NBA Finals Debuts Often End in Losses. The Denver Nuggets Are Different.
Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
The NBA Finals have been a long time coming for the Denver Nuggets.
The franchise debuted in the American Basketball Association in 1967 (as the Rockets until 1974) and was quite successful, making the playoffs all nine years in the ABA. The run culminated in the Nuggets' lone appearance in the ABA Finals in 1976, a loss to Julius Erving and the New York Nets.
The ABA then merged with the NBA. The Nuggets have not been back to the Finals since — until now.
Denver will makes its NBA Finals debut on Thursday night, its first in 47 NBA seasons.
So what happens when a team makes its NBA Finals debut?
I looked back at NBA history to find an answer, ranking 14 teams from least to most like the 2023 Nuggets. Here are the teams excluded:
- Yet to make the NBA Finals: Clippers, Hornets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Timberwolves
- Faced another Finals debutante in debut: Bucks, Heat, Mavericks, Wizards
- Made Finals debut 1950s and earlier: 76ers, Celtics, Hawks, Lakers, Kings, Knicks
Tier III — Not Like Denver at All
Not much to see here, as there's little similarity with this year's Nuggets.
14. Phoenix Suns (1976)
The Suns didn't look the part at 42-40, but they pulled a mammoth upset, stunning Rick Barry and the 59-win, defending-champion Warriors. The Suns came back from down 0-1, 1-2 and 2-3 in that series, and then from 0-2 in the Finals to tie Boston 2-2 before losing a three-overtime thriller in one of the wildest games in NBA history. Phoenix was the long shot, not the 1-seed like Denver.
13. Seattle Supersonics (1978)
The "Thunder" made the Finals in 1978 as the Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics started 5-17 and fired their coach for Lenny Wilkens. They finished 42-18, with the league's best defense and a star leap from Gus Williams and rookie Jack Sikma. They upset the West's top two seeds — aided by the injuries of Portland's Bill Walton and Bob Gross — then lost the Finals in seven. Seattle returned to win it the next year.
12. Toronto Raptors (2019)
The Raptors won a playoff series in three straight years and made an ECF. Then they made a big move: trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard. Toronto needed four bounces to beat Philadelphia in the final seconds of Game 7, fell behind 0-2 to the Bucks in the ECF before Fred VanVleet went nuclear, and then lucked into a Warriors team dealing with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson injuries.
11. Detroit Pistons (1988)
The Pistons technically don't belong since they lost two Finals as the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1956-57. They're included as one of two teams with at least a 25-year gap between Finals appearances.
Detroit returned to the Finals in 1988 after falling just short the year before, losing to the defending-champ Celtics in seven in the ECF. The '88 Pistons finished the job in six and pushed the Lakers to seven in the Finals before falling short. Detroit returned the next two years and got its rings. A team that had been on the brink and built around defense and no stars? Not exactly the Nuggets.
Tier II — Not Denver, But Similar Conference Parity
I wrote before the postseason about what to expect from conferences with a huge amount of parity, like this year's West. We considered the 10 seasons with the highest level of parity, and it turns out four of those culminated with a franchise debut in the NBA Finals.
10. Houston Rockets (1981)
The East was loaded with the Celtics, Bucks and 76ers at the top, but the West was all parity with two 40-42 teams making the playoffs, and then meeting in the WCF. Moses Malone's Rockets upset Kareem Abdul Jabbar's 54-26 Lakers, then George Gervin's 52-28 Spurs. Houston even took two games off Boston in the Finals before succumbing. The Nuggets have an MVP center in Nikola Jokic, but they weren't exactly a 40-42 squad.
9. New Jersey Nets (2002)
The Nets beat the Nuggets in the last ABA Finals before joining them in the NBA merger, but they'd only won a single NBA playoff series before 2002. That's when they traded Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd, drafted Richard Jefferson and stumbled through a terrible East to make their first NBA Finals, where they got unceremoniously swept by the Lakers. The Nets returned a year later and dropped only two games in the ECF before losing to San Antonio in the Finals.
8. Indiana Pacers (2000)
The Pacers made the ABA Finals in five of nine seasons before joining the NBA merger. They didn't make the NBA Finals until 2000. Indiana had lost in the ECF four of the past six years, including an especially painful loss to the 8-seed Knicks in 1999. This team mostly ran back the same squad, but saw young talents Jalen Rose and Austin Croshere step up. They beat the Knicks in an ECF rematch before going down 0-2 to the Lakers in the Finals and losing in six.
7. Cleveland Cavaliers (2007)
The East is in transition, with the 1-seed Pistons aging out after four straight ECFs. The Cavs took the Pistons to seven in 2006 but finished the job in 2007 — winning in six behind a transcendent performance from LeBron James — before being swept by the Spurs. It might not be bombastic comparing Jokic to LeBron with what he's doing, but Jokic's teammates are far better and Denver is about offense, not defense.
Tier I — The Denver Finals Debut Lookalikes
We made it to the six teams that actually look a bit like the Jokic-led Nuggets. Which of the six do you think is most like Denver — and what lessons can we learn from the comparison?
6. Orlando Magic (1995)
The Magic had never won a playoff game before 1995. They rode breakout seasons from 23-and-under talents in Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway to a shocking playoff win over Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
Orlando barely outlasted the Pacers in seven to make the Finals. There, they were swept by the defending-champion Rockets as Hakeem Olajuwon dominated young Shaq.
A star center knocking out a possible GOAT? Sounds like Denver, but we needed the version of the NBA Finals with the 76ers and Joel Embiid to really fit.
5. Chicago Bulls (1991)
Michael Jordan finally broke through with his first title in 1991, taking down the Pistons after pushing them to seven the year before. He was already as good as anyone in the NBA for a few years, but he needed breakout leaps from Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant en route to that title.
Jokic is having the sort of playoff run that might put him into a conversation with Jordan, LeBron and precious few others. Might Jamal Murray's breakout be Jokic's version of a Pippen sidekick? Could Michael Porter Jr. be Horace Grant? The Bulls effectively won the next six titles and cemented Jordan's status at the top.
Could this be the start of a run like that for Jokic and the Nuggets?
4. Golden State Warriors (2015)
The Warriors won a title in their inaugural season (1947), and then again in 1975, but it was a 40-year gap before they returned to the Finals. Stephen Curry had just one playoff series win, plus a memorable first-round loss to the Clippers in 2014.
The following year was Curry's MVP leap, but the real leap came with new coach Steve Kerr pushing Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to new levels. The Warriors got a ton of injury luck en route to a Finals run, where they beat LeBron and the Cavs.
This is the modern version of the Bulls. Unlike Curry, Jokic was already a back-to-back MVP, but his greatness — plus leaps from two teammates — and a well-constructed roster feels like the Warriors. Aaron Gordon has been compared to Green's jackknife role while Murray works as Thompson to Jokic's Curry. Both teams are built around transcendent offenses unlike any in the league. But those Warriors were also No. 1 in defense, one area the Nuggets fall short.
3. Utah Jazz (1997)
Competitive for years, the Jazz broke through with back-to-back Finals in 1997-98. Utah was stout defensively, but especially lethal on offense.
The Jazz finally got past the Lakers and Shaq, then took down an aging Rockets team with Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley (all 33 and older) on a John Stockton buzzer beater to send Utah to the Finals. The Jazz pushed the Bulls all the way, but Jordan's "Flu Game" and a Game 6 Kerr jumper were all she wrote — Utah got the same result a year later.
Denver and Utah have always had a similar huge home-court advantage with the elevation, and it's not hard to imagine Murray and Jokic as this generation's version of Stockton and Malone. That duo led over a decade of elite offense with endless pick-and-rolls.
Jokic is a superstar all his own, but he seems even better when cooking together with Murray. The difference is there doesn't appear to be a Bulls dynasty in Denver's way — might have needed Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to complete the comp.
2. Portland Trail Blazers (1977)
The Blazers had never made the playoffs when Jack Ramsey took over for Lenny Wilkens. Portland received just 86 games from star center Bill Walton in his first two years, but finally got a healthy campaign and everything came together.
The Blazers added Maurice Lucas in the ABA dispersal draft and upset the West's top two seeds, including Kareem's Lakers. Portland fell 0-2 to Philly and ABA addition Julius Erving, before a Game 2 Finals brawl shifted momentum and the Blazers never lost again.
Bill Walton may have been the spiritual predecessor to Jokic. Walton did a bit of everything for Portland from the pivot, despite not being a go-to scorer. He racked up 20 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists and 8 blocks in a closeout championship win and looked set to revolutionize the league, winning MVP the following year before injuries derailed his career.
A debut Finals win built around a generational big man passer — could Denver become what Portland might've been with a healthy Walton?
1. San Antonio Spurs (1999)
The Spurs had long been competitive, but never broke through with David Robinson. Then the Admiral missed a year due to injury and they tanked for Tim Duncan. San Antonio leapt to 56 wins in Duncan's rookie season and then returned in the strike-shortened 1999 season and laid waste to the playoffs, losing just two games en route to the first of four titles in nine years.
The Spurs were that season's sleeping giant, overlooked because they'd never really done it in the playoffs — but we probably should've known all along in hindsight. San Antonio had the league's best defense and No. 1 Net Rating, a clear West favorite even in a confusing season. The Nuggets coasted to this year's 1-seed around an all-time big man while everyone focused on parity out West. Denver then cruised to the Finals despite never really doing it before.
There's one other fascinating comparison. Who did the Spurs play in their debut Finals?
Why, the first ever 8-seed to make the Finals! New York upset the 1-seed Heat in Round 1 with the help of an injury that limited star Tim Hardaway, and then swept the overrated Hawks and eked out an ECF win against the 2-seed Pacers. The Knicks were elite on defense all year, but just 26th on offense.
Sound familiar? Miami is an 8-seed with a great defense but ranked 25th on offense. The Heat upset a 1-seed with the help of an injury and are on the brink of surviving a 2-seed. Miami even lost one of its best players along the way, with Tyler Herro playing the role of the missing Patrick Ewing.
Could history be repeating itself? The Spurs dismissed the Knicks in five to win their first title. Perhaps Miami will end up a similar gift to Denver?
1. Teams making Finals debuts don't always win it. The 12 debutantes who didn't face a Finals debut team went 4-8 that first berth. Not great initial news for Denver.
2. Many Finals debuts came with some help. Four were direct results of weak parity conferences. Several were underdog runs. Denver had some injury luck and got through a weaker conference facing 7- and 8-seeds. Sometimes a team needs luck on its side to get over that hump for the first time.
3. Four of the five Finals debutantes most similar to Denver did go on to win the title. Our 14 teams only went 5-9 overall, but the Nuggets aren't just any debutante. They're built around a Hall of Fame, two-time MVP big man and were the 1-seed all year, a title contender hiding in plain sight. They look less like a fluke and more like a team that might win — and maybe be back for more.
4. History expects Finals debutantes to return again soon. Seven of our 14 teams returned to the Finals the following season, while Jordan, Curry and Duncan were just starting long dynastic title runs. Jokic belongs with that trio. Is this the start of something special in Denver?
If you're betting on Denver to win this year's title, maybe you should consider a second bet. The Nuggets are +500 to win the 2023-24 NBA championship at DraftKings.