2023 Orlando Magic Playoff Lessons: Denver Nuggets’ championship was built on the journey to get there

Jun 12, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) celebrates with fans after the Nuggets won the NBA championship by defeating the Miami Heat in game five of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 12, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) celebrates with fans after the Nuggets won the NBA championship by defeating the Miami Heat in game five of the 2023 NBA Finals at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

The emotions were clear as the Denver Nuggets accepted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Jamal Murray was literally crying on the stage, undoubtedly thinking of the doubts and dark times, the losses and frustrations. His presence on that stage and his performance in the Finals were part of a long journey.

A journey that he and his teammates largely went on together.

Or there was Nikola Jokic, who basked in his Finals MVP and championship with the unbothered face of someone who is just here so he does not get fined. Jokic is clearly happy about the title too. He just has horses he has to race back home.

Championships are funny. Championships are hard. Championships are trying and filled with doubt along the way.

Championships are the destination of a long journey.

The Denver Nuggets are NBA champions. But the journey to their first title was as important as finally getting to the destination. A championship is a multi-year story.

Everyone loves to tell the story of the team lifting the trophy and to describe that moment. But a championship is not about the destination. It is the journey that creates a championship. It is the moments of doubt that a team pushes through and the failures they persevere past.

The Nuggets were not supposed to be here. They had plenty of adversity and questions put in their place. They had plenty of setbacks and failures along the way.

But Denver kept pushing. The team kept believing in what the team was building. The Nuggets stuck with it and stayed their course.

Those moments made this Denver team and made it possible for the team to win a championship.

Winning a title is not about the final moment of winning as much as it is about the little moments and failures that teach and put a team in a position to win the ultimate prize.

For this Nuggets team, that destination never seemed guaranteed. They did not have a “chosen one” like a LeBron James or Kevin Durant, whose championship reach seemed pre-determined. This was a championship that was earned through failure. It was earned through heartache. It was earned through faith in the group they had built.

This was a championship the Nuggets had been building toward for several years. But it was a championship nobody still saw coming. As is often the case, nobody on the outside believes a team can win the title until they actually do it.

But there was a lot of doubt about this Nuggets team specifically.

Their journey started with the 2018 season and the massive failure of losing an overtime Game 82 play-in game with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Nuggets rallied to put themselves in that position winning six straight before that dramtic final game in Minneapolis.

It was proof of concept of what they were capable of as they finished above .500 for the first time as a group. They had clear postseason potential. But the loss stung. Players from that group said it was a galvanizing moment for them. They were not going to have that feeling of emptiness again.

Of course, they would though. The thing about the NBA and the journey to a championship is that each success is met with a failure.

Each playoff triumph typically ends with a gut-wrenching postseason defeat that lays all your flaws bare. It is a gut check for every offseason and a challenge to get better.

The Nuggets faced this several times over the years and had several moments when they or another team might have broken and tried a different path.

In 2019, the Nuggets catapulted to second in the Western Conference. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray looked like a true force in the league. But they lost on their home floor in Game 7 to a more seasoned Portland Trail Blazers team and CJ McCollum’s masterful fourth quarter.

This was their first postseason together. Some adjustments and some growing pains were expected.

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They had their breakthrough in 2020 in the bubble. They erased a 3-1 deficit in their first-round series with the Utah Jazz behind Murray’s heroics. They followed that up with a second 3-1 comeback in their win over the LA Clippers. Denver seemed to have that lightning in a bottle.

Then came the Los Angeles Lakers and their experience and size. Denver looked small in the moment and the questions about Nikola Jokic in the spotlight started as he struggled to handle Anthony Davis.

The 2021 season was supposed to be the Nuggets’ ascendancy. After struggling to find their replacement for Jerami Grant in free agency, they acquired Aaron Gordon from the Orlando Magic to give them the size and versatility on th eperimeter they seemed to need to make their whole system work.

It did. . . until Jamal Murray tore his ACL just seven games into the experiment. A title favorite suddenly had a multiyear journey to become whole again.

They got past the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round only for the Phoenix Suns to sweep the Denver Nuggets in the second round. The 2022 season felt like a transition too. They finished sixth in their first major step back as a team, losing in the first round to the Golden State Warriors in a quick series.

They stayed their course and believe in Murray and his recovery. They did not waver in that belief even if those on the outside did. They had been through this journey through every step and every doubt and every failure. They were not turning back now.

Their destination of winning a championship was built because of this journey to get there. It was not easy — it never is. And it truly was a multi-year tale of success and failure.

It is important to remember this. The journey to a title is never a straight line. There are doubts and failures.

Yes, winning a championship takes acquiring elite players — Jokic is a deserved two-time MVP and Murray should have been a multi-time All-Star by now (something that will surely be corrected next year now that he is a champion and has had that stage).

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Yes, it takes shrewd moves like trading for Gordon from a rebuilding Magic team.

Yes, it takes smart drafting like taking Nikola Jokic in the first place with the 42nd pick or adding a young Christian Braun who is ready to compete immediately.

But it also takes the patience to stay the course. It takes the faith in what you have built and the understanding that there will be failures and falls along the way.

If the Magic are currently on a championship journey, they have to understand this. That every season and every success and every failure is a necessary part of the journey.

It is the journey that makes the destination.

Orlando is still seeking its first taste of the postseason. That will be a key goal this year. But with that first postseaosn appearance will likely come their first major failure. A realization that for as much as they have leveled up, there is another level to reach.

How a team responds to that realization is what ultimately makes them a champion. Coming back from heartbreak and disappointment stronger is the true test of a champion.

The Nuggets responded every time they were put on the mat. They succeeded and failed. They had set backs and triumphs. It all added up to get them to that podium last night.

It is the queston every team asks themselves every offseason. The journey to that destination matters in making a champion.

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What step will the Magic take this year?