Today I write in honor of the Denver Nuggets, who have made it to the NBA Finals — the league’s championship round — for the first time in, well, literally forever.

It’s not a story of perseverance exactly. It’s not a story of overcoming the odds — the Nuggets had the best record in the Western Conference this season. It’s not a story of lovable Chicago Cubs-like futility, although the Nuggets have endured their share of futility since entering the league in 1976 and for years before in the late, lamented American Basketball Association.

But mostly, Nuggets fans have suffered through a different kind of futility — all the years of having a good team, but never one quite good enough; of making the playoffs 38 times (including their time in the ABA, mostly as the Denver Rockets) and never winning a championship.

Apparently, no team in any major professional sport has made it to the playoffs so often without a season ending in a parade.

And yet, there’s no moral here. There’s no real lesson to be learned. Certainly, no bootstraps. A billionaire who got his start by marrying into the Walton family owns the team and — I’ll let you pick the villain here between Comcast and Stan Kroenke — has somehow managed to keep the Nuggets’ (and the Colorado Avalanche’s) games off cable TV since 2019.

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So, no moral. Only joy, and, let’s face it, even the joy would be tempered if the Nuggets don’t manage to actually take home the championship against the winner of the Miami-Boston series.

The Broncos have won three. The Avalanche has won three. Even the poor Rockies got to a World Series once, even if they were swept in four games.

But whether or not you’re not a sports fan, you probably get this Nuggets vibe. You can feel it in the air, even if you can’t quite see it through all the smoke. The Nuggets are improbably good. They’re improbably fun.

Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets’ best player and arguably the league’s best player, is a huge, hulking 7-footer who plays the game in what can be described as a tantalizingly slow motion ballet, and yet is all but unstoppable, with skills that defy stereotype and logic and several laws of physics. He may not jump well, but he shoots, he scores, he drives, he rebounds, he passes, he has Webb-telescope-like vision. He is a walking, talking triple-double, which, for you non-basketball fans, is, um, a good thing to be. 

But before I get too deep into the wonders of Jokić — has there ever been a superstar with a nickname anything like Joker? Couldn’t he be Dr. J Jr.? — let me first apologize to the boss, who must think I’m writing today about the home stretch of the mayor’s race, which is, I admit, kind of a big deal. I mean, the winner of the Kelly Brough-Mike Johnston runoff will become only the fifth mayor elected in Denver since 1983.

But, come on.

Four mayors in the past 40 years, sure. How about no NBA Finals appearance, no championship in forever?

During the mayor’s race, we’ve been hearing for months about Denver as a city in crisis. I just want someone to explain this: How can a city with Nikola Jokić on its side be in crisis?

If you’re a fan, you know the Nuggets couldn’t have gotten this far without the brilliance of Jamal Murray, who (measured by height, in any case) plays Robin to Jokić’s Batman and who played stopper to LeBron James in a game-saving defensive play. He also averaged 32 points a game in the Laker series. 

And the Nuggets couldn’t have gotten this far without a team that goes eight deep, plays real defense and runs, both at home and at sea level, in a nod to the great Doug Moe teams that may have won a few land-speed records, but never any titles.

These guys are legit. The real deal. They’ve raced through the playoffs and will probably be favored in the finals.

And yet, they’re a team that virtually everyone has assumed would never win it all, just because they never have, not even back in the ABA days when they were favored to win the league’s final championship in 1976, but lost it to Dr. J and the then-New York Nets. 

I didn’t live in Denver in ’76, but I was in town covering what is probably the city’s most iconic professional basketball moment, when Dr. J — Julius Erving, if you need reminding — beat the fabled David Thompson in the first-ever, All-Star-Game slam-dunk contest. Yes, the most iconic moment. Yes, another Nuggets’ defeat. 

When they arrived in the NBA, one of only four ABA teams to join the league in 1977, they were among the elite. They won their division in their first season. They made the Western finals the next season. In fact, they made the playoffs 11 of their first 13 NBA seasons. And, yes, they went home early every time.

In 1994, the Nuggets, as a No. 8 seed, defeated the No. 1 Seattle SuperSonics — then coached by future Nuggets coach George Karl — in what is probably still the greatest playoff upset in NBA history. Not as many may remember the next round when the Nuggets fell behind three games to none to the Utah Jazz, only to win the next three games to tie the series. I don’t have to tell you what happened in Game 7.

The Nuggets have had great players. They swept the Lakers — a team they’ve never beaten in a playoff series — on the same day Carmelo Anthony, who couldn’t quite take the Nuggets all the way, officially retired. With Anthony, they went to the conference finals. Once. And lost. 

You know most of the others. Alex English and Dan Issel and Thompson and Dikembe Mutombo and Fat Lever and Kiki Vandeweghe and Chauncey Billups and, for you ABA fans, Ralph Simpson and Byron Beck. You probably even know the legendary trainer and even more legendary character, Chopper Travaglini. If I’ve left someone out, I apologize in advance.

But none can match Jokić. If he’s not the best player in the league — and, whatever you’re hearing, there are other legitimate candidates — he’s certainly the best player ever to be chosen No. 41 in the draft. That was in 2014. You’ll hear this over and over again, but at the moment Jokić was drafted,  ESPN was airing a Taco Bell commercial. Yo quiero the Joker?

It might have been fitting. As Nuggets coach Mike Malone put it at the time Jokić was drafted out of Serbia, he “was out of shape, 300 pounds … and no one could see that he’d be a two-time MVP, passing Wilt Chamberlain (in the record books) it seems like every other night.”

As an aside here, for all those Nuggets fans complaining that Jokić, who is in much better shape now than he probably looks, should have won his third consecutive MVP award this year, please let it be noted — even more often than the Taco Bell commercial story — that only three players have won three consecutive MVP awards. They are Bill Russell, Wilt and Larry Bird. 

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Not Michael Jordan. Not Magic Johnson. Not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Not Shaquille O’Neal. Not Steph Curry. Not Oscar Robertson. Not Kobe Bryant. Not Hakeem Olajuwon. Not LeBron James, who must have been so shocked that the Nuggets swept the Lakers, he says he’s considering retiring. Not anyone else. So Jokić, who has defended the MVP award going this season to Joel Embiid, is in good company.

When Jokić finally plays in the NBA Finals, he’ll have the opportunity to stamp his future Hall of Fame greatness on the league’s biggest stage, being watched by the season’s largest audience. If there are still people left who think Jokić is overrated, I’m guessing they’ll have to apologize, too.

This is a young team with great talent, a very good coach and that guy named Joker and his other-worldly game. There’s every chance they’ll be back in the finals again. But whatever comes next, what matters now is that for the first time in Nuggets history, they can say if you’ve missed all the excitement so far, you can still have time to hop on the bandwagon when the finals begin next week — in the month of June.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.

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Mike Littwin

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @mike_littwin