NBA
September 18, 2020
BY Isaiah Freedman

Welcome to the Denver Nuggets' Wild Ride to the Western Conference Finals

The Denver Nuggets are in the Western Conference Finals.

Your eyes are not deceiving you. This is a fact, somehow, after the third seed in the Western Conference came back from being down 3-1 in two consecutive playoff series. What's the Nuggets' prize for turning into the cardiac kids? Denver gets to face LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the mighty Los Angeles Lakers for a chance to go to the NBA Finals.

Less than a month ago, The Nuggets were getting destroyed by Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, who dropped over 50 points twice in the series. Denver looked lifeless until Jamal Murray put his cape on. In the next round against the Clippers, history repeated itself — but the Nuggets refused to cave, battling back from double-digit deficits in the final three games to send the one-time NBA title favorites home.

The Nuggets' path to the Western Conference Finals started long before their miraculous bubble run.  

The Road to Dominance

Denver is deep, versatile and young. So how did this team get here? That requires a trip back to 2014. After winning 57 games in '13, the Nuggets entered the rebuilding stage. A reset was needed, and they decided to trade the 11th pick for the 16th and 19th selections, where they drafted Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris, respectively. Denver turned a late lottery selection into two tough, quality NBA players. Oh, there was also this massive Serbian kid they picked with the 41st overall pick. You might have heard of him, his name's Nikola Jokic.

In the next few seasons, Harris turned into a quality two-way guard who provided hounding defense and respectable shooting, two skills absolutely crucial for long-term playoff survival. And Nurkic was talented, but there was no room for him to play next to the budding Jokic, a perplexingly unique superstar who has developed into arguably the greatest passing big man of all time. 

Joker's story is remarkable. After being drafted in 2014, Jokic didn’t even play for the Nuggets that season, opting to wait a year overseas. When he arrived, the Serbian big man was completely out of shape, pushing 300 pounds, but he read the court like prime Steve Nash, except his towering height allowed him to see and exploit passing lanes few others could. 

In an environment where most players would rather sacrifice their first-born child than pass up a shot, Jokic was content finding his teammates for open looks, and he used that special skill to become the best big man in the NBA.

As incredible as it was to unearth a superstar in the second round, the Nuggets knew they had to surround their rising superstar with some talent before things went downhill. Here's how they accomplished that goal. Using a pick swap from the infamous Carmelo Anthony trade, Denver selected Jamal Murray with the 7th pick in the 2016 draft. The Nugs then splurged on the versatile veteran Paul Millsap in free agency the following year. Denver also drafted Monte Morris, an efficient point guard, with the 51st pick in 2017. They then added Michael Porter Jr, a prospect that many teams had written off due to his scary history of back injuries. They traded for Jerami Grant this offseason, who has arguably been the third-best player on the team.

President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly has put on a masterclass on how to build from the ground up using unorthodox avenues.

How They’re Winning

It’s one thing to have a group of talented players, but as we just saw with the Clippers, that’s not enough. A team needs to have chemistry and employ a coach who is willing to pull the right strings and mold the team in his vision.

Jokic’s same summer league skills have manifested to what we have today. Joker's a massive man who can obliterate anyone in the low post with a flurry of slick moves, initiate the offense like a point guard and play solid defense even though he lacks lateral quickness.

Denver has outscored opponents by a wide margin when he’s on the court in every season he’s been with the team. 

The Nuggets are anything but traditional, which is what makes them so fascinating. Their true point guard is Jokic, a 7-foot, 284-pound passing savant. Murray can certainly make plays, but he works best as the team’s leading scorer working off Jokic. They probably have the best chemistry in the league. Jokic is in the 98th percentile as the BALL HANDLER in pick-and-rolls in the playoffs, with the Nuggets pouring in 1.41 points per 100 possessions on such occasions. 

In their fourth season together, Jokic and Murray have developed a mind-meld, where sometimes they don’t even need to look at each other to make a play. 

Jokic is constantly finding a cutting Murray for layups, and they are the least switchable players in the league. Move a big man onto Murray, and he will roast him. Murray has scored 1.32 points per isolation this postseason, good for the 94th percentile. Switch a smaller player onto Jokic? That’s a death sentence. He will either back the poor dude down and easily score in the post, or invite a double team that allows him to use his supernatural playmaking abilities to find the open man.

So much of Denver’s identity revolves around their two young stars, but the players around them make this team the juggernaut it is today. Harris, Grant, Millsap and Torrey Craig are all tough-nosed defenders who can take on the difficult assignments. Morris has bounced back from a tough playoff performance last season to be a sturdy secondary playmaker who takes the reins for short bursts while Malone gives his stars a breather.

Their most exciting wild card this postseason has been Porter Jr., who offers a mystery box of bucket-getting, deer-in-the-headlights defense and clutch rebounds. He was benched after looking lost on defense in the first round, but he was excellent against the Clippers, hitting a tough 3-pointer to clinch a Game 6 victory. He wasn't on the court much, but when he was, the Nuggets outscored the Clippers by 8.5 points per 100 possessions. For Denver to have a chance at toppling the Lakers, they’re going to need Porter to step up, and all indications are he’s ready for the moment.

A matchup with the Lakers is going to be a war. Jokic and Davis are the two most talented bigs in the league. Can anyone on the Nuggets contain LeBron James? Which Laker will try to stop Murray? How about MPJ? Will Los Angeles go small? Can Will Barton return? Find out next time on Dragon Ball Z!

Photo: Getty Images