Just a few weeks ago, like the Nuggets, the Raptors had never attended an NBA Finals in their history, a far less lengthy history than Denver’s conflicting past. Down 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, an NBA championship was unlikely to be a gleam in the eye for the Raptors and Raptors fans.
And then something magical happened: the entire team began to play better, starting with a double overtime thriller in Game 3 of the ECF. Kawhi Leonard had 36 points. Pascal Siakam had 25 and 11 rebounds. Marc Gasol had 16, 12, and 7 assists. The real story though was Kawhi switching his defensive assignment, guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo instead of Khris Middleton.
After that point, the Greek Freak struggled, and the Raptors, with their versatility, defensive length and awareness, and Kawhi to lead them offensively, took over the series by winning four games in a row. Since that Game 3 double overtime win, the Raptors like a different, more confident version of themselves. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam are playing consistently well. Fred VanVleet turned into Fred Elite. The rest of the team has had various moments that have changed the complexion of entire games in high pressure moments.
The Nuggets have to hope that Nikola Jokic can develop into the game changer that Leonard was at the highest moments, and from my estimation, he’s really close. Leonard isn’t quite the playmaker that Jokic is, and Jokic isn’t quite the individual scorer or defender that Leonard is. The good news for Jokic is that he’s still 24, and over the course of the next few years, he has the opportunity to develop some of those skills.
After that, Jamal Murray taking a star leap is important, but the biggest step for Denver is finding a way to compete defensively with the top teams in the NBA. The Raptors drafted Siakam and OG Anunoby, but they traded for Lowry, Leonard, Danny Green, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka in order to fill out their roster with versatile players. Masai Ujiri continuously tinkered with the roster until he found a roster that could compete for a championship, even trading long time Raptor DeMar DeRozan to do so. He had to make tough decisions in order to put the team in position to win a ring, and the tough decisions look to have paid off.
Could the Nuggets be forced to make similarly tough decisions? It’s likely.
Much has been made of the free agency decisions of Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant. Nothing is certain, but it definitely seems like Durant is out the door already, having not played a single minute since the Western Conference semi-finals. He could return to the Warriors next season, and the Warriors would probably be the favorite to win next season’s Finals if he did. From the outside though, it seems like Durant is unhappy, and he would probably be happier in New York (or even Brooklyn).
Leonard is more complicated. He doesn’t have any obligation to stay in Toronto as he was traded there on the last year of his deal, but winning a championship makes his decision really interesting. It would be a surprise if Leonard stayed in Toronto has he has made his desire to play in a New York or Los Angeles market public. Toronto is a large market too though, and if Kawhi helps to deliver a ring to Canada, the entire country will absolutely adore him. If he re-signs with the Raptors, he has another great opportunity to win a championship next season.
The decisions of these two stars will have major reverberations around the NBA. Durant going to the Eastern Conference would help flip the balance of power back to the East, especially if he joins a team like the New York Knicks that has been awful since the beginning of time. Leonard going to the Los Angeles Clippers, the most rumored free agent destination for the star, would likely elevate the Clippers to contender status, adding another team for the Nuggets to worry about.
Whatever happens over the next several weeks involving the Finals, the NBA Draft, and free agency, the balance of power in the NBA is teetering. Both Finals teams could potentially lose their best player (depending on how one feels about Stephen Curry) and the teams immediately behind the contenders could either trend way up or way down.
Can the Nuggets take advantage of this impending chaos?