Despite Dominant Season, Nuggets Fly Under National Radar En Route to First NBA Finals

Pat Pickens
Last Updated: May 31, 2023

The Denver Nuggets have been the best team in the parity-laden Western Conference all season. Yet, to the basketball world, the only thing more shocking than their inaugural trip to the NBA Finals is the ease with which they got there.

The Nuggets, the top seed in the West, have a 12-3 record in these playoffs and are heavy favorites to defeat the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Still, they have overcome loud doubters from around the country and reached the championship round in the face of pundits who predicted teams like the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, or Golden State Warriors to advance.

“The national media has a lot to do with that,” Nuggets play-by-play broadcaster on Altitude TV Chris Marlowe told The Game Day Basketball. “The bigger stories are the Lakers, the Warriors, Kevin Durant, and the Phoenix Suns, and those topics seem to be the topics people want to talk about. They don’t seem to want to talk about the great year the Denver Nuggets are having.”

Part of the media perception stemmed from a wide-open Western Conference where nine teams finished above .500, and the difference between finishing fourth and ninth was just three games. To many, there didn’t appear to be a dominant team, outside of maybe the Suns, which left the door open for LeBron James’ Lakers or Stephen Curry and the defending-champion Warriors to get hot and steal the conference crown.

But the Nuggets won 53 games, tied for the fifth-most in their 47-season NBA history, and finished two games ahead of No. 2 Memphis. They ascended from the muddled middle to the class of the Western Conference for good around Christmas, with a convincing 105-91 win over the Grizzlies on Dec. 20.

“This is the most talented team the Nuggets have had, the best-blended team, the deepest team. Camaraderie-wise, they are a terrific bunch of guys,” Marlowe said. “The Western Conference was jumbled. The one constant was the Denver Nuggets.”

The 2023 postseason may be looked back on as the end of the superteam era and the dawn of the one-plus-many age since both finalists feature an All-NBA superstar flanked by capable-yet-unheralded role players. This sentiment is especially true for Denver since it advanced to the Finals with Nikola Jokić and his supporting cast taking down a pair of superteams, Phoenix and the Lakers, on the way.

  • Read Pat’s piece on the Boston Celtics‘ uncertainty following their Game 7 loss to the Heat.

Ironically, Jokić, a two-time MVP and five-time All-NBA performer, guided the Nuggets to the Finals in the season he was not named MVP. Still, Jokić has had another other-worldly postseason, averaging a triple-double (29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists) and unanimously earning Western Conference MVP honors.

“That he’s never changed,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said when asked what he’s most proud of Jokić for. “I think we all see it in all walks of life. How does fame, fortune affect you? For most people, it goes to their head, and they become something different. Sometimes they forget where they’ve come from and who helped them get to where they’ve gotten to, … but through all the success, the MVPs, the max contracts, all that stuff, he’s still the same guy.”

But Jokić still can’t do it alone. General manager Calvin Booth has assembled an elite collection of talent to complement the core of Jokić, underrated guard Jamal Murray, and holdover forwards Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon.

“There’s no other player that’s more valuable to his team than [Jokić] is, but he has a great group of complementary players that seem to fit perfectly,” Marlowe said. “I think the Nuggets have the components there. They have All-Star caliber players, but nobody besides Nikola Jokić has ever made an All-Star team. This is their chance to shine.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, acquired from Washington in the offseason, is one of the few Nuggets with NBA Finals experience — he won a ring in the bubble with the 2020 Lakers — and is averaging 11.7 points per game in the playoffs. Bruce Brown, brought in from Brooklyn, has contributed 12.2 points and four rebounds per game off the bench while playing his signature stout defense.

“I think it’s pretty well known now the guys [Booth] brought in are a huge part of the reason we’re in the Finals,” Porter said. “Obviously [Caldwell-Pope] and Bruce being two of those guys. … Those guys’ attitude and leadership is just part of the reason why we’re doing so well. Finding a group of guys that mesh in the locker room is a big part of winning. I think Calvin did a great job of that.”

But the basketball world didn’t recognize Denver’s collective greatness until its second-round showdown with Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and the highly touted Suns. Phoenix, which won the West in 2021, went all in by acquiring Durant from the Nets in February and entered the playoffs as the NBA betting odds favorite to win the conference — even ahead of Denver.

Though Paul injured his groin in Game 2, the Nuggets took it to Phoenix. Denver handily won the first two games, ground out a 16-point win in Game 5, and clinched a conference-finals berth with a 125-100 road victory in Game 6.

Denver’s depth shined as six players averaged double-figures in the series, whereas Phoenix heavily relied on the duo of Durant and Booker to score. The loss shook up the Suns’ organization, leaving coach Monty Williams fired when the dust settled.

“Everybody pointed to them as the best team in the West, and the Nuggets handled them relatively easily,” Marlowe said. “After that happened, I thought there was a really good chance this team could go all the way.”

The Nuggets entered the Finals on a six-game winning streak after sweeping James and the Lakers, who they were only a 60-40 pre-series favorite against, according to Vegas sportsbooks. However, perception is finally on Denver’s side, with oddsmakers giving it an 80% chance of winning the title.

But whether the Nuggets get their due nationally doesn’t matter to the team as long as they get to hang that elusive first championship banner in the rafters at Ball Arena.

“Just to be a part of history with the Denver Nuggets making their first Finals appearance, winning their first NBA championship,” Caldwell-Pope said after practice Monday, “I feel like I’m more excited about that than anything.”


Pat Pickens

Pat Pickens is a seasoned sportswriter who has covered the NHL since 2013 for various websites, including The New York Times,,, USA Today, the Associated Press and many others. His debut book, titled "The Whalers" about the history of the NHL's Hartford Whalers, was released in October 2021.

Related articles