EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
A guide to being compelled by the likely Nuggets-Heat NBA Finals
May 25, 2023, 1:13 PM | Updated: 3:11 pm
(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
It might end up factually correct that the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat will not draw as many viewers as would the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.
It can also be true that there’s a balance for media entities from this one to the ABC/ESPN giants owned by Disney to cover what’s important while also telling the stories that people might not know or appreciate.
LeBron James, whose accolades you know, insinuating he was thinking about walking away from basketball after his Lakers were swept by the Nuggets deserved attention for sure. That can remain true alongside the fact that Denver’s Nikola Jokic sidestepped, plowed through and behind-the-head-shot his way past three centers who were No. 1 draft picks during the three series to reach the NBA Finals.
The 41st overall pick in 2014 is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds. 10.3 assists on 54% overall and 47% three-point shooting splits. He’s already set a record for playoff triple-doubles with a whole Finals series to go.
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix can be correct in explaining why the Nuggets are not as interesting — because they don’t have drama, their star player doesn’t seek attention and winning can be boring.
Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix talks the Denver Nuggets media gripe.
"they're just not a compelling team to talk about – to write about"
Worth noting that @SIChrisMannix and his cohort are compelled by attention. And financial return. They peddle NBA sugar, not basketball. pic.twitter.com/RSLKMbb2dl
— n i k o l a e s t h e t i c (@nikolaesthetic) May 25, 2023
Mannix, for what it’s worth, has written plenty about Denver’s brilliance in basketball terms. Suns fans might agree that there wasn’t enough attention when the team two years ago meticulously rolled through the playoffs to their own Finals appearance.
He misses the boat, however, in accepting that. While it’s not his job or ours to promote the NBA, we exist because, well, every bit of it from the basketball to the personalities can be interesting.
It can also be true that the media can do more. Predicting future ratings isn’t super helpful. Just think if he’d been talking about how insane Jokic has been in those 1:43 rather than complaining about ratings that don’t exist yet. ESPN play-by-play man and NBA voice Jorge Sedano said it well when citing an old Kevin Durant tweet complaining about this very issue.
If that is indeed the matchup and ratings are “bad,” it’s a failure of ours as a collective media covering the sport.
Part of the job should be to teach, educate and inform the audience. Tell the stories all season long. This way the audience is engaged.
The NBA does a lot of… https://t.co/ofrUasFWwg
— Jorge Sedano (@Sedano) May 20, 2023
In the spirit of contributing toward the reasons to be compelled by a Nuggets Finals matchup against the Miami Heat, who are up 3-1 on the Boston Celtics heading into Thursday, here’s a cheatsheet of things to watch for fans or media members — coming from this dude who writes for ArizonaSports.com.
Best storylines of a Nuggets-Heat Finals
There’s already beef!
Look, if you want cheap drama, this one is easy.
In November 2021, Jokic shoved then-Heat forward Markieff Morris from behind, injuring him in what ultimately cost the veteran four whole months of action.
Brothers got involved on both sides:
“Waited till bro turned his back smh. NOTED,” Marcus Morris tweeted Monday night with an emoji of a hand with a pen writing something down.
That prompted Jokic’s brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja, to open a Twitter account named “@JokicBrothers” to respond to Marcus, Jokic’s brothers confirmed to The Denver Post.
The newly created account tweeted: “You should leave this the way it is instead of publicly threatening our brother! Your brother made a dirty play first. If you want to make a step further be sure we will be waiting for you !! Jokic Brothers”
This is wild stuff! We can imagine there are memories here even though the Morris twins are elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Jokic’s brothers are large people who you also do not want to tangle with. Here they are picking up normal-sized man Michael Malone this past week.
THIS MOMENT pic.twitter.com/qGTqgt94VJ
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) May 23, 2023
Jokic beyond the court
The horse enthusiast had to be served his last MVP trophy by Malone across the Atlantic Ocean last season. It was good cinema but a sign of the bond between the center and his team.
Jokic is a quiet dude, but he’s got a charming dry sense of humor.
Here’s a good example: Asked what caused a scuffle while trying to join a Suns huddle in the conference semifinals he said:
"Just to see the play they're drawing. I think that could help us a lot." 😂 Nikola Jokic jokes about the timeout near the Suns huddle that led to Kevin Durant pushing him #MileHighBasketball
GAME STORY: https://t.co/0JayOd3ji7 pic.twitter.com/GfgwiywAAJ
— 9NEWS Sports Denver (@9NEWSSports) May 10, 2023
Give us as many Jokic soundbites as possible, please.
Jamal Murray has always been that dude
The 26-year-old was a bubble star before an ACL injury. While he has zero NBA All-Star berths, his talent level is showing once again.
He’s averaging 27.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game, shooting 48% and 40% from deep on eight attempts per game. He’s always been that dude.
Before he even entered college at Kentucky, the guy showed up to the 2015 Pan Am Games and lit up a USA Basketball squad of pros and college players to drop 22 points in a fourth quarter and overtime en route to a win.
When big moments and playoffs roll around, the dude just gets better.
The best offseason signing of the NBA season
Bruce Brown broke out a season ago with the Brooklyn Nets, becoming a 6-foot-4, rim-rolling attacker. His role changed in Denver and yet his efficiency has held.
The defensive menace more than doubled his three-point attempt rate and was trusted so much by Malone that the team dealt trigger-happy scorer Bones Hyland at the trade deadline, effectively allowing Brown to act as defacto backup point guard. That went just fine through this Denver playoff run.
And for the Nuggets to sign him on the tax-payer midlevel exception (two years, $13.3 million), it was a steal that’s paying off now.
Aaron Gordon finding his role
Arizona Wildcat viewers will remember Gordon for being the do-it-all gadget man on an Arizona team that fell to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight in 2013-14. Then he got stuck in Orlando.
He’s worked hard enough on his jumper that he’s basically league-average as an occasional spot-up shooter, while his physical traits and basketball instincts have meshed with Denver’s two stars in the 2.5 years since being traded to the Nuggets.
There is no greater power forward-center passing duo. What other team can initiate offense through both its bigs?
Nor is there a better volleyball tandem that can hit the offensive glass with athleticism and touch.
It’s a win for continuity
The Timberwolves’ weird pairing of Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t work. The Lakers fizzled after Denver got enough tape to figure out how to chill a roster which was reloaded at the trade deadline. The Suns didn’t have the right pieces nor the time to figure their reshuffled roster out.
Yeah, injuries and age might have caught up to the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks. A coaching change and stale roster caught up to the Boston Celtics. If they recover from it, it’ll probably be because there’s continuity with their wing stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plus Marcus Smart, Robert Williams and more.
But the Heat and Nuggets have two of the top four longest-tenured NBA head coaches. Erik Spoelstra, hired in 2008, has been around only less time than the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich (1996), while Malone took his post in 2015. Steve Kerr is third after taking his post in 2014, a testament to how rare it is that Malone was hired just a year later and doesn’t have a stack of championships under his belt.
Health and patience has helped Denver. But of course Jokic’s ascent and postseason health matters. Same goes for the Heat and its star.
Jimmy Frickin’ Butler
How is Jimmy Butler not compelling?
May I present, exhibit A:
JIMMY BUTLER AND THE MIAMI HEAT DON'T FORGET, AL HORFORD. TIME-OUT!!!! pic.twitter.com/5anOBCsbSN
— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) May 22, 2023
May I present, exhibit B:
Grant Williams: "I'm going to battle. He got the best out of me tonight & at the end of the day it's out of respect."
Jimmy Butler: "I respect him. He's a big part of what they try to do. I just don't know if I'm the best person to talk to." pic.twitter.com/2yvpCrFIus
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 20, 2023
He’s putting up 29.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. He’s inspiring calls like this:
"JIMMY FREAKIN BUTLER PUTS IT IN!"
🎥: @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/j6jiKj98fH
— The Sporting News (@sportingnews) May 18, 2023
That’s star-level stuff.
We already knew this when the Heat last went to the Finals in the Disney bubble. Like it was then, having a Swiss Army Knife big like Bam Adebayo, a gritty culture and the low-key best head coach in the game takes a shrug-worthy roster a long way so long as they can finish off Boston.
A bunch of dudes
You know why the Heat keep going deep in the playoffs beyond their top-tier head coach and Playoff Jimmy?
They can spend tons of money on their star ($37.7 million), a modern center in Adebayo ($30.4 million) and an aging point guard in Kyle Lowry ($28.3 million) because they hit on tons of rotation players — these are guys other teams probably don’t take a second glance at.
– Duncan Robinson: undrafted.
– Max Strus: undrafted and cut by the Chicago Bulls.
– Caleb Martin: undrafted and waived by the Charlotte Hornets.
– Gabe Vincent: undrafted.
– Kevin Love and Cody Zeller: waived veterans who were picked up mid-year.
Those guys are all currently in the rotation during the Eastern Conference Finals!
Former Heat player, Miami dude and Pat Riley admirer James Jones probably knows that is his challenge ahead, leading the Suns’ front office and needing to fill out the middle tier and backend of the roster with cap restrictions up the wazoo.
That’s what makes the Heat, as usual, compelling.
And if it’s not the Heat, and the Celtics come back from 3-0, well, there’s your storyline. It’ll be annoying, but it’ll be well-earned.
You probably know about that team’s storylines though.