Seven years ago, the Boston Celtics were said to be canvasing the league for trades using their third overall pick. Rumor has it that they approached the Denver Nuggets about a young Nikola Jokic, a second-round pick the year prior who averaged 10 points and seven rebounds as a rookie. The Nuggets allegedly said no, believing that Jokic could be an important part of a competitive core.
Clearly, that decision (if true) worked out. The Nuggets on Monday night won their first-ever championship and Jokic, the two-time MVP, added a Finals MVP to his ballooning resumé. Along with Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, Jokic and the Nuggets appear to hold the keys to the Western Conference for years to come.
After a magical run in which they beat the two top seeds in the East, the Miami Heat lost in five games to the Nuggets. Yes, Jimmy Butler was hobbled by an ankle injury and Miami’s previously hot shooters went cold on the brightest stage, but the Heat were also overwhelmed by Denver’s talent and size. Butler and Bam Adebayo struggled to finish inside with the 7-foot Jokic dropping back to guard the rim. Butler spent valuable seconds of the shot clock trying to get switched off Gordon. Porter, who struggled with his shot all series, made up for it with his bothersome length on defense. The Heat needed to shoot better than 48% from 3-point range to steal one game in the series, but every other time they nearly made a run, they were smothered by the bigger, stronger Nuggets. In the end, size was the issue the Heat were trouble-shooting for all season long and could not overcome.
They nearly did. They beat the bigger Bucks and longer Celtics with impeccable execution and timely shooting from role players. Butler had one of the great performances in a playoff series in the first round against Milwaukee, and was good enough against the Celtics in the East finals. He turned his ankle in the first game of the second round against the Knicks, but adapted to become more a facilitator in that series. All of those teams were bigger than the Heat, but lacked Denver’s top-end talent and discipline. Just as important, the Heat were worn down by the time they made it to the NBA Finals. The Nuggets, meanwhile, were fresh, their rotation players as healthy as could be seven months into the season.
The Heat relished in what coach Erik Spoelstra called “the beauty of the grind.” But that grind has a cost. The Heat, with Butler, have made it to the doorstep of a championship three times in the last four seasons, only to fall short. They’ve had to scratch and claw their way every time, relying on an inventive zone defense, undrafted shooters and historic Butler performances.
Nothing is more illustrative of Miami’s lack of size than the zone defense. It was a story in the playoffs, a reflection of Spoelstra’s ingenuity and “Heat Culture.” The Heat started playing zone because they are small. Rather than match up with bigger players man-to-man, the zone allowed Miami’s small-ballers to guard whole regions of the court. Miami’s nimble defenders — like Adebayo, Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent — could lift up and down and slide side to side in order to disrupt opposing offenses. With so much practice, this bug ended up being a feature by the postseason.
Jokic and Co. busted the zone. Jokic, with his size and precision, simply passed and shot over the top of the Heat defense, including several times in the deciding Game 5. To keep pace with Denver’s offense, the Heat needed outlier performances from Butler and Adebayo from floater range and for previously unheralded players who struggled to make 3s in the regular season to maintain a seven-week hot streak. It wasn’t sustainable.
Someone needs to tell the Heat that it doesn’t have to be this hard. On some level, they know this. They added Kevin Love and Cody Zeller on the buyout market — choosing two bigs over available perimeter players — in part because they recognized their need for size.
Make no mistake, the NBA is a league that rewards size. The Warriors dominated the league not because of small ball, but because they had three of the four greatest shooters in NBA history, including a 7-foot unicorn at the absolute peak of his powers. Remember, Kevin Durant joined the Warriors after the bigger, faster, stronger LeBron James brutalized them in the 2016 Finals. (Since Durant left Golden State, championships have gone to LeBron, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and, now, Jokic in three of the last four years.)
The Nuggets began building their current championship roster around then, understanding that they would win with size. They drafted the 6-foot-10 Porter with the No. 14th pick, over guards such as Donte DiVincenzo, Lonnie Walker IV, Kevin Huerter and Grayson Allen. They traded two guards (Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton) and a first-round pick to Orlando for Aaron Gordon. This past offseason, they signed guards who could defend up a position in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown.
Every move the Nuggets made was meant to complement Jokic. Surrounding Jokic with shooting sharpens his playmaking, and his teammates’ length covers up for his defensive shortcomings. The Heat can learn from this, too. Adebayo is as good a playmaking center that exists outside of Denver. The Heat can construct a roster that accentuates his strengths and covers up his weaknesses.
A younger, sprier version of Love to play alongside Adebayo should be on Miami’s wishlist — someone who can make corner 3s, rebound and credibly guard opposing bigs. A lob threat who Adebayo (and Butler) can find on the short roll would open up Miami’s offense. Every team is looking for long, rangy wings who can defend and make open shots.
Murray said this championship is “the first of many” for the Nuggets and it looks like it could be. The league goes through Denver now. The East still features Joel Embiid and Giannis. To win a championship, the Heat will have to go through most, if not all, of them. If they learned anything from this run, it’s that they need to match up.