The Denver Nuggets are the 2023 NBA Champions. Their victory has inspired plenty of narratives and analysis. This has been true among national pundits, equally so among Portland Trail Blazers fans, looking at their Rocky Mountain neighbors with respect and just a tinge of envy. That kind of query gives us today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag subject.
The Nuggets just won their first ever NBA championship. What can the Blazers learn from this? Here is my first observation: Denver fielded 4 (!!) rookies on this title team. I know Dame has said that he wants veteran players rather than young, inexperienced rookies come next season, but has the Nuggets franchise taught us that a team can win it all with a surplus of talented youth?
My . 02 Cents
Yes. Jump in a DeLorean, hit 88 mph, head back to 2014, and draft Nikola Jokic.
I’ve heard plenty of completely accurate descriptions of why the Nuggets won it all this year. They’re unselfish. The culture is right. They stuck with it, both with players and Head Coach Mike Malone. I will concede that they have shown one of the possible ways a non-marquee team can make their way to a title.
Your specific point about rookies isn’t that strong. The quartet of first-year players ranked 10th, 16th, 17th, and 18th in Denver’s rotation by minutes per game, though Christian Braun jumped to 7th by total minutes. But let’s go with it. We can now establish that having four rookies on the team—and nine players with five or fewer years of experience—is not a bar to winning a championship. It can be done.
All of those things aggregated mean nothing if Jokic isn’t on this team. He makes all of them—and Jamal Murray and Michael Porter, Jr. and Aaron Gordon—relevant.
American Idol judges can give a dozen reasons why a given season’s victor won the crown. They sang with heart and soul on full display. Their jumps between low and high notes were seamless. They inspired fellow contestants and audience members alike. Fair enough. But don’t forget the root reason: They were on American Idol. They could evidence all of those characteristics while busking on the street without winning a single thing. If they don’t get past the producers and onto that stage, their ability won’t produce the desired results.
MVP Candidate Jokic, and a small handful of players like him, are the magic ticket through the gatekeepers into the room where championships are decided. Plenty of NBA teams have culture, a decent supporting staff, good coaching, and lots of youngsters. They don’t have Jokic (or an equivalent) so they don’t have rings.
I do believe it’s possible to get there, or at least get close, without an outright MVP. You can have excellent defense or Playoff Jimmy or some other form of wizardry. But here’s the thing: if you’ve got it, you already know it. You don’t have to guess or hope or explain your way through the gap. If the bouncer has to check the list to see if you’re on it, you already don’t belong. He has to know you on sight.
If you have to ask whether your team has that thing—or an MVP—you don’t. And if you don’t, your rookies and culture aren’t going to matter nearly as much as you think...at least when it comes to the ultimate prize.
We can rationalize all the reasons the Nuggets were able to win the 2023 NBA Championship, decorating the accomplishment with ornaments like a Christmas tree. The only thing that matters is that they did it. When the Trail Blazers, or any other team, is ready to do it, you’ll know. Until then, you just have to hope your favorite team is putting themselves in position to be the next champion in their own way.
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