The Denver Nuggets are NBA champions, and now many will ask what other teams, including the Boston Celtics, can learn from the team whose victory paints every move by the team, along with all its players and coaches, in a positive light.
First, Nikola Jokic is one of the greatest players of all-time, but struggled to reach the NBA Finals without the right supporting cast. Exemplarily teammates accentuated his passing skills and mindset and made their championship run look effortless — a foregone conclusion.
The timeline, eight seasons culminating in Jokic’s first title at 28, reflects other legends who waited until nearly age-30 to break through. That provides hope to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics through their difficult playoff exits around their teenage years and last season — when they turned 25 and 26. It’s winning time now, but the best opportunities may lie ahead.
“I remember Tim (Connelly) calling me up, (and saying), ‘hey, we can trade Jamal (Murray) for this guy.’ (This was) probably three or four years ago — (and it was) a marquee player. I said, ‘no.’ Like, ‘What? Let’s not rush this,’” Denver head coach Michael Malone said last month. “We have a patient ownership group. Let’s f—ing take our time and build this the right way. A bigger name is not always better.’”
“(Nuggets president) Josh (Kroenke) said to me after we lost to Minnesota (in the aforementioned regular-season finale in 2018), and Josh was like, ‘man, I’m so excited about our two young players — Jamal and Nikola just balled out in Game 82.’ It was the play-in game before the play-in, and Josh’s reaction was, ‘wow, we’re gonna be really good in a few years.’ Just the ability of ownership to be patient and not overreact (was key). Patience is not something you talk about in the NBA, or pro sports. And I think I, and we, are a perfect example of the results of being patient and saying, ‘you know what? Let’s continue to let this grow and marinate and mature and then we can see what we really have.’”
The Nuggets drafted Murray the same summer as the Celtics selected Brown, while Jokic received a four-year head start on Tatum. Their roster configurations happened over the relatively same period — Murray emerging over Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkić landing in Portland after playing alongside Jokic for three lottery seasons. Denver found Michael Malone, a new coach, in 2015 and challenged Minnesota for a playoff spot, missing out in 2018. Dropping one spot allowed them to pick Michael Porter Jr., and withstand health concerns that overshadowed his early spurts of greatness.
Ascension continued, beating the Spurs in Round 1, then overcoming a 3-1 deficit against the Clippers in the bubble. They traded for Aaron Gordon, continuing their roster shuffling by giving up Gary Harris Jr. and a future first-round pick. The Nuggets’ starting five emerged, statistically, as the most dominant in basketball upon Gordon’s arrival, then Murray tore his ACL in the playoffs and Porter Jr.’s back flared up, forcing surgery that cost him 2021-22. The Suns swept Denver in the second round and the Warriors beat them in the first one year later despite Jokic emerging as a back-to-back MVP.
Doubt emerged that required patience. Malone stressed Murray needed to keep taking steps throughout the 2023 regular season, praising Murray’s uneven performance in a bad early season loss at Boston for his aggressiveness. They kept Porter Jr. out for an extended absence in the fall when an ailment in his left foot, possibly related to his back surgery, would not subside, and successfully managed it such that he could play out 62 games and the playoffs. When they reached that point, armed with improved depth by adding Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they tore through the West and the NBA Finals, and are now 2024 favorites to repeat.
“I remember having a conversation where we said, ‘listen, we have a special, unique player, and that window is only open so long,’” Malone remembered. “So, while that window is open, we have to do everything we can to surround Nikola Jokić with the pieces that are going to allow us to be a championship-caliber team. And even then, there’s no guarantee you get to this point. Things have to break your way. Luck always comes into play. So, we talked about how we’ve got to get bigger. We have to get some better defensive players. More versatility. We talked about watching last year’s NBA Finals (between Boston and Golden State), and how everybody on the floor could shoot the ball and guard multiple positions.”
Boston will follow Denver’s lead and keep its core duo together this summer, according to Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fischer, the first step toward running the team back much like the Nuggets did.
Individual improvement from a relatively younger roster needs to drive their future success. One question I carried throughout this past season, and never developed a great answer for, was whether the time Boston’s core players has spent together provides greater connectivity, or could lead to staleness. It typically depended on a win or loss.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Marcus Smart told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog after Game 7. “That’s the beauty of it. We get another chance. We’re blessed ... we just came up short. We get another chance next year and we get to go start, obviously not the way we wanted, but we get to go start to figure out what we need to do next year.”
The Nuggets didn’t stay completely complacent though, beloved players like Will Barton, Monte Morris and Paul Millsap came and went, replaced by better ones. The Celtics will face similar decisions. Denver committed to the luxury tax last year, and will likely do so again in 2024, paying significantly more if they decide to retain Bruce Brown. A similar decision faces the Celtics with Grant Williams, another younger player who may be worth room for growth from a disappointing 2023 performance.
Key differences exist, particularly stylistically, that won’t allow the Celtics to follow a Nuggets blueprint. First, Jokic is one-of-one. Maybe a player like Alperen Şengün flashes shades of Jokic as he evolves, but Jokic’s ability to touch every aspect of the game can’t be replicated. That’s why Brown and Tatum need to grow to allow others to do that for them, particularly the team’s guards who drove much of Boston’s historic start on offense. We’re always left saying, if the Celtics cut more, if they involved Robert Williams III more, if the stars involved each other in actions. Those things need to simply start happening. Less talk.
Boston’s offense needs a more threatening usage of cutters— Pull up shoot (@NElGHT_) June 13, 2023
Robert Williams is a key to unlocking that pic.twitter.com/0UpMHUZYN1
Like I’ve written for years, Brown and Tatum not only don’t connect enough individually, but they don’t involve teammates in the creative ways Jokic does every night. Jokic and Murray create significantly more assists to each other than Boston’s duo, and to their teammates like Bruce Brown, shooters across the board and even rookie Christian Braun who appeared for spot opportunities and though he found the ball, his stars set him up, too. The ball popped. Doc Rivers’ recent podcast appearance made me think about why the Celtics may not do the seemingly obvious things to open up their offense.
“You know why people don’t cut? Because they don’t think they’re going to get the ball,” Rivers said. “You know why teams don’t run? Because they don’t think they’re going to get the ball. The reason Denver does all that is because they know they’re going to get the ball.”
“The way that I believe you have to play to win,” he continued. “It’s a lot of giving up the ball, moving the ball and coming back to the ball ... giving up the ball and getting back to the ball is hard. It’s physical. It’s exhausting ... coming off of dribble handoffs, going downhill.”
Brown and Tatum showed enough, when they do those things, to warrant believing in them. To remain patient the way Denver did, even if parts of the roster begin to change around them into their primes. They already persevered through the Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker eras to thrust the Celtics into contention again.
The philosophies that drive them to that next level, a championship, have to improve. That’s where Joe Mazzulla needs to evolve, challenging instead of allowing and applauding Brown and Tatum taking the quickest available shot, not probing deeper and falling out of plays once the four-one-threes developed. How much of that plays to how Brown and Tatum want to, or even can perform leading Boston’s offense?
That’s where concerns began that time might not even sure up the Celtics’ fatal flaws. The Nuggets finished the playoffs 5-1 when they made fewer than 10 threes, and 4-0 when they shot below 30% from three, while Boston’s offense faded against Miami once the three disappeared.
“There’s an argument to fight for the best shot,” Mazzulla said during the East finals. “At the same time, as the shot clock goes down, defenses get better, so we’ve been at our best this year when we’ve created two-on-ones, created advantages, created early shot opportunities that help us maintain our pace and gives us that early offense identity which I think we’re at our best.”