Photo Credit: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
As the buzzer hit zero in the Miami Heat’s 103 - 84 victory over the Boston Celtics, the stage was officially set: the 2023 NBA Finals are going to be the weirdest ever. It’s not just that the two Finals representatives aren’t chock full of household names (although that’s certainly a contributor), but also that neither of these teams garnered much in the way of… enthusiasm when it came to their postseason expectations – and that’s despite the Denver Nuggets being the Western Conference’s top seeded team!
While it’s hard to understand why so many were so pessimistic on the Nuggets’ chances to advance in these playoffs, it’s far easier to understand why no one saw this Heat run coming. They’re the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed (aka, the last team to make the postseason). They finished just six games over .500 (44 - 38), they had a negative point differential, they owned worst scoring offense in the NBA, and they lost to the Atlanta Hawks at home during the NBA’s freaking Play-In Game. Ipso facto, they were one loss away from missing the playoffs entirely! Now, they’re four wins from being champions.
The Nuggets, on the other hand, could not have had a more different road to the Finals. Not only were they excellent in the regular season, finishing with the best record in the Western Conference and fourth-best record in the NBA overall, but they had one of the very best offenses in the league, propelled by one of the league’s most unstoppable forces in two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets finished second in the NBA in points per game, third in assists per game, third in three-point percentage and second in total field goal percentage. That’s the definition of efficiency.
But you might be thinking, “A #1-seed versus an #8-seed in the Finals is weird, sure, but we’ve seen this before. In 1999, the #1-seeded San Antonio Spurs defeated #8-seeded New York Knicks.” And you’d be correct, but there’s a few reasons why this Finals, while certainly in the running for weirdest ever, doesn’t reach the absurdity that is 2023.
The Knicks had the league’s highest payroll in 1999 (thanks Ryen Russillo) and featured Patrick Ewing (widely considered one of the best players in the NBA at the time) as well as a host of other notable complementary and role players, like Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and Allan Houston.
1999 was a strike-shortened season, and the Knicks, despite being the #8 seed, finished only 6.0 games behind the Eastern Conference’s top-seed the Miami Heat (compared to 14.0 games back from first for the 2022-23 Miami Heat).
The Spurs were heading into year two of the pairing of David Robinson and Tim Duncan as one of the most dominant pair of big men in NBA history, and they were widely considered one of the title favorites heading into the season.
This matchup between the Heat and Nuggets has almost no similarities. Jimmy Butler might be the closest to a household name on the entire Heat roster – and he wasn’t even named to the All-Star team in 2023! And while Jokic might be every bit the player that Robinson or Duncan was for the Spurs, it’s taken the national media a long, long time to come around on the idea that they were true contenders or that Jokic is indisputably the best player in the world right now.
If we look back at all the Finals until 2004 (when the NBA expanded to its current 30-team iteration), we can see just how odd this Finals is by comparison (winner is in bold):
2022: #3 Golden State Warriors vs. #2 Boston Celtics
2021: #2 Phoenix Suns vs. #3 Milwaukee Bucks
2020: #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs #5 Miami Heat
2019: #1 Golden State Warriors vs. #2 Toronto Raptors
2018: #2 Golden State Warriors vs. #4 Cleveland Cavaliers
2017: #1 Golden State Warriors vs. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers
2016: #1 Golden State Warriors vs. #1 Cleveland Cavaliers
2015: #1 Golden State Warriors vs. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers
2014: #1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Miami Heat
2013: #2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #1 Miami Heat
2012: #2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #2 Miami Heat
2011: #3 Dallas Mavericks vs. #2 Miami Heat
2010: #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #4 Boston Celtics
2009: #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Orlando Magic
2008: #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #1 Boston Celtics
2007: #3 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Cleveland Cavaliers
2006: #4 Dallas Mavericks vs. #2 Miami Heat
2005: #2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #2 Detroit Pistons
2004: #2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #3 Detroit Pistons
The first thing you might notice is there’s a lot of usual suspects. The 2010s were dominated by the Warriors and Cavs. The Spurs were always in the picture. So were the Lakers (more so in the 2000s). The Boston Celtics had a couple moments too. And while there are certainly some teams that fit the “surprise” distinction, like the 2020 Heat, 2006 Mavericks or 2004 Pistons, none of these teams looked like complete afterthoughts heading into the postseason like this year’s Heat.
But most importantly, and what really sets this Finals apart from any other, is the utter lack of widespread confidence in the Nuggets. This is a team that pundits had such little faith in, that the entire media landscape went into an uproar when a mid-season ESPN straw poll featuring NBA general managers suggested that Jokic – who was averaging a triple-double at the time and piloting the team with the best record in the Western Conference – might be the favorite to win the MVP for the third straight season. Jokic being in that conversation was unspeakable, according to some, especially when race-baiters like ESPN's Kendrick Perkins attempted to make the conversation about MVP voters showing prejudice in favor of the white guy in Jokic. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now.
Still, three-consecutive MVPs would have put Jokic in some extremely rarified air. Michael Jordan didn't do it. Neither did LeBron James, Steph Curry, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Moses Malone. Some pundits who argued against Jokic’s candidacy pointed out that the only players to win three consecutive MVPs (Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain & Larry Bird) were either NBA Champions or widely considered the best player in the game, and Jokic didn't fulfil either of those categories. Oops. Too bad those “experts” can’t take those opinions back now, considering Jokic looks primed to win his first title and is now widely considered the best player in the game. Maybe those GMs were on to something? That, or maybe the NBA media can be full of shit from time to time...
Jokic is getting the last laugh, though. And the Heat are doing the same, just from a vastly different starting point. The 2023 NBA Finals is a David versus Goliath contest, except one where no one is wants to count out David, and Goliath has been written off from the beginning of the year. Either way, it’s incredible that both a #1-seed and an #8-seed can lay equal claim to the “nobody believes in us” mantra. It doesn’t get any weirder than that.