LOS ANGELES — We’re not only witnessing the changing of the guard, but the forward and the center, too. Like, whole teams.
That’s what’s happening in a shifting Western Conference, where the traditional winners are sitting at home with the Lakers poised to join them, while a fresh group of contenders led by the Nuggets are elbowing their way to the top of the heap.
This transformation would officially launch when and if the Nuggets win another game in the Western Conference Finals and take their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals. That would represent a true breakthrough in this conference. Once done, that’ll deny LeBron James a fifth championship and the Lakers an 18th and introduce a new world order. And being up 3-0 in the series, Denver can do that as soon as Monday in Los Angeles (8:30 ET, ESPN).
For the last 25 years, the West was ruled by three franchises: Lakers, Spurs and Warriors. It was an exclusive chokehold that refused to show mercy, because those teams had generational stars in their prime and team management insured longevity by building around those players. Essentially, those teams enjoyed eras, or better yet, dynasties that were rarely threatened by a hostile takeover. At the start of each year, it was evident which teams would legitimately compete for West supremacy that season … and the other 25 or so that wouldn’t.
This was the case for decades.
And now, How The West Was Won will go by a different script.
It’s suddenly a world, at least for now, belonging to the Nuggets, the top-seeded team with a generational talent in his prime: Two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic. They’re poised to reach the Finals because, after a two-year delay, they’re finally healthy. Jokic has quality help with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., forming a core group that hasn’t reached 30 yet.
“I learn a lot about this team every time we play,” said Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who won the 2020 title with the Lakers. “We have resiliency and that dog mentality, no matter if we’re up or down, we’ll continue to fight at a high level. Throughout the whole season we proved that. We’re No. 1 in the West for a reason. I knew from the jump we could win a championship.”
Yet it goes beyond the Nuggets. The Sacramento Kings, who have never reached the NBA Finals as well, demanded and commanded respect with a breakthrough season to grab the No. 3 seed and first playoff appearance since 2006. And the Memphis Grizzlies just broke the 50-win mark for the second straight year. Both teams are smartly-built and young, and while nothing is assured — witness the ongoing maturity issues with Ja Morant — they bring the necessary ingredients for staying power.
Meanwhile: Are the Warriors, winners of six of the last eight West titles, showing wrinkles? What about the Lakers, on the verge of being swept out of the playoffs and led by a 38-year-old LeBron? And while the Spurs just hit the draft lottery jackpot and the rights to select Victor Wembanyama, they’ve been rebuilding for four years and might need a few more before the 7-foot-4 Frenchman is ready to walk in the same footprints as Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
The Nuggets are the first outsider to realistically threaten to crack the code in this conference.
“When I got drafted by Denver, the goal then was to just make the playoffs,” said Porter Jr. “Every year since then the goal is to win a championship. Even when we win on Monday (for Game 4), that’s the goal.”
The so-called downside to change is that folks need convincing that change is actually happening. That’s why the Nuggets feel slighted by the public reception to their rise. They complain, in unison: We’re being ignored. Well, the reaction to the Nuggets reflects more surprise than anything, more about a basketball world so connected to the traditional powers lurking this time of year that what everyone is experiencing right now seems … different.
The Warriors won so often and went so deep into May and June that they were soon on a first-name basis with that world: Steph, Klay, Draymond. That’s why their name-brand recognition was steep, along with the TV ratings. That world knew them because the Warriors constantly played before the brightest lights and reached the highest stage, where the world watched and studied. That world is just discovering Jokic and Murray, and that’s not being disrespectful — although the Nuggets, in their eager search for motivation, will take it that way — that’s just what familiarity brings and breeds over a period of time.
“We’re not talked about and we take it personally and strive to keep proving everybody wrong,” said Caldwell-Pope.
What’s strange is how the scream of disrespect discounts the fact that Jokic was rightly voted MVP the last two years and runner-up this season. Also: Murray would’ve made at least one All-NBA team if not for a knee injury and a lengthy recovery period that included an entire season erased. Maybe the same for Porter, who dealt with a back injury and missed nearly an entire season as well. How can anyone become fixated on the Nuggets when, aside from their ambitious beginning in the 2020 bubble where they reached the conference finals, their time intact and their rise to the West mountaintop has been such a small and recent sample size?
If the 2022-23 Nuggets season ends with a championship, and jumpstarts a string of multiple titles for them, they’ll be on a first-name basis, too. What’s crazy is … this could actually happen.
And if not Denver, then maybe the Kings with De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. Or the Grizzlies, if Morant finally recognizes what’s at stake. Or possibly the Suns, depending on how many elite seasons are left inside the 34-year-old body of Kevin Durant. Or the Clippers if, and a big if, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can stay out of street clothes.
When next season tips, those teams could see fewer red flags than the traditional favorites who might not be favorites anymore. The Warriors still have Curry, but they’re an aging core with Draymond Green staring at possible free agency. As for the Lakers, LeBron turns 39 in December, Davis still hasn’t demonstrated an ability to play anywhere close to a full season, and there’s no emerging star on the roster.
Basketball life comes at you quickly, even for teams that endured for so long in the attic of the West.
If what we’re seeing from the Nuggets is real and lasting, then the revolution, or evolution, is upon the conference. It’s no longer about Kobe and Shaq and Duncan and Steph and LeBron. It’s about a Serbian center and a Canadian point guard. It’s about a team of fresh faces bringing the same hunger and determination as the dynastic teams that ruled before them.
“I never doubt my team,” said Jokic. “I know what we are capable of doing. We have good players who can step up in the right moment.”
It’s a potential shift in the Western power structure that could send a jolting message to the basketball masses hypnotized by the last 25 years: Get used to this.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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