They’ve come close on a few occasions. During the 1977-78 season, the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference Finals behind strong play from the Skywalker, shooting guard David Thompson. That team lost the series 4-2 to the Seattle Supersonics, who lost to the Washington Bullets in 7 games. In 1984-85, Alex English, Fat Lever, and head coach Doug Moe lost to Magic Johnson and the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers in a 4-1 series, a team that went on to win a championship versus Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. In the 2008-09 season, Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, and the Nuggets lost to the Lakers once again, this time led by Kobe Bryant (R.I.P.), Pau Gasol, and Phil Jackson. Those were the only three times the Nuggets made it to the Conference Finals in their NBA franchise history. They lost in the ABA Finals in 1976 before ultimately moving to the NBA, but as far as NBA excellence goes, those are the three years that stand out.
It is extremely difficult to win a championship in the NBA. In the the past 20 seasons, only nine different franchises have hosted the trophy. Four of those teams hosted it a combined 15 times. The Golden State Warriors and Miami Heat each won a championship three times. The San Antonio Spurs won four times. The Los Angeles Lakers have won five championships in the last 20 years. 75% of the league’s championships from the last 20 years have come from four franchises.
So, how can the Nuggets join that crowd? Can they build their roster like one of the four franchises to dominate during this millennium? Do they have to build a good squad and hope for a flash in the pan of greatness during one season?
Here’s how champions are made in the NBA:
There is no set formula for how to build a champion. Every champion has different tendencies, skill sets, and methods for playing the best basketball possible. The one common denominator: the Net Rating almost always has to fall in the top five among all NBA teams in a given year.
Only four of the last 20 years have yielded an NBA champion with a Net Rating outside of the top five, and never has the Net Rating fallen outside of the top 10 teams in a given year. Some of these champions were dominant on one side of the floor, while others dominated on both ends.
Only six of the previous 20 champions finished ranked in the top five in both Offensive and Defensive Rating. Teams finished either in the top five offensively or defensively 12 times apiece. The lowest Offensive Rating came from the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons led by Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, ranking 19th offensively. The lowest Defensive Rating came from the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, ranking 22nd defensively during that season.
Overall, only five NBA champions over the last 20 seasons won while ranking outside the top three teams in the Net Rating:
- 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
- 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
- 2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers
- 2005-06 Miami Heat
- 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers
The one thing in common with all of these teams: they each had an all-time great on their roster, at least one player among the Top 25 players of all-time. LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Shaquille O’Neal changed the math for their teams and bent it to their will. Either that, or those teams had an easier path to a championship like the ‘01 Lakers.
The NBA has always been about having the best stars in the brightest moments, as they can make up for many weaknesses of a particular team by being a singularly dominant force. It’s why so few players win Finals MVP during their career, because often times, a truly elite player will guide their team to a championship across multiple seasons.
Let’s take a look at how the leading scorer and top scoring trio of each championship team performed during the selected season:
At the bottom, the average points per game of the top scorer and the top scoring trio were highlighted. The average top scorer put up 24.4 points per game across the last 20 seasons, while the average scoring trio posted 59.6 combined points per game. There are definitely some outliers, like Tony Parker and Rip Hamilton averaged under 18 points per game as the top scorers during their championship years, or Shaq absolutely dominating at the turn of the century. Since Shaq’s three titles as the leading scorer on the Lakers, no other player has exceeded any of his regular season PPG marks.
In addition, the scoring trios offer up the expected production of the top players in today’s NBA. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson reached new heights during their two championships, and they would have topped those PPG marks last season had they stayed healthy and ultimately bested the Toronto Raptors. It’s very easy to see the dip in scoring during the Dead Ball era in the mid 2000’s, and it wasn’t until the Heatles of South Beach that offenses really started to trend up.
Between the general trends in team performance and trends in individual scoring, it becomes very clear that the NBA has undergone two separate eras in this century: a defensive oriented period during the 2000’s and an offensive oriented period in the 2010’s. In the 2000’s, champions posted a top six Defensive Rating in seven of the 10 seasons. In the 2010’s, champions posted a top six Offensive Rating the last eight seasons in a row.
Now that we have entered 2020, it’s difficult to say whether offense or defense is more important. What matters though is simple point differential. Dominant teams tend to have the best chance to win a ring, independent of offensive and defensive leanings. What makes the most sense is leaning into your superstar personnel. The San Antonio Spurs ranked in the top four defensively in each of their four championship seasons, and having Tim Duncan to anchor the defense certainly helped. The Golden State Warriors have won three titles, and they’ve had a top three Offensive Rating in all three seasons. Stephen Curry will help with that.
What does this say about the 2019-20 Denver Nuggets?
Here are Denver’s ranks and statistical breakdowns for each category:
2019-20 Offensive Rating Rank: 9th
2019-20 Defensive Rating Rank: 12th
2019-20 Net Rating Rank: 9th
Only two NBA champions in the last 20 seasons won a ring without ranking in the top five offensively or defensively: the 2005-06 Miami Heat and the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks. Both are interesting comparisons for the Nuggets, particularly Dallas with the Nikola Jokic — Dirk Nowitzki connection. The ‘06 Heat caught lightning in a bottle, and they had an all-time NBA Finals playoff performance from a young Dwyane Wade. Is Jamal Murray likely to ever accomplish the same? Probably not.
How about the scoring breakdown:
Top scorer - Nikola Jokic: 20.2 points per game
Second scorer - Jamal Murray: 18.8 points per game
Third scorer - Will Barton: 15.1 points per game
That combines for a grand total of 54.1 points per game, which would be the lowest since the 2013-14 Spurs that featured six players averaging scoring in double figures and the team generating top five offensive and defensive efficiency. By himself, Jokic averaging 20.2 points would rank 17th among all top scorers on championship teams. The four players with a lower scoring average played on elite defenses.
All this to say, the Nuggets don’t have enough on either side of the floor right now to really justify being a championship caliber team. There isn’t enough individual scoring from their top player, and more importantly, the top trio of players, to make up for Denver’s solid but unspectacular defense. Jokic and Murray would be fine first and second options if the third option (Barton) had a sizable uptick in scoring. Whether that’s Barton, Gary Harris, Jerami Grant, or Michael Porter Jr. going forward, Denver’s trio doesn’t have the offensive firepower quite yet to scare teams in this age of elite NBA offense.
Can the Nuggets get to that point? Sure, but they may need some time for Jokic or Murray to take additional steps as a scorer or for Porter to fast track his development. Jokic and Murray are both still young enough that a jump in scoring isn’t entirely unexpected at this stage; however, there’s a lot riding on that increase given the max contracts Jokic and Murray will both be earning during the next few seasons. Among other players, Will Barton just turned 30, so a jump in production would be unexpected from him. Gary Harris has trended in the wrong direction during the last two seasons. Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant are likely free agents this upcoming offseason and could be gone if they choose to go. Porter may be Denver’s best chance at raising their overall scoring profile. His individual leap would be the most realistic scenario among a number of unlikely occurrences.
While the general NBA champion is always different, there are trends that offer up possible answers going forward. They may spell out difficult realities for the Nuggets, but understanding those realities puts Denver in the best position to win a championship while Nikola Jokic is still under contract. The most likely way Denver ultimately gets there is if they catch lightning in a bottle one season, several things go their way, and they get another historic Jokic playoff performance.
I’m not sure if I ever expect that to happen, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If the 2004 Pistons, the 2011 Mavericks, or the 2019 Raptors can win a title, an iteration of this Nuggets team can too.