NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets after winning the 2023 Western Conference Finals vs. the Los Angeles Lakers. May 22, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrates winning the Western Conference MVP Trophy and beating the Los Angeles Lakers in game four of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA playoffs at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA used to revel in its predictability. Even if you couldn’t forecast the eventual champion, you could at least correctly guess the Finals matchups.

While other pro sports leagues like the NFL, MLB, and NHL sold fans on the idea of “you never know what’s going to happen,” in stark contrast the NBA stuck to the “you kind of know what’s going to happen” mantra.

But if the 2022-23 season is any indication, the NBA is changing for the better.

The Denver Nuggets, who were eighth in the preseason odds to win it all, are in the Finals for the first time in history. This is a cause for celebration in a league that has often been defined by the Haves vs. the Have Nots.

If the Nuggets win the title, they will be the third team outside of the traditional powers in the past five years to win the championship. They will join the Toronto Raptors, who won their first title in 2019 thanks to a one-year rental of Kawhi Leonard, and the Milwaukee Bucks, who won their first in 50 years thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021.

This Denver run feels more like Milwaukee’s, fueled by an incomparable frontcourt star in Nikola Jokić.

Denver’s rise is good for the NBA because it continues a trend that a path to a championship is achievable for any of the 30 teams. You can build a contender if you draft smartly and have the right management. Championships don’t have to be only for the privileged few. The NBA’s inaugural season began in 1947. Since then, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Chicago Bulls, and San Antonio Spurs have combined to win 52 of the 76 titles. Historically, there’s not a lot of parity.

There are reasons for the imbalance. Big-market marque franchises flush with cash like the Lakers and Celtics will always have built-in advantages. And in a league that’s over 70 percent Black, many of its players — especially when they become free agents — prefer to play in certain cities. Those obstacles can be challenging to overcome.

For many years, the Spurs were held up as the shining example of smaller market success. But they could also be seen as an outlier because they were the only team in their market range routinely contending for titles. In recent years, other non-traditional franchises have found a way. Toronto gambled by trading for Leonard. The Bucks developed and got fortunate with Antetokounmpo. And now, the Nuggets have developed and got fortunate with Jokić.

Jokić, like Antetokounmpo, is an unprecedented big man. He’s the greatest passing center in NBA history. At 28 years old, he’s in his prime, and he’s the kind of player who could sustain his dominance for years. He relies more on skill than athleticism, meaning his game should age well when he reaches his mid-30s.

Denver is no overnight success story. It has taken a while to get to this point. We saw this coming after the Nuggets reached the 2020 Western Conference Finals. But injuries, primarily to sharp-shooting guard Jamal Murray, delayed their ascent.

Denver will be favored to win it all. Deservedly so. The Nuggets have lost only three times this postseason. Will this be the start of a dynasty? Maybe. Maybe not. But that doesn’t really matter. Denver has given hope to the rest of the league that no matter where you are, a championship run is possible.

That’s good for the league and its fans.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.