The NBA postseason has been unlike any in league history.
An 8-seed — with the 25th-best offensive rating and a +0.3 average scoring margin in the regular season — is in the NBA Finals. A 7-seed reached the Western Conference Finals. The current title favorite had 18/1 championship odds when the season began.
Either the Nuggets or the Heat will become the fifth different NBA champion in the past five years. It will be the first time that has happened in the league since the 1970s.
Some have said the NBA is becoming like the NHL, that the regular season has become irrelevant, that parity has infiltrated the league defined by dynasties and juggernauts.
But decades of precedent can’t be erased overnight.
The most recent champions failed to win multiple rings for a variety of reasons.
Toronto lost Kawhi Leonard to free agency.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis rarely stayed healthy simultaneously.
Khris Middleton’s knee sunk the Bucks’ repeat bid last year, before Giannis Antetokounmpo’s back injury allowed the Heat to pull an historic first-round upset this year.
Steph Curry was surrounded by dysfunction and an aging supporting cast.
Superstars still rule the league — all but one NBA championship team (2003-04 Pistons) since 1979 has had one — and the Nuggets have the best player in the world.
Nikola Jokic not only has Denver within two wins of its first NBA title, but also leads the team in the best position to win it all in upcoming seasons.
Jokic is 28, under contract through 2028 and plays an unparalleled style that should age beautifully.
Jamal Murray is 26, under contract through 2025 and has become one of the league’s best postseason performers; he’s a second banana with Batman swag, perfectly complementing Jokic’s humble and selfless approach.
Michael Porter Jr. will soon turn 25, and is under contract through 2027. Aaron Gordon is 27 and under contract through 2026.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is signed through 2025.
Rookie Christian Braun is signed through 2026.
Bruce Brown is the only key contributor from this postseason run who may not return — he likely will decline his player option and become a free agent.
The Nuggets’ emergence has been similar to the rise of the Warriors, who had the longest preseason title odds (+2800 in 2014-15) of any eventual champion in the past 40 years and then became an all-time dynasty, led by a two-time MVP in Curry.
The Nuggets went overlooked before the season because they had made only one conference final with Jokic. They also were without Murray the past two postseasons and without Porter last season.
The Nuggets went overlooked before the postseason — given the sixth-best title odds (+1100), behind Milwaukee, Boston, Phoenix, Golden State and Philadelphia — because they went through the motions in the final month of the season after wrapping up a top seed and finished 53-29.
Next season, their competition should be weaker.
James is 38 and hinting at retirement. Golden State architect Bob Myers exited, following the failure of the team’s two-track plan. Phoenix has Kevin Durant and Devin Booker and little else. Jaylen Brown may be too expensive for Boston to keep. James Harden could leave Philly as a free agent. The Bucks canned their head coach and could lose Middleton and/or Brook Lopez to free agency.
The Nuggets will look largely the same, but likely add the confidence of a champion, entering next season.
Dynasties and multi-time champions often sneak up on us.
The Bulls had the fourth-best odds to win the title entering the 1990-91 season, featuring a superstar whose individual brilliance wouldn’t be fully appreciated until his seventh season.
Shaq was always getting swept until Phil Jackson came to Los Angeles and led the Lakers to a three-peat.
Curry had won one playoff series before the Warriors’ 2015 title run.
Don’t be surprised if the Nuggets are next.
Today’s back page
⚾ VACCARO: Mets keep predictably finding Amazin’ new ways to lose with latest collapse
🏈 SERBY: Why Giants coordinators have so much trust in Brian Daboll
🏒 BROOKS: Joel Quenneville likely isn’t why Rangers’ coaching decision lingers
🏈 C.J. Mosley embracing big Jets expectations that come with Aaron Rodgers
Heads in the clouds
For the second straight day, New York City had the worst recorded air quality of any major city in the world.
All city beaches and zoos were closed. Alternate side parking was suspended. Flights to LaGuardia Airport were paused. The Shakespeare in the Park performance of “Hamlet” was canceled.
As government officials recommended remaining indoors — and wearing high-quality masks, if outdoors — the Yankees spent 18 innings Thursday playing through the haze of the “unhealthy” conditions, following Wednesday’s smoke-related postponement.
The sparse crowd was subjected to a 6-5 loss to the White Sox in the doubleheader opener.
The Yankees avoided the sweep by picking up a 3-0 win in the nightcap, buoyed by a home run by Billy McKinney — called up to replace Aaron Judge — who also tripled on his first day back with the Yankees since debuting in the majors with them for a two-game stint in 2018.
It’s Amazin’ how poorly that went
The atmosphere in Atlanta was even harder for New Yorkers to stomach.
Despite holding a four-run lead in the sixth inning — following Francisco Alvarez’s second home run of the game — the Mets suffered their sixth straight loss, 13-10, in extra innings.
The sweep by the Braves marks the first time in franchise history the Mets lost three straight games in which they held a three-run lead in every game.
David Robertson attempted to deliver a five-out save, but the veteran reliever gave up a game-tying homer to Orlando Arcia with one out in the ninth inning.
In the 10th, Ozzie Albies delivered a three-run, walk-off blast off Tommy Hunter to hand the Mets their longest losing streak since 2019.
A sum not greater than its parts
It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of Lionel Messi’s move to MLS. The greatest player in the history of the world’s most popular sport soon will be playing to stadiums all across America.
But it is less important to the league than David Beckham’s arrival in 2007, when the international star entrenched in pop culture joined a struggling league with 13 teams and was given the option to later buy an expansion franchise (Inter Miami) for $25 million. MLS is set to welcome its 30th (San Diego) in 2025 at a cost of $500 million to its ownership.
Messi’s arrival is less intriguing to the country than when Pelé came to New York — to a nation long uninterested in soccer, in the midst of a 40-year World Cup appearance drought — in 1975 as a man who was mostly a myth, unseen by virtually every American fan before watching him with the Cosmos.
Messi will spark sellout crowds and sell piles of jerseys, but it is unlikely he will leave MLS in a much different place than it is in today.
Barring the infiltration of Saudi money, we may never see MLS afford and/or attract the world’s best players in their primes. Bringing Messi aboard prior to his 36th birthday reinforces the league’s mid-tier status.
His stay will be short. His peak has passed, even if he isn’t far removed from it and still may be the world’s best player.
Barcelona, Messi’s longtime club and rival suitor to Inter Miami, publicly derided its former beloved icon’s decision.
“[We] understood and respected Messi’s decision to want to compete in a league with fewer demands, further away from the spotlight and the pressure he has been subject to in recent years,” the club said in a statement.
A unique compensation agreement — reportedly including a percentage of Apple TV+ subscription sales — helped lure Messi to the States, but how many new fans will he be able to draw to a streaming service with virtually no other inducement to sports fans? How many casual fans will care to watch more than a game or three of his? How many will stay when he crosses back over the Atlantic? If the casual fan isn’t converted, how high can the ceiling be?
And how can the casual fan be converted after developing years of emotional attachment to other teams and sports, in a country dominated by two football leagues (NFL and NCAA) that also features the world’s best basketball, baseball and hockey leagues?
How large can MLS’ audience grow when the world’s biggest soccer stars look at it like we look at the CFL, when American audiences wake up early on weekends to watch superior international competition?
Messi will be incredible, likely to turn around the Eastern Conference’s last-place team. He will bring new eyes to the league. Even to the sport.
But unlike in a game, Messi can only do so much.