The Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat are underway in the 2023 NBA Finals, but there’s league buzz about more than just the championship clash. In honor of the busiest month of the season, here are seven NBA observations on Denver-Miami, Ja Morant, the upcoming draft, and more.
1. The Nuggets’ Size Advantage Is … Huge
Nikola Jokic is the biggest and best player on the floor in the NBA Finals. That’s abundantly clear after watching him tally 27 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds in Game 1. It was just another Thursday for the Joker. But to begin the game, the Nuggets flexed their size advantage in a different way by feeding Aaron Gordon over and over and over.
“They were switching early on and I felt he was really big in terms of sitting down in front of the rim, scoring in the paint and finishing at the rim,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said postgame. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Gordon scored 10 of Denver’s first 20 points by getting buckets on four different Heat players:
Gordon was overpowering Miami on drives and punishing switches underneath the basket. But most amazingly, the Nuggets even cleared a side for him to post up Caleb Martin. Gordon buried him, too.
“We always talk about Nikola embodying Nuggets culture, and I think Aaron Gordon is a prime example of somebody who’s truly selfless,” Malone said. “He does a lot of the dirty work for us, and a lot of times he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves.”
Gordon ended up with 16 points on 10 shots, and even more importantly, he defended Jimmy Butler for 50 percent of the possessions on which they shared the court (36 of 72 plays), according to Second Spectrum. Butler barely even tested him, attempting only four shots when Gordon was the closest defender. His size, length, and positioning effectively worked as a deterrent as part of a collective team effort to contain Miami’s best player.
It’s the Finals. Gordon is absolutely getting recognized for his contributions now. After watching Gordon toiling in Orlando, the Nuggets targeted a player they saw as a smart cutter, a secondary ball handler, and a versatile defender. And now he’s thriving. And he doesn’t care if he’s given personal kudos.
“I’m not here for the credit. I’m here for the wins,” Gordon said after the game. “It’s a beautiful opportunity to play with guys on the team that have so much talent, have so much skill, and have so much passion for the game of basketball. That’s what I’ve always loved is to play the right way, and we do that here. I don’t care if I score 50 or zero, as long as I’m helping impact the game and we’re winning.”
2. Are There Any Silver Linings for Miami?
It all starts with a record: The Heat attempted only two free throws in Game 1, the fewest in NBA playoff history. You’d expect this number to rise, but Miami did shoot the second-fewest shots inside of five feet during the regular season. This isn’t exactly a roster that puts a ton of pressure on the rim, and the Nuggets overloaded the paint anyway with all their size to prevent drives, which Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledged postgame.
“You have to credit them with their size and really protecting the paint and bringing a third defender,” Spoelstra said. “If we are not getting those kind of opportunities at the rim or at the free throw line, we have to find different ways to be able to do it.”
The Heat need more from Butler. The Heat used him in 30 pick-and-rolls in Game 1, and they scored only nine points, according to Second Spectrum. When the Nuggets dropped, Butler typically fed Bam Adebayo on the short roll rather than attacking the basket himself. And if Denver switched, he struggled to generate space:
One play in the first quarter summed up Miami’s night. Butler got switched onto the smaller Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the Heat cleared out for him to isolate. But as Butler slowly backed him down, he drew the attention of all five Nuggets players. The right play for Butler was to kick it out, and he did, only for Max Strus to clank an open 3.
Strus finished the game with nine missed 3s total. Duncan Robinson missed four of five. Their two best shooters didn’t come through, and the team as a whole shot 33.3 percent from deep.
Of course, it’d be foolish to exclusively blame 3-point shooting for Miami’s loss. The Nuggets shot even worse, at 29.6 percent for the game. But the Heat were indeed settling for perimeter jumpers, rather than penetrating into the paint.
“We shot a lot of jump shots, myself probably leading that pack, instead of putting pressure on the rim, getting layups, getting to the free throw line,” Butler said after the game. “I’ve got to put pressure on the rim. Me with no free throws, that was all on myself. Nobody else. So we’ll definitely correct that next game. But only I can do that.”
3. Michael Porter Jr. Is Doing the Little Stuff
The growth of Michael Porter Jr. was on display in Game 1 of the Finals. Porter finished with only 14 points on 16 shots, and missed nine of his 11 attempts from 3. But he also grabbed 13 rebounds, blocked two shots, and kept the ball moving all game, including one particular nifty interior assist:
Porter entered the NBA as a score-first, shot-chucking, allergic-to-passing player who struggled to get stops on defense and didn’t even put in extra effort on the boards. None of that is true anymore, except for the scoring part. Shots just didn’t fall for Porter in Game 1, but he’s now able to impact the game in so many other ways.
Watching the game from the arena, I couldn’t help but think back to the first time I visited Denver. It was the 2018-19 season, just months after Porter was drafted with the 14th pick. Porter sat out that entire year due to a back surgery—one of the many physical problems he’s battled, as The Ringer’s Mirin Fader chronicled—but Nuggets brass and players all raved about his upside as exactly the type of player the team needed.
“He’s a 6-foot-10 shot creator with a very high IQ who grew up in a basketball family that loves, loves, loves basketball,” former Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly told me then. “It’s awesome that he’s coming to a team where he doesn’t have to be the savior. We’re not chomping the bit like, ‘We need you.’ I think when he’s ready to get back out there, he’s going to make a huge impression and impact leaguewide.”
Porter is now making that impression on the biggest stage in the sport, and doing it in more ways than even Denver could have anticipated.
4. What Will Ja Morant’s Punishment Look Like?
On today’s episode of The Mismatch, my cohost Chris Vernon, a Grizzlies fan, began our conversation by saying, “Welp, it’s not looking good for my guy Ja.”
True. In fact, it’s looking bad. Adam Silver held his annual “State of the NBA” presser before Game 1. He was asked three times about Morant’s potential suspension after the Grizzlies guard flashed a gun on Instagram Live for a second time in three months. Though he wouldn’t reveal the extent of Morant’s upcoming punishment, he did say the league made new discoveries during its investigation.
Silver says the NBA has already decided Morant’s fate and will announce the outcome of the investigation shortly after the Finals. But after handing out an eight-game suspension for the first incident, it seems reasonable to expect something significantly more severe this time around, particularly after Silver’s comments Thursday. And if that’s the case, the Grizzlies will need to do some work this summer to make sure they can withstand his loss.
Tyus Jones remains under contract next season. But what if Jones misses any time? The Grizzlies will need to target someone else who can help run the show. Look for Memphis to target a veteran point guard, or a primary playmaker at another position, who can fill the void for as long as Morant is sidelined.
5. Can Nick Nurse Elevate Joel Embiid?
Just a few hours before Game 7 of Celtics-Heat, some major NBA news dropped that sort of got lost in the shuffle: The 76ers hired Nick Nurse, the former Raptors coach, who won a championship in 2019. After Kawhi Leonard led the way, then left for the Clippers, Nurse was never able to replicate that level of success. But he also hasn’t had a player as good as Kawhi until coming to Philly and getting to coach Embiid.
As the new head coach of the Sixers, his primary objective will be to unleash Embiid to an even greater extent than last season, when he won his first MVP award.
Jokic snatched the Best Player in the World belt from Giannis Antetokounmpo this postseason, but I don’t think he’s an automatic lock to retain it moving forward. There’s just so much all-time-level talent in the league that the title could shift year to year. Giannis could reclaim his crown; Luka Doncic poses a looming threat; Victor Wembanyama’s entrance cannot be overlooked. And of course, there’s Embiid.
Reports say that Nurse outlined a vision for developing a system around Embiid during his interviews. We’ll need to see it before we believe it, though. Nurse wore out his welcome in Toronto and lost the locker room, and even Embiid himself has prodded Nurse for complaining about officials.
“I don’t vibrate on the frequency of the past,” Nurse said at his introductory presser.
Uh, sure. But that is what he needs to do. The Sixers can’t live in the past. They need to think forward. Nurse needs to empower Embiid to attack more from the perimeter, much like how Milwaukee uses Giannis. And much like how Denver uses Jokic, Nurse needs to put Embiid in different spots on the floor. The Nuggets get Jokic into advantageous positions with off-screen actions and with his reps as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll.
Embiid may lack Giannis’s vertical athleticism and Jokic’s playmaking feel, but he brings additional dimensions to the game that can be amplified in a system fostering movement and spacing. It’s a benefit he has seldom experienced under various Sixers regimes. Imagine Embiid in place of Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento, screening, handing the ball off to shooters, and posting up. The Sixers won’t shift to that extreme, but they should at least install some elements from that kind of system.
With Nurse on board, Daryl Morey should also focus on acquiring personnel who allow the Sixers to keep Embiid in motion. If James Harden comes back, would he be willing to adapt? I have my doubts. And if he’s gone, who would fill his shoes? Is Tyrese Maxey ready to take a leap? Could the Sixers target movement shooters and cutters in free agency? Or flip Tobias Harris and future assets for a less stationary player?
Morey once constructed a roster and influenced a system that unleashed Harden’s potential in Houston. Now he has a chance to do the same with Embiid in Philadelphia. Nurse is the coach he’s gambling on. If this succeeds, then the Sixers will find themselves in a better position than ever before. But if Nurse fails, Embiid’s discontent may follow swiftly.
6. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Coaching Hire Is on Giannis
Every reporter imaginable has let the world know that Adrian Griffin was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s preferred choice. “Giannis was vehemently against any candidate besides Adrian Griffin,” FanDuel TV’s Shams Charania said last week. “The fact Giannis wanted him so much, you have to take his voice into account.”
Of course the Bucks need to do that. Giannis can be a free agent as soon as 2025. His opinion needs to matter. Just like it did after he threw Mike Budenholzer under the bus because of his lack of adjustments in the first round against the Heat. Strange reported details like Milwaukee’s decision to meet in person for interviews and not on Zoom have overshadowed the fact that at the beginning of this process, the Bucks may have wanted to jar loose a head coach under contract with another team, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Most people in the know believed that target was Ty Lue from the Clippers. Others said it was Doc Rivers, who ended up being fired in Philly. And my league sources say that the Bucks called Suns officials the same weekend Monty Williams was fired to gather information about him. Milwaukee was clearly aiming high. But some of those coaches may have proved too expensive. Others didn’t have interest. And now the Bucks have ended up with an unproven rookie head coach in Griffin. You just never know how a first-time head coach will perform—and the stakes are high for the Bucks. With all the reports making it explicitly clear that this was Giannis’s guy, I can’t help but wonder whether the Bucks are just getting ahead of this, as if to signal: Hey, don’t get mad at us if this goes wrong. This was Giannis’s call.
Griffin comes with plenty of credentials: over a decade of coaching experience as an assistant under Nurse, Tom Thibodeau, Billy Donovan, and Scott Skiles as well as a successful career as an NBA role player for five different franchises. He had some interviews for head-coaching gigs in recent years but hadn’t landed any. The Raptors also interviewed him for their vacant position but were in no rush to offer him a deal, despite having had him in the organization for five seasons under Nurse. Every great coach starts off as a rookie at some point. Can Griffin be better than Budenholzer at managing games and making adjustments? It often takes time to reach that point. Will Griffin be able to succeed in his first year?
To an extent, it may not even matter who the coach is. Milwaukee was upset by an 8-seed in the first round and has an aging roster facing a salary cap and a lack of assets. The pressure is undoubtedly on the front office, and there’s no dodging blame when it comes to the decisions it’s made about its roster.
The Bucks have a dwindling supply of future draft picks, with just one future first, a couple of pick swaps, and four seconds—hardly enough firepower to execute any game-changing trades. MarJon Beauchamp is the only player on the Bucks roster who’s under 25 and has even marginal value. The Bucks have only six players on guaranteed contracts next season, totaling $115 million in salary and likely incentives. And two of their best players can become free agents this summer: Khris Middleton has a player option, and Brook Lopez is unrestricted. These guys have been foundational to everything the Bucks do. But the core is getting old. Lopez just turned 35 and has a long injury history, and Middleton will be 32 and hasn’t looked the same since returning from his knee injury. And then there’s Jrue Holiday, who will be 33 and has already said he plans to retire after his contract runs out in 2025.
Adding to the list of concerns, Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry just sold his stake in the team to Jimmy Haslam, who runs one of the NFL’s worst franchises: the Cleveland Browns. The timing raised speculation that he’s selling high because he sees—as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst put it—”the thundercloud that’s on the horizon.” That thundercloud involves both the new collective bargaining agreement, which has major penalties for high-spending teams, and the fact Giannis has a player option for the 2025-26 season.
In the short term, the Bucks could bring everyone back and still compete for the Finals, but this team needs a jolt and is nearing a point of necessary, dramatic change. It’s on the front office to get things right. But the new coach? That’s on Giannis.
7. Has Ausar Thompson Surpassed Amen?
On Tuesday, The Ringer’s 2023 NBA Draft Guide will be updated with a whole bunch of new profiles, a revised mock draft, and my updated rankings. One of the changes I’m making: moving Ausar Thompson ahead of his twin brother, Amen. Though Amen is a 99th percentile athlete and has been more of a primary playmaker so far, Ausar has made greater progress as a shooter while straight up outperforming his brother in recent years. It’s time to make the change.
I’m taking into consideration intel from people who have seen the twins work out, too. Both Ausar and Amen have worked hard at tweaking their shooting mechanics after struggling from both the floor and the line. But Ausar has made more progress.
Ausar looks fluid off the bounce and comfortable off the catch, with a higher release. This comes after he shot the ball better than his brother during the Overtime Elite season in which the twins led the City Reapers to a championship.
On the other hand, Amen shoots low from his chest in a way that doesn’t look like it’ll be effective off the dribble, and he has never been effective off the catch.
It’s hard to say whether either twin will develop into a reliable 3-point shooter. The both of them just might not have touch from that range. But the progress Ausar has made currently gives him the edge in my eyes, on top of the fact that he’s been the more impactful defender and remains a dynamic downhill scorer and playmaker in his own right.