Does Nuggets, Heat Finals Offer Championship Hope To Jazz?

Jun 1, 2023, 3:00 PM

SALT LAKE CITY – Can the Utah Jazz replicate the championship blueprint that the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat have used to reach the NBA Finals?

It’s a question not only the Jazz, but 27 other teams in the NBA are asking as they seek to take their place atop the league.

Can the Nuggets and Heat’s conference title hopes be replicated, and is there a pathway for the Jazz to do it?

The NBA Landscape

Before examining either Miami or Denver, let’s look at the current landscape of the NBA, and what allowed the Heat and Nuggets to meet up in the 2023 Finals.

First, it’s important to recognize that the league features more parity now than it has in any of the last several decades.

Regardless of who wins the title this year, it will be the fifth different team in the last five seasons with be named NBA champions.

That will be the first time since 1974-79 that five different teams have taken home the title over a five-year stretch with no repeat winners.

At the moment, that’s a good sign not just for the Jazz, but for all 30 teams hoping to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Perhaps even better for the Jazz is that over the last five years, it hasn’t only been teams in major markets that have won titles.

While both the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State can be considered desirable markets in the NBA, both the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors have also reached the mountaintop over the last four years, and will soon be joined by either Miami or Denver.

Miami’s weather and favorable tax laws make it one of the more desirable NBA cities historically, while Denver and Milwaukee share several similarities to Salt Lake City.

Those alone are good signs that NBA titles can’t only be won in warm-weather cities, and aren’t solely reserved for major TV markets.

The question now becomes how long will the NBA remain without a true dynasty. Historically, the league has been dominated by dynasties, usually manned by the league’s top player.

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Is 28-year-old Nikola Jokic on the horizon of dominating the NBA postseason for the next several seasons, or will his legacy more closely resemble Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, both players who laid claim to the league’s best player during championship runs, only to be dethroned the next season?

With LeBron James clearly in the twilight of his career, does the NBA have another player ready to dominate the league for the next decade a la Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Michael Jordan, or will a more egalitarian league emerge?

Right now, the Jazz don’t have a player capable of dominating the league for the next several seasons, but the gap between Lauri Markkanen and emerging top players in the league doesn’t seem all that large.

Heat And Nuggets Have Championship Talent

With the openness of the NBA landscape established, it’s important to note that the Nuggets didn’t just accidentally end up with the best record in the Western Conference en route to their first Finals appearances.

As mentioned, Jokic has developed into a true superstar and was a legitimate candidate to win his third consecutive MVP award this season.

Though his pathway to becoming a superstar was unique as a relatively unheralded second-round draft selection, his dominance fits the bill for nearly every title winner in NBA history.

Similarly, Jimmy Butler has consistently performed like one of the league’s five best players in the postseason, regardless of his regular season statistics.

But, as the Nuggets and Heat have shown, you must have one of the league’s five best players to win a title, and both Jokic and Butler have proved they fit that bill in these playoffs.

While finding a top-five player in the league remains the most difficult task in the NBA, it is worth noting that the odds of an elite player landing on a smaller market team is more likely than ever before.

Recent changes to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement have helped prevent the creation of superteams made up of multiple All-Stars all playing together on one roster.

Instead, the league is seeing more teams with one, or occasionally two stars, surrounded by high-level role players rather than top-loaded rosters, creating imbalance across the NBA.

Both the Nuggets and Heat are examples of the league’s parity, as each team features one true All-NBA talent in Jokic and Jimmy Butler, surrounded by high-level secondary players in Jamal Murray and Bam Adebayo, with terrific role players filling out the remainder of the roster.

Thus, the Jazz must learn whether or not Markkanen can be that top-level star on a title-contending roster, or if he’s better suited in a complimentary role a la Murray or Adebayo.

Regardless, the Jazz have the capital to continue to add players via the draft, or by moving multiple future first-rounders to get the type of player who could sit in one of the top two spots alongside Markkanen on a champion-level roster.

Continuity Through Adversity

Beyond the superstars that sit atop their rosters, perhaps the most similar theme that connects the Nuggets and Heat is their continuity.

Jokic has been in Denver since 2016, and has played alongside Murray since 2017.

Butler has been in Miami since 2019, and has played alongside Adebayo the entire time.

Similarly, head coaches Erik Spoelstra and Michael Malone are among the league’s longest-tenured signal callers, with Spoelstra ranking second, and Malone ranking fourth.

More importantly, team ownership and management have allowed both of these rosters to stick together despite moments of extreme adversity.

The Nuggets and Heat both qualified for the Conference Finals in 2020, finishing among the final four teams in the bubble in Orlando.

However, both teams followed up their strong bubble performances with disappointing postseasons.

Denver failed to get past the second round in each of their last two seasons, including an embarrassing first-round exit last year. The Heat meanwhile were swept by the Bucks in the opening round two seasons ago, immediately following their Finals appearance in Orlando.

But, instead of blowing up the rosters, or making dramatic changes to the front office or coaching staffs, both Denver and Miami opted for continuity.

That continuity and cohesion has proven valuable throughout the postseason as the Nuggets’ experience was clearly an advantage in series wins over both the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers, both teams that have elite talent, but had made major changes to their rosters and coaching staffs.

The Heat experience has been apparent having won at least one game on the road in each of their first three playoff series, despite being the lower seed in the matchup, and proved to have a clear coaching advantage against first-year man Joe Mazzulla in Boston.

Though this type of continuity may have proven more valuable for the last iteration of the Jazz before they traded Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, it might offer a key lesson for the organization as it attempts to rebuild toward a title.

Adversity from season to season might be an important part of the process of building a title contender, rather than an obstacle to avoid, or the death knell for an otherwise competitive roster.

Additionally, allowing Will Hardy room to grow, make mistakes, and learn to win may be equally important.

Spoelstra had notoriously disappointing playoff performances in each of his first three years overseeing Miami, including losing in the Finals with a superstar roster made up of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.

But, instead of replacing Spoelstra, they stuck with him, and have been rewarded with six Finals appearances in the last 13 seasons.

Historically, the Jazz have been one of the safer coaching jobs in the NBA, and they may be well served by sticking to that mantra, even if there are bumps in the road along the way.

Overall, there may not be anything truly unique about either the Nuggets or Heat Finals runs. Both teams have undisputed superstars on their rosters, good supporting casts, and excellent head coaches.

That is good news for Jazz, who don’t want to see only a few unique unattainable qualities determine who can win the title.

One of the Nuggets or Heat are on the verge of winning a championship, and that should be a welcome sign for the Jazz.

Ben Anderson is the Utah Jazz insider for KSL Sports and the co-host of Jake and Ben from 10-12p with Jake Scott on 97.5 The KSL Sports Zone. Find Ben on Twitter at @BensHoops or on Instagram @BensHoops.

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Does Nuggets, Heat Finals Offer Championship Hope To Jazz?