DENVER — It’s had 3,787 regular-season games and 29 playoff trips, countless rainbow-shirt scandals and even more yes—but more than any city can tolerate. In conclusion, 47 seasons in an engrossing, often frustrating and almost always overlooked journey nba Denver is at the center of the basketball world.
The Nuggets—yes, the sometimes lovable, often forgettable Nuggets—are in the NBA Finals.
The way they did that says everything about their nearly half-century in the league, and how different this team is from all the Denver teams, even the really good ones, that came before it.
The Nuggets put aside their long-standing irrelevance by completing their first sweep in 44 NBA playoff series. He did it against the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that has caused him so much pain. Prior to the Western Conference Finals, Denver was 0–7 in the playoff series against the Lakers. Now, Denver is 1-7.
“It’s almost like a shock,” said Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon, echoing a sentiment surely felt by long-suffering fans of the franchise. “You’re kind of insecure, like, are you sure we don’t have more time on the clock? Are you sure we don’t have another quarter or another game to play?
With all due respect to Dan Issel, Alex English, Carmelo Anthony and everyone else who has ever worn the rainbow, Nikola Jokic is the best player to wear a Denver uniform. He recorded his eighth triple-double of the playoffs in a 113–111 win over Los Angeles on Monday night, surpassing a single postseason record held by none other than Lakers great Wilt Chamberlain.
Jokic, who fell 0.2 assists short of averaging a triple-double this season, was beaten out by Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid for MVP for the third time in a row this season. Fans see everything as par for the course in a city where the team that debuted in the ABA as the Denver Rockets, not the more well-known and respected Denver Broncos, really put the city on the national sports map. That was in 1967. The Broncos were still a laughing stock, but the local basketball team immediately produced a good product.
When the ABA folded in 1976 and the NBA was searching through the rubble to invite some teams to join, that was good enough to make the Nuggets a no-brainer.
Between then and now, the city has seen its share of the spotlight. John Elway has won two Super Bowl titles and Peyton Manning has one more. The Colorado Avalanche, which shares a home (ball arena) and owner (Stan Kroenke) with the Nuggets, has won Stanley Cup hockey three times, including last year. Even the Colorado Rockies have gone to the World Series. The Nuggets’ only trip so close to the title was in 1976, when they lost to Julius Erving and the Nets in the last ABA Finals.
David Thompson; Larry Brown; Dagmo; English; Issel; Antonio; Jorge Carlos; Allen Iverson; Chauncey Billups. All of those coaches and players spent time in Denver. No one came close to that NBA title trophy as long as he was here. Prior to this week, Denver had reached the NBA Conference Finals four times and lost all four times.
They conspired to make the place little more than a flyover area, a high-altitude city that programmers often included in other teams’ itineraries as part of long road trips to more exciting final destinations: Los Angeles, New York ., Miami.
But Denver? It was a great place for teams to take the night off or, more diplomatically, to practice the 21st century NBA practice of “load management” for their best players.
While NBA titles, and the fanfare that goes with them, have rested on the shoulders of megastars for decades, the Nuggets were never a part of that scene.
In fact, Jokic was the exact opposite when he arrived in 2014. Rather, he was a second-round draft pick known to pundits only after the Serbian rim scene.
“Everybody gets excited about his stats, but I don’t think a lot of people talk about this part of his game,” Lakers’ LeBron James points to his head after the sweep of Jokic indicated the dominance of of the brain part of the eyes. “Maybe they don’t talk about it, because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special”.
As great as Jokic has been, it’s the addition of another under-the-radar player, guard Jamal Murray, and his return to health that helped propel this team to the top.
Murray was drafted in the Kentucky Lottery in 2016, the year Ben Simmons was the first pick and considered the NBA’s next big thing. Murray burst into the bubble during COVID, leading Denver to a series of Finals appearances, only to see the Lakers shut down another season. He missed the next two playoffs due to a serious knee injury. These playoffs, Murray feels great. He averaged 32.5 points in a four-game sweep of Los Angeles.
“I think the way we play, the way we read the game without speaking, our chemistry is at an all-time high,” Murray said. “We speak that language in court.”
“It’s just beautiful basketball, honestly.”
With the Nuggets in their first NBA Finals after so many years, it would be hard to find anyone in Denver who would argue with that.