Who’s going to win the NBA title, Nikola Jokić’s Denver Nuggets or Jimmy Butler’s Miami Heat?
To answer that question, we once again turned to a panel of experts. We asked a scout, a coach and a team executive to predict the outcome of the 2023 NBA Finals, which will start Thursday in Denver. We granted our experts anonymity because their employers did not give them permission to discuss other franchises publicly. Anonymity also allowed them to be completely candid in their assessments.
Let’s acknowledge something right off the bat: The experts we spoke with for our previous articles in these playoffs have underestimated the eighth-seeded Heat. Leading into the second round, a scout, coach and executive all predicted the New York Knicks would eliminate Miami. Right before the Eastern Conference finals, all of the experts said the Boston Celtics would dispatch the Heat.
(Editor’s note: Their assessments have been lightly edited for brevity, clarity and grammar.)
Scout’s outlook: “The thing that stands out to me is the role players for Miami have really been the heroes. Not just the unsung heroes. Everybody wants to talk about them being undrafted and unsung. But this time of year, your superstars are supposed to perform. But those guys (who are role players) — Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, (Max) Strus — have been incredible. Even Kevin Love.
“But at the same time, so has Denver’s: KCP (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and Bruce Brown and Michael Porter (Jr.) and Aaron Gordon. They’ve gotten different types of contributions from all their so-called secondary players too. Because of that, if they wipe each other out, it may revert back to, ‘OK, now what are the superstars going to do?’
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“If that does become the case, as well as Jimmy and Bam (Adebayo) can play, I’ve got to go with The Joker. Denver’s other players have been just as good. Nobody expected it from Caleb Martin, not to this level, or Max Strus. Not to carry them this far. But it’s been incredible. They’ve been phenomenal.
“But another reason I would lean Denver is it’s not going to be a giant coaching mismatch like it was this past series with Boston and Miami. Spo (Miami’s Erik Spoelstra) will still do his thing. But Michael Malone has got a little more savvy to him. He’s got a little more adjustments and a little more he has seen and things he can do to counteract, in the zone, especially. The Heat’s zone defense might not be as effective if Denver shoots the ball like they’re capable of. But having a guy who can flash high and distribute the ball the way that Joker can, that could be huge.
“And chemistry is so huge right now. Miami has been playing so great. Whose minutes are (Tyler Herro) going to take when he comes back? He’s definitely not taking Caleb Martin’s minutes right now, or Strus’ minutes. Duncan Robinson may be a guy, but he actually has started making shots and got his confidence back. So it’s a tricky thing to go in and try to teeter with that.”
Coach’s outlook: “I really think it’s going to go six (games). I think Denver pulls it out. I love what Miami does, and I love what they’re doing and how hard they play. And Spo is unbelievable at what he’s doing. But I think, at the end of the day, Denver was No. 1 for a reason: the way they pass and share the basketball. And Joker is, obviously, the (driving force) in all of that.
“Every team has tried to (slow Jokić). I think it’s just a matter of how much you allow him to score or if you decide to let him facilitate. Knowing what he does most and what he has been doing, as a walking triple-double, I think (the Heat are) going to play him individually at times. I think they’ll mix up the double-teams. I think the zone is going to be effective for them, because it allows them to navigate and dictate where those shots are coming from for the team. Like you saw (in Game 7 of the East finals) against Boston, they’re just going to have to keep mixing it up. The traps and the adjustments probably will come a little bit more so on (Jamal) Murray than on Joker. I think that’s the other factor that’s going to play a big part of it: how they can guard Murray as well.
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“I just love the way the Heat share the basketball. It doesn’t matter who is scoring. They allow the game to come to them. They read, and then take, what the defense is giving them offensively. Defensively, I love how Spo just keeps mixing it up. He doesn’t sit with one coverage. He went to zone in the fourth, and I was so impressed by that: just knowing that that was what was going to be effective versus what tradition says that we should be playing (another) type of style in this moment. …
“The Nuggets are clicking on all cylinders with their ability to share and move the basketball. Then, on top of that, they have shot makers with Porter, Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. When you have that as a problem (for the other team) and the space that they play in, it’s very tough to lock in on one man.”
Executive’s outlook: “The Heat are gonna fall, but I had them falling last series, too (laughs). I’m gonna go with Denver, because I love home-court (advantage) — even though it seems to not make much difference (in these playoffs). But (the Nuggets) haven’t lost a home-court game in the playoffs yet. (They’re 8-0 at Ball Arena). So the fact that they’re undefeated at home in the playoffs thus far gives them the edge. You have Jokić, an MVP talent. Now here comes Jamal Murray — not that people didn’t know he was, but it’s the emergence of him now. As the playoffs continued, he just seems to be playing better and better. And their role guys (are key). You’ve got Aaron Gordon playing his role to perfection, Porter scoring the way he can score, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown. All those role players all just kind of fit. I think the team fits.”
On the Heat’s challenge of slowing Jokić, who is averaging 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game in the playoffs and has already set the postseason record for triple doubles (he has eight in 15 games, passing Wilt Chamberlain’s previous mark of seven that was set during Philadelphia’s 15-game title run in 1967).
“I’m watching (Game 7 between the Heat and Celtics) last night as Miami wins, and I’m thinking about talking to you (for this story), and I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, if (Heat center) Bam (Adebayo) goes out, who guards that guy?’ They don’t have anybody. And you always say that the best way to keep a great offensive player occupied is to keep him occupied on the defensive end — and I’m not saying Bam is a great offensive player; he’s not that. But because of Jokić, Bam is going to be involved so much that I just don’t see any depth back there (defensively) to help him with that. So then you go down to (Heat big man Cody) Zeller, and he’s going to have to play in this series, man. I know he’s been playing some for them anyway (he has averaged 9.2 minutes in 16 playoff games), but they’re going to need that guy to play well, and I’m not sure he can do that. I just think it’s too much. I think this is just too much for Miami. But then again, I felt like the last series was too much for Miami too. But I think this one is even more so. Even more so.
“Now if you say, ‘How can Miami win?’ I think Miami only wins because it’s their time. They are playing their very best basketball at the exact right time. How do they win? They have to be a team of destiny. Miami’s got to have that hope that they’re just that good right now.”
On the Nuggets’ challenge of slowing Jimmy Butler, who is averaging 28.5 points, seven rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game in the playoffs. Only Jokic and the Suns’ Kevin Durant (11 games) have hit those marks this postseason.
“They’re gonna have to match up Gordon against him. Gordon is their wing stopper. He guarded (Kevin) Durant (in the second round, when Durant averaged 29.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and five assists). But I just think that with Gordon, his defense is his athleticism and his physicality. I don’t think Aaron has good feet. He doesn’t move that well laterally defensively. He’s just so frickin’ strong and so athletic, and jumps so high, but there’s a lot of (defensive) movement that’s not that good. So I think Jimmy will be able to take him off the dribble at will, and there’s no way in the world that anybody else on that team (can guard him). (Nuggets guard) Bruce Brown is going to have to guard him. I think it’s Denver in six.”
Scout’s pick: Nuggets in six
Coach’s pick: Nuggets in six
Executive’s pick: Nuggets in six
Unanimous pick: Nuggets
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Nathaniel S. Butler, Barry Gossage / Getty Images)