addicted to debating how LeBron James stacks up to Michael Jordan. We are watching two smart basketball teams, with talented players and high-level coaches. These are teams that have largely forgone the ring-chasing superstar model.
In this series we have two teams with tenured coaches. Mike Malone and Erik Spoelstra are two of the 4 longest tenured coaches in the NBA. In a league that gets rid of the coach as a cautionary measure, the longevity of these two coaches is something notable and a great thing to see. In a way, this is a throwback to years past when experienced coaches were dueling and attempting to outmaneuver one another.
The players in this series are also a deviation from the norm of recent Finals history. Instead of superstars that are teaming up with one another surrounded by over the hill veterans hoping to get a ring, we are seeing the benefits of scouting and smart drafting with both of these teams. Denver has allowed Nikola Jokic to develop into the league's best player, and stayed patient with Jamal Murray to turn into an ideal sidekick. Miami has done an incredible job of scouting players deep in drafts and through undrafted free agency to surround Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo with complementary pieces that fit the identity of the team.
More than all of that, this series sends a message to fans about the NBA. The Nuggets show why winning in the regular season is still something that should be valued. That a team built organically with the right auxiliary pieces that respects the process of winning games and developing its talent can be rewarded. The Heat show the world that the Play-In Tournament can spring a team to new heights to be able to shock the world.
The storylines here are tremendous regardless of which team you are rooting for. If the Nuggets win, Jokic solidifies his place as an all-time great that is in the middle of his prime. The city of Denver will win its first NBA championship, and a team that dominated the regular season will be crowned champions. If the Heat win, we will have witnessed possibly the greatest Finals run in the history of the NBA. With a win in these Finals, Miami will have vanquished three of the top 4 teams in terms of record in the NBA…as an 8-seed. Simply put, that has never been done before. While many casual NBA fans hypothesized that the league wanted a Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers Finals, the reality is that what we received was what the league wanted all along. This Finals matchup is a win for organic development, coaching, scouting, and the Play-In, which should make the league and basketball fans very happy.