Nikola Jokić, Jimmy Butler and the legacies on the line in the 2023 NBA Finals

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Ahead of the tipoff for Game 1 of the 2023 NBA Finals on Thursday night, let us take a deep dive into what this championship series will mean for the legacies of so many of the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat.

The Coca-Cola and horse-loving Serbian 7-footer is stamped forever in the NBA’s pantheon if he wins a title. The entire MVP discourse centered around whether Jokić deserved a third straight award when his playoff success did not match previous three-peat winners Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, which was a ridiculous premise, since the electorate gave the award to an even worse playoff performer.

There was no such thing as an MVP who never won a championship in his career until Charles Barkley created the club upon his retirement in 2000. Karl Malone, Allen Iverson and Steve Nash have since been initiated. Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Joel Embiid are in danger of joining them.

Jokić would step out of that line and enter this coalition of players to win multiple MVPs and a ring: Bob Pettit, Russell, Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Pettit’s bona fides as the league’s first MVP in 1956 has somewhat been lost to time, and Antetokounmpo is still building his legacy, but the others in that group might just be the list of the 10 greatest players in history.

This is considered Jokić’s age-27 season, since he turned 28 on Feb. 19. He is a two-time MVP and five-time All-NBA selection. A title this season puts him on the same trajectory as those other all-time greats. Of the players who hit those benchmarks at that age, only Pettit and Moses Malone failed to win another ring.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić has a chance to add an NBA championship to an already decorated career. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić has a chance to add an NBA championship to an already decorated career. (Matt York/AP)

The centers not among those dignitaries include Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, so Jokić would join them in the debate over the five greatest centers of all time, along with Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar and Moses Malone. Jokić’s exclusion from the NBA 75 is probably already a regret by its voters.

Lose to the Heat, and Jokić is right back in line with Rose, Westbrook, Harden and Embiid.

Winning a title with a player of Butler’s stature as the face of these Heat would kind of be unprecedented.

Butler made the All-NBA second team this season for the first time after four third-team selections from 2017-21. The list of teams to win a championship without someone who has ever made the All-NBA first team includes only the 1948 Baltimore Bullets, 1979 Seattle SuperSonics and 2004 Detroit Pistons.

The Bullets won before the league was even called the NBA, when there were eight teams and they had to win two best-of-three series to get to the Finals. Baltimore shot 26% from the field for the series, long before the 3-point line was ever invented, beating a Philadelphia Warriors team that made 25% of its shots. The rosters read like names generated at random. The game of basketball was an entirely different sport.

The 1979 Sonics won at the peak of the NBA’s cocaine era, between the dissolution of the ABA and the introduction of Magic and Bird. The league teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Seattle’s playoff rotation boasted seven players who made All-Star appearances in the 1970s, including Gus Williams, who would make an All-NBA first team three years later, and future Hall of Famers Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma. The Sonics won 52 games, four more than anyone else in the Western Conference, and earned a first-round bye.

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Similarly, the 2004 Pistons started four multiple-time All-Stars in their primes, including Hall of Fame center Ben Wallace and potential Hall of Fame point guard Chauncey Billups, plus Tayshaun Prince, a four-time All-Defensive honoree and Olympic gold medalist. They won 54 games, led the Eastern Conference in net rating (+6.5) and were in the second season of a string of six straight conference finals appearances.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler is six-time All-Star and has five All-NBA selections, but an NBA title could make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler is a six-time All-Star and has five All-NBA selections, but an NBA title could make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Butler’s Heat made the 2020 Finals and Game 7 of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals, but they won 44 games this season, registered a negative net rating (-0.5) and required a comeback in the fourth quarter of a second play-in tournament game to earn the eighth seed. Two-time All-Star center Bam Adebayo is their second-best player, and Caleb Martin, who was on a two-way contract 15 months ago, is probably third at this point. Past-their-prime stars Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love have been pushed to the rotation’s fringes.

Butler is a six-time All-Star in addition to his five All-NBA selections, and that has been enough to make the Hall of Fame for everyone but Amar’e Stoudemire, whose career as an impact player was cut short by knee injuries at age 30. A title should make him a first-ballot selection, but more than that it would force his inclusion into any discussion of the best forwards of this golden generation, a grouping of predatorial wings that currently features James, Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and not a single other peer.

Kyle Lowry and Kevin Love, Miami Heat

The 37-year-old Lowry is a six-time All-Star and 2016 All-NBA third-team selection, and the 34-year-old Love is a five-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA second-team selection. Both already have rings as tertiary stars on teams led by Leonard and James, respectively, and that is enough to get them to the doorstep of the Hall of Fame. A second ring probably pads the résumé enough to guarantee the entrance is unlocked.

Both of their stories are remarkable.

Lowry was a journeyman for the first seven years of his career, before blossoming into a perennial All-Star alongside DeMar DeRozan on the Toronto Raptors. He was the kind of competitor every contender wanted, but nobody was fitting him for a ring when he was 32 years old — until Leonard gave him a Finals stage. His career appeared bound for its basement in last year’s playoffs, when his aging hamstrings could not keep him on the floor, but here he is 17 years into his career with another chance to impact an NBA Finals.

Love was a top-flight big man on a Minnesota Timberwolves team that failed to make the playoffs for the first six years of his career. James wanted him on the Cavaliers for his return to Cleveland, where Love developed into a stretch forward. When James left after four straight trips to the Finals, Love returned to toiling on lottery teams until the Cavaliers released him in February, when they were ready to make their return to the playoffs. Miami signed Love and granted him another title shot.

Make yourself useful for long enough in the NBA, and your turn at the top just might come around again.

Speaking of which, Green and Jordan were once building blocks on teams with championship aspirations. The Oklahoma City Thunder traded Green at the 2012 deadline, months before their run to the Finals, and the Los Angeles Clippers dealt Jordan soon after Chris Paul’s 2017 departure dissolved their title hopes.

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Since securing their last big contracts, both Green and Jordan have spent their 30s chasing the rings that have eluded their lengthy careers. Green’s Game 7 heroics in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals helped James reach his fourth Finals in Cleveland, but their Cavaliers were swept by the Golden State Warriors.

Green and Jordan convened on the Brooklyn Nets, who pushed the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks to a Game 7 in the 2021 conference semifinals. At ages 36 and 34, respectively, they have reunited on the Nuggets — a team that entered this season tied for the ninth-best championship odds — and Jokić gives them both their best chance at a title. Their endless pursuit could finally be rewarded, which would be a win for all veterans whose jobs are constantly threatened by the next building block to a championship.

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat; Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

Adebayo is a two-time All-Star at age 25, but he has yet to make an All-NBA roster, slotted among centers behind third-team selections Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns and Domantas Sabonis in recent years.

Similarly, the 26-year-old Murray might be the best active player not to make an All-Star team. He plays in a Western Conference that has seen its perennial backcourt selections shift from Curry, Harden, Westbrook, Paul and Damian Lillard to Luka Dončić, Ja Morant, Devin Booker, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and … Curry.

A championship is the kind of credential that makes voters think twice before leaving a player off the ballot, and the ring should probably be a tiebreaker against someone like Sabonis or Anthony Edwards next year.

Start stacking All-Star selections and/or All-NBA nods on top of a title into their primes, and suddenly we could start thinking of Adebayo and Murray like we do Love and Lowry in the Hall of Fame conversation.

Shoutout Haslem, who was playing at 300 pounds in France before slimming down and securing a partially guaranteed deal from his hometown Heat in 2003. Twenty seasons, some 70 pounds and several rebuilds later, Haslem, who will turn 43 on June 9, is enjoying the view from another championship window. He won with Dwyane Wade and O’Neal in 2006, and with Wade, James and Chris Bosh in 2012 and 2013.

Miami Heat center Udonis Haslem has spent two decades in the league and could win a fourth title in his final season before retirement. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Miami Heat center Udonis Haslem has spent two decades in the league and could win a fourth title in his final season before retirement. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Haslem emerges from a ninth conference finals to captain the team to a seventh Finals appearance in his two decades-long career, and a fourth ring would be one heck of a retirement gift. He will coach the next rebuild and maybe another championship window, but for a power forward who never sniffed an All-Star selection, has not been a full-time starter since 2009 and never developed a 3-pointer, what a dream run.

Pat Riley, Miami Heat

It is widely known that this marks Riley’s 19th Finals appearance as a player, coach or executive. That is 25% of all championship series in history. He has won nine titles — his first six with the Los Angeles Lakers (in 1972 as a player; in 1980 as an assistant coach; and in 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988 as head coach) and the last three as team president of the Heat (in 2006, 2012 and 2013; he also coached the 2006 team).

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A 10th ring would tie Riley with K.C. Jones and Tommy Heinsohn, who each won eight titles as players and two more as head coaches, all with the Boston Celtics. Only Bill Russell (11), Phil Jackson (13) and Red Auerbach (16) have won more championships in their capacities as players, coaches and/or executives.

Riley is already one of the four greatest NBA coaches (along with Auerbach, Jackson and Gregg Popovich), and David Aldridge ranked him fifth among executives for in 2017. Winning a fourth title should leapfrog him over Jerry Krause (the architect of the 1990s Chicago Bulls) and the San Antonio Spurs’ combination of Popovich and R.C. Buford, simply because the challenge of rebuilding three almost entirely different championship rosters is far greater than caretaking the sheer brilliance of Jordan and Duncan.

Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat

The 52-year-old Spoelstra will cement his status as the best coach in the game today if he wins another ring with Butler as his best player. Leading this eighth seed to a title — beating both No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed along the way — would likely be the greatest single-season coaching job in the sport’s history.

Spoelstra is already one of only 14 head coaches to win multiple championships, and a third would give him sole possession of seventh on that list — behind only Jackson (11), Auerbach (9), Riley (5), Popovich (5), John Kundla (5) and Steve Kerr (4). None of those other six would have a win like this with Butler. The names behind their titles are MJ, Russell, Shaq, Magic, Duncan, Curry, George Mikan and Kobe Bryant. (Not that Spoelstra didn’t benefit from having LeBron and Wade on his first two championship rosters.)

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra could pull off the greatest single-season coaching job if he can lead a No. 8 seed past both No. 1 seeds en route to a title. (Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra could pull off the greatest single-season coaching job if he can lead a No. 8 seed past both No. 1 seeds en route to a title. (Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

Spoelstra is padding his résumé as one of the game’s greatest coaches. His 44 regular-season wins this season gave him 704 in 15 years at the helm, and he could coach 15 more, depending on how early he enjoys his retirement as a golden god on South Beach. The job is his until then. Ten coaches have won 1,000 games. Only Jackson, Riley and Popovich have done so and won multiple rings. And Popovich’s 1,366 career victories are the standard. Spoelstra may not get there, but the first half of the path is carved.

Spoelstra’s 108 career playoff wins already rank fifth all time, and four more wins would inch him past Doc Rivers (111) into fourth behind Jackson (229), Riley (171) and Popovich (170). Spoelstra was 37 when Riley named him head coach, which is a case for giving some runway to a young coach in whom you believe.

Michael Malone, Denver Nuggets

Not only might Malone win Denver’s first NBA title, but he would be the first son of a former head coach to lead his team to one. His father, Brendan Malone, served as head coach of the Raptors (1995-96) and Cavs (2005). The longtime assistant won championships under Chuck Daly with the Pistons in 1989 and 1990.

As far as I know, the Malones would be the first father-son duo to win championships as an assistant or head coach. (If you know of another one, hit me up.) Michael Malone’s staff also includes two other sons of former head coaches — David Adelman (son of Rick Adelman) and Ryan Saunders (son of Flip Saunders).

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