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The Nuggets were hiding in plain sight
Why were Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets considered such a long-shot?
After every Denver Nuggets’ win, as the team went 16-41 in the playoffs on a glide path to the first championship in franchise history, you could almost hear the gears shifting in the NBA narrative machine. Instead of an entertaining curiosity that wasn’t well-suited to playoff contention — a defense with Nikola Jokic at center, though liked by statistical systems like RAPTOR, was considered too vulnerable against real stars of the league like Kevin Durant — the Nuggets were reframed one win at a time as a typical, indeed almost canonical first-time NBA champion, led by a franchise player in his mid-to-late-20s who finally had the perfect, healthy supporting cast to fulfill his destiny.
But despite being the #1 seed in the West, the Nuggets didn’t come into the playoffs getting much respect. I know because I have the receipts to prove it. A few days before the playoffs began, I’d placed a few bets on the Nuggets at odds ranging from +950 to +1100, lines that implied they had less than a 10 percent chance of winning the title.2 (Cashing in on those bets will help make up for what’s been a mediocre start so far at the World Series of Poker.) And at the start of the year, the Nuggets faced even longer odds: +1800, tied for being just the 9th-highest in the league behind the Celtics, Warriors, Bucks, Nets, Clippers, Suns, 76ers and Heat.
Basketball-reference.com has preseason title odds for all seasons dating back to 1984-85. The Nuggets didn’t have the longest odds of any eventual champion during that period, a distinction that instead belongs to a team you might not have guessed — the 2014-15 Warriors, who won their first title ahead of schedule after entering the season at +2800. Still, the Nuggets were one of the longer shots. Here’s the list of everyone who won at +5003 odds or longer:
Longest-shot NBA title winners since 1985 Year Team Odds Rank ---- ---- ---- ---- 2015 Warriors +2800 8th 2011 Mavericks +2000 7th 2019 Raptors +1850 5th 2023 Nuggets +1800 9th (tied) 2004 Pistons +1500 7th (tied) 1994 Rockets +1200 5th (tied) 2014 Spurs +1200 4th (tied) 2003 Spurs +1100 4th (tied) 2008 Celtics +1000 5th (tied) 2022 Warriors +900 3rd (tied) 1991 Bulls +700 4th 2021 Bucks +550 2nd Source: Basketball-reference.com
This is a fascinating list, in part because it doesn’t entirely match up with our contemporary perceptions of these teams. Yes, NBA fans today still identify the 2010-11 Mavericks as a long shot; they overcame the LeBron-James-taking-his-talents-to-South-Beach-Heat to win the title in Dirk Nowitzki’s age-32 season. The 2004 Pistons are still regarded as being overachievers. Masai Ujiri’s “called shot” on Kawhi Leonard, who played for the Raptors for exactly one season and brought home the franchise’s first-and-only championship, looks now like it did then: a high-risk, high-upside play that worked out.
But those 2014-15 Warriors, now as canonical a champion as any, also entered their season with very long odds — even longer than the Nuggets this year. Hell, even the 1990-91 Bulls were +700 at the start of Michael Jordan’s first title run. And the Bulls are pretty much the archetype of how to win a title in the modern NBA. Start by drafting a transcendent superstar (Jordan, Curry, Jokic) on a franchise that has been in the dumps. (That’s the easy part, LOL. It helps if he has a chip on his shoulder or has been a little bit overlooked.) Find him his perfect wingman (Scottie Pippen, Klay Thompson/Draymond Green, Jamal Murray). Give him a few years of seasoning, a couple of near-misses and then — boom! — one year it works and it will seem like it was inevitable all along.
In the Nuggets’ case, the near-misses were concealed somewhat by Murray’s ACL tear, which occurred in the 2021 playoffs and also cost him the entire 2021-22 regular season and playoffs. Ignore those two Murray-less years, and the Nuggets have had the typical step-function upward, reaching the conference semifinals in 2018-19 and the conference finals in the bubble playoffs in 2019-20 before breaking through this year with their full roster finally back in place.
That doesn’t entirely excuse the lack of respect given to Jokic and the Nuggets. Jokic lost this year’s MVP, ostensibly a regular season award, to Joel Embiid in part because of a perception that he wouldn’t hold up in the clutch. Embiid had repeatedly underachieved in the playoffs, however — and did again this year — whereas Jokic had been very good, entering these playoffs averaging 26.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists for his career on extremely efficient shooting numbers while the Nuggets had consistently punched above their weight.
Maybe it comes down to appearances. Jokic doesn’t look very particularly trim or athletic in a league that requires incredible conditioning and features some of the best all-around athletes on the planet.4 I’m going to be a little bit more forgiving, though. I think the lack of respect for Jokic and the Nuggets mostly comes down to a lack of imagination.
The NBA forecasting system I developed — originally called CARMELO but now rebranded as RAPTOR — is based on identifying similar players throughout NBA history. The Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, for instance, entered this year with a profile similar to Marques Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Terry Cummings, Kevin Durant, among others. If you know NBA history, you’ll know that some of those comparable players (Durant) turned out more flatteringly for Tatum than others (Cummings). Thus is the uncertainty when projecting NBA performance. But for the most part, we’re at least getting players in Tatum’s image: tall, versatile, efficient scorers who can both shoot and get to the rim but who can also be ball-stoppers and don’t have elite ball-handling skills.
With Jokic, on the other hand, RAPTOR has no idea what to do. It can’t find any other players like him. Based on the scale I developed, a perfect similarity score — two literally identical players — is 100. In practice, however, any players with a score of 30 or above are reasonably similar, and players 50 or above are very similar. Johnson gets a 60 similarity score to Tatum, for example, while Anthony has a 56 and Pierce a 49.
In Jokic’s case, however, no player entered the season with a similarity score higher than … 4. That score actually belongs to Embiid. Only three players — Embiid, Anthony Davis and Garnett — even had a positive score at all, while LeBron James had a zero. In this system, a zero marks the dividing line; a score below zero means that a player is more dissimilar than similar. So in the entire history of the NBA5, all but four players are more dissimilar to Jokic than similar to him, and the other four are just barely on the other side of the line.
So there wasn’t much precedent for a player like Jokic winning a championship — but there also wasn’t much precedent for Nikola Jokic at all
In that sense, Jokic and the Nuggets really do strike me as similar to Curry and the Warriors, who also played a brand of basketball that no one had seen before and that was considered potentially suspect in playoffs. (In the Warriors’ case, the question was whether a team so dependent on outside shooting and small guard play could win.) Does that imply that the Nuggets are going to run off another two or three championships like Curry did? Well, probably not — unless Durant asks out of Phoenix and joins the team, I suspect the over/under is more like one more title. Still, the Nuggets are pretty similar age-wise to the 2015 Warriors6 and in a good position to keep their key pieces in place, so who knows.
And here’s the other thing about the NBA. It’s a relatively young league, and one that deceives us into thinking it has more history than it does. There’s a danger in being too rigidly empirical when considering what makes for a title contender.
The modern NBA begins with the 1979-80 season. Yes, I just declared that by fiat. That’s the first year of the 3-point shot and the first year with both Magic and Bird in the league. If you’re a reasonably big NBA buff, you probably know that the Lakers won the title that year, with rookie Magic playing center in the Finals. But you need a much higher level of NBA nerdom to know won the 1978-79 NBA title (it was the Seattle SuperSonics). For better or worse, the Lakers’ 1980 title onward makes up the canon of what middle-aged guys like me consider to be “relatable NBA history”.7
That’s 44 seasons, counting the one that just concluded. Not actually that many. But when it comes to evaluating what makes for a champion, the sample is actually much smaller than that because of the presence of dynasties. Because leading NBA teams win a higher fraction of their games than teams in other sports, and because league rules have long been forgiving to teams that wanted to retain their superstar talent, the history of the league is one of dynasties. Of those 44 titles, almost two-thirds (28) belong to the Jordan Bulls, the Magic Lakers, the Kobe Lakers, the Tim Duncan Spurs, the Curry Warriors and the Bird Celtics. It’s not hard to imagine contingencies — the Spurs’ not getting the #1 pick in the year after David Robinson got hurt, the Lakers’ not having the foresight to trade for the 13th pick to select Bryant, the Bulls not trading the draft pick that became Olden Polynice (!) for the one that became Pippen — where the entire history of the league looks different.
In other words, we don’t actually know that much about what makes for an NBA champion and what doesn’t. The Nuggets’ title, like the Warriors’ in 2015 or the Raptors’ in 2019, will expand the canon of “acceptable” championship-contending strategies. In fact, it will seamlessly incorporate into the canon, as though it had been there all along. Of course you can build a title contender around outside shooting. Of course you can win with a one-year superstar rental; it’s a long shot, but it can work. Of course you can build a champion around player like Jokic who averages almost a triple-double, even if you have to fit some jagged pieces around him. Of course, of course, of course.
But sooner or later, another title contender will come along that doesn’t fit into the canon, and they’ll probably be a pretty good bet.
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Corrected: I’d originally listed their record as 16-5. Even in coming to praise the Nuggets, I underestimated them!
In case you think I’m some sort of gambling genius, I should note that I also had a substantial bet on the Celtics, as well as smaller bets on the 76ers and the Grizzlies and even a flier on the Knicks. So I “hit”, but I had several different ways to hit.
If you’re not used to these American-style odds, just divide by 100 if the number is positive For instance, odds of +600 mean that a team is 6:1 against winning. If the odds are negative, divide by 100 but put the number in the denominator instead. For instance, odds of -200 mean that a team is a 1:2 favorite.
I don’t know that we need to get into questions about how players from different racial or ethnic groups are parceled into different stereotypes, but those potentially play a role, too.
More precisely, since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, since that’s when RAPTOR’s database begins.
Jokic and Aaron Gordon are 27, Murray is 25, and Michael Porter Jr. is 24. For the 2015 Warriors, Curry was 26, and Thompson and Green were 24.
Even if we’re slightly too young to remember the first few years of the era.