Every year when the NBA crowns a new champion, front-offices around the league clamber to decipher what lessons they can glean from the new champs.
Is there a new strategy that is sweeping the league? Have certain player types become undervalued? Are there team-building lessons to be copied?
What can be taken from the Denver Nuggets impressive romp to a title? We’ll skip the obvious ones like: “have a generational superstar who is a great locker-room presence, and loves making people better”, and try to dig down, if only a little, to see what lessons Toronto can, and can’t take from our new Rocky Mountain Overlords.
Continuity — even when it’s hard:
We’ll start with an easy one.
It’s part of NBA folklore that Michael Malone has the fourth longest tenure amongst NBA head coaches. That Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are one of the longest running duos in the NBA, having started playing together in 2016-2017. That GM Tim Connelly had been on the job for a decade before leaving this past off-season.
It’s also well-established that Mike Malone was on the hot seat several times in his tenure - for the Nuggets’ seeming underperformance, for clashing with players, for being underwhelming on the X and O front. We also know the Nuggets considered trading Murray more than once, even before his devastating ACL injury.
The fact Denver stayed the course was often mocked. They were the team that lacked the cojones to make the big move. A team that was too passive, and missed their opportunity to reset.
Or, maybe they had a clear vision, believed it would work, and stayed the course until proven right.
The reason it applies to the Raptors: The parallels with Toronto are obvious, down to the 2016-2017 season - Murray and Jokic’s first together was also the debut season for Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. While that duo has been more good than great, the front-office of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have seemed very comfortable staying with a group of players they clearly believe in.
While it’s easy to throw your hands in the air and say it can’t work, many told the Nuggets the same thing until their wins over hastily-tossed together super teams like Phoenix and the Lakers showed that having a deep familiarity with your teammates isn’t something to be taken lightly.
After all, it’s not that long ago that a good chunk of this Raptor’s core surprised the NBA by following up Kawhii Leonard’s departure with a 53 win season in the bubble.
The reason it doesn’t: Of course, if you want to say it’s a lot easier to stand pat with a multiple MVP in Jokic, and a guy tailor made to be his #2 in Murray, you’re not wrong.
Shake it up:
Quick, name me the fourth longest tenured member of the Nuggets title squad?
That’s right, it’s the immortal Vlatko Cancar - the Nuggets 49th pick in the 2017 draft who didn’t come and play in the NBA until the 2019-2020 season.
All told, the Nuggets’ Finals roster had just seven players who were there a year ago. One of those seven, Zeke Nanji played a total of eight minutes in the playoffs this year.
While Denver was very patient in staying with their star duo, as well as the also oft-injured Michael Porter Jr., they were also not afraid to cash in on continuity where they felt there was a chance to improve.
To wit: Gary Harris Jr., RJ Hampton and a first for Aaron Gordon. Or, Monte Morris, and Will Barton for Kenatvious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith.
They famously added Bruce Brown in free-agency, and took Christian Braun 21st(!) overall and then, in a shocking twist for Raptors’ fans, played him, even through growing pains.
Point being, the Nuggets staff identified what they did well, and where they needed help, and aggressively sold good young players to get that help.
The reason it applies to the Raptors: Too much loyalty might be a bad thing. The Nick Nurse firing, though quick in some eyes, fits here. Nurse was at odds with the front-office in how to develop the youngest Raptors, and whispers emerged that he wasn’t getting along with all his players.
Still, while the Raps have been very patient with the talent they (believe) they have identified, it is worth asking if some of that talent could be moved for players who could better augment the team’s core.
The reason it doesn’t: What is the Raptor’s core. Is it Siakam and VanVleet (if he comes back). Is it Siakam and Barnes? Barnes and Anunoby? Siakam and Anunoby?
It’s hard to figure out the best players to augment a core if it’s unclear exactly who your lynch-pins are.
Not a newsflash to anyone who watched the Finals, but the Denver Nuggets towered over the Heat. Of the eight players who got regular minutes for Denver, none of them came in at under 6’4, and the two dudes who are 6’4, Bruce Brown and Jamal Murray, weigh in at over 200 lbs.
That size allowed the Nuggets to overwhelm teams like the Heat and Suns, but also let them stand up to a big, physical, Lakers team - and punish the Lakers smaller players like Dennis Schroeder and D’Angelo Russell, and, for that matter, a pretty big Timberwolves squad.
The Nuggets formidable size made it tough for opponents to exploit mismatches - think of how surprisingly well Murray held up against LeBron and Butler in the final two rounds - and gave them oodles of second chance opportunities. It’s also explains why Denver’s supposedly vulnerable defense finished 4th in the playoffs in defensive rating.
The reason it applies to the Raptors: I think you know the answer to this one - and it’s the reason why Toronto took three of four against Miami - they could just be bigger everywhere than the Heat.
The idea of project 6’9 makes a lot of sense still. Size is an advantage, and teams with multiple big wing stoppers can short-circuit even the best playoff offenses.
The reason it doesn’t: Is it fair to say Fred VanVleet?
No, it isn’t. VanVleet is listed as just shy of 200lbs, and while he’s not quite in Kyle Lowry’s class of “little guys you should never post up”, he’s close.
True, the Raps could get a little bigger in the backcourt, Malachi Flynn is tiny, Trent Jr. is 6’5, but lithe and Jeff Dotwin, if he’s still around, is whippet thin, but FVV’s issue this yesar was more injuries sapping his lateral quickness than constantly being exploited because he’s shorter than me.
Be able to shoot.
The Nuggets were actually a bottom-ten team in how many threes they took (36.1% of all shots), but they were number four in how well they hit them (37.9%), but it wasn’t just from distance, the Nuggets were the best shooting team in the league at the rim, and a solid middle of the pack between the paint and the three point line.
Jokic was among the league’s best big-men shooters from all ranges, Jamal Murray is a three level scorer, Michael Porter is a flamethrower, and Aaron Gordon routinely punked fools at the tin. Even role players like Pope, Braun and Brown all lit it up from range, while having the height, or in Brown’s case the handle, to pressure the rim.
Wait, you’re saying a top-4 offense is good at shooting, and that in turn helps win basketball games? That’s just the sort of in-depth analysis you come for at RapsHq.
The reason it applies to the Raptors: Weirdly enough, the Nuggets had a totally different shot-profile a year ago - where they were dominant in the mid-range, and at the rim, but were just 19th in accuracy from the three point line.
Some of that was personnel changes, Brown, KCP and Braun all shot at least 35% from three. Some of it was guys being better than their career averages - Jokic nailed 38.3% of his long-balls, but came into the season under 34%, while Jamal Murray was at 39.8% vs a career average of under 37% before the season. Even a middling chucker like Aaron Gordon was a couple of percentage-points better than his average.
What I’m trying to say is that teams have good and bad years - Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet could both get back to their levels of the past few years. Chris Boucher could be a guy who shoots 35% for a season, so too could Precious Achiuwa. A healthy-ish Otto Porter would definitely help. While the Raps are not going to be a lights out shooting team as presently constructed they could get to middle of the pack, and that would help — a lot.
The reason it doesn’t: Siakam’s career marks suggest this is what he is - just because a guy has a couple of 35-36% seasons on his resume doesn’t mean that’s his true level. Precious and Boucher may just be guys who can get hot for a couple of months. VanVleet might be breaking down. Porter Jr... does not have the best history of health, Really, aside from Gary Trent Jr. and O.G. Anunoby is there anyone else on this team that’s a guarantee to be above league average from deep?
Adding Championship experience:
The Nuggets got over the hump with a big assist from Caldwell-Pope, who was a key role player for the Lakers team that won it all in the bubble. Jeff Green had been to the Finals with LeBron James in 2018. While Jokic and Murray have fashioned an incredible playoff resume so far, having vets who had played on the biggest stage just helps teams manage big moments.
The reason it applies to the Raptors: Here is one place the Raps’ were arguably ahead of Denver until this year. Pascal Siakam dropped a Finals winning bucket over the premiere defender of his generation. Fred VanVleet got a Finals MVP vote. Otto Porter Jr. could help here as well if he can stay relatively healthy - he won a title in 2022 with Golden State, and functions almost as a new acquisition given how little he was able to play last year.
The reason it doesn’t: Honestly, this is what it feels Masai and co. are banking on, that the Raptors have players who have proven they could play significant roles on a title winning team. Where it gets tricky is the Raps don’t have a ton of players beyond the three guys mentioned above who have done much in the playoffs. Anunoby, yes. Some good moments from Boucher and Achiuwa, but that’s more or less it.
If the Raps’ are going to find a way to be serious, they’re going to need more experience in big games - which neatly explains why Toronto made the Poeltl trade - they felt they needed to get this new core playoff reps to help forge it into something dangerous.
But they didn’t, and now everyone is a year closer to free-agency, or has got there, so is what little big game experience they have going to be going out the door?
Have a generational superstar who is a great locker-room presence, and loves making people better:
I mean, it does help.