Both the NBA and Stanley Cup Final featured the American Southwest vs. Greater Miami.
While the latter has seen arguably its best ever three-month stretch of title contention, between Miami and FAU Men’s Basketball reaching the Final Four and the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers claiming eastern conference championships, two of sports’ most recognizable championships reside in our part of the country for at least the next calendar year.
While their stories are vastly different, their championship paths prove similar in multiple ways.
On consecutive nights this week, the Denver Nuggets and Vegas Golden Knights not only win their first championships in franchise history but get to start the parties with their home fans.
One team accomplished the feat in year 56, the other in its sixth season.
One team has an MVP that is as anonymous as can be (and he is going to keep it that way). One team resides in a city that doubles as adult Disney, where you are only limited by your own imagination.
One that faced minimal expectations, even as the #1 seed in the West. One set as high a bar for itself as a franchise could, by playing for a championship in its debut season.
Both welcome the attention.
For the Nuggets, the focus was on gaining notoriety and respect. Despite having an incomplete team that came up short in the playoffs year after year, that was what this healthy Nuggets team was believed to be until it proved otherwise.
For the Golden Knights, it was about getting back to the Stanley Cup Final and finishing the job. Before playing its first game as a franchise, and in the middle of the noise telling them that hockey in Vegas would not work, owner Bill Foley predicted that the Golden Knights would win a Stanley Cup within six years.
A lot of people in sports express a similar sentiment because you play to win the game. But if Bill Foley went to one of his city’s many sports books and made that futures bet, he would be having an even better day today and could use his day with the cup to hold all the payout money.
WINNING BASKETBALL IN DENVER
In any walk of life, there are few greater feelings than proving the masses wrong.
Even with a two-time MVP on the roster, name recognition still matters. It is easier for a bigger brand that has been bad for years, or even decades, to get notoriety than it is for an up-and-coming team that is a lesser brand.
If you need proof, look no further than the eastern conference semifinals between the Heat and Knicks and both conference finals series.
On paper, there was a strong case to be made for the Nuggets being the best team on the floor just about every night. And just about every night, the doubt was still there.
While “Heat Culture” is more established and got more air time, this playoff run showed us that there is a similar “Nuggets Culture”. They do not care how you view them. They take the floor with a job to do, which they executed with consistency.
When the Nuggets win, even when the game is close, they show moments of dominance. When they lose, one or two possessions along the way swing the game in the opposition’s favor.
This season wraps up the seventh together for coach Michael Malone and the star tandem of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
In today’s NBA, seven years is a generation. Without constant success and deep playoff runs, few groups would make it seven years.
For the Nuggets, this was not a case of “run it back”, it was a reward for patience.
In April 2021, Jamal Murray tore his ACL. He missed the rest of the 2020-21 season and the entire 21-22 campaign. Early in that recovery process, Murray asked head coach Michael Malone if the team was going to trade him because he was damaged goods.
“I hugged him and said, ‘Hell no. You’re ours. We love you and we’re going to help you get back.”
That was Malone’s response.
The rest is history.
It would have been easy for that to happen. Or for the Nuggets to fire Malone. Or for Jokic to demand a trade to a winning team. In the grand scheme of 2023 NBA business and basketball, the Nuggets have been a house of cards for years now.
However it happened, the organization kept the cards together and now claims the ultimate prize.
HOCKEY IN THE DESERT? YEAH, RIGHT…
I was one of the ones that poo-pooed the idea. While the Avalanche is a year removed from their Stanley Cup parade, at the time of Vegas’ conception, Colorado was at the tail end of a decade-long drought without a playoff series victory and multiple last-place finishes in their division. The Dallas Stars were in a similar situation. The Arizona Coyotes were, and still are, an example of how not to run a business.
People who can own sports franchises usually do not get that rich on accident, but given the track record of teams in this part of the country, the stereotypes of Vegas, and the fact that they would have to start from scratch, there was little to no reason to see any of this success coming.
The notion of “tell me I can’t” is one of the beautiful elements of any competition, and Vegas has exemplified that from day one. The club’s debut season in 2018 ended with a 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final, but a team of castoffs, build through an expansion draft full of players that teams around the league exposed to be plucked away, used that intangible to their advantage, winning the western conference regular season and playoff crowns.
When you set the bar that high, there is only one way to go from there. Vegas had to work its way back to the top.
Now, a championship changes a lot of the narrative surrounding this team since that Cinderella debut.
Following a 2021-22 campaign that saw VGK miss the playoffs, the club fired head coach Pete DeBoer. Just days later, Bruce Cassidy becomes Vegas’ 3rd head coach in five seasons as a franchise.
The number five played a role in this year’s story too, with five different goaltenders seeing starting action.
Baseball has its ace pitcher, football turns to the quarterback. In hockey, the goaltender can carry, or hinder, a team along the path to a championship.
Interestingly enough, Adin Hill’s final regular season came against the Florida Panthers on March 7. Hill would then spend the next two months on the bench, before making his playoff debut in relief in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals, a 5-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
Hill would hold down netminder duties the rest of the way, and be that spark that a hot goalie can be for a franchise.
The other player of note is forward Jonathan Marchessault, a Florida Panthers castoff from that expansion draft that established VGK’s foundation.
While he did not score any of Vegas’ nine (!!!) goals in the cup-clinching win, he led the team and finished tied atop the NHL, with 13 playoff goals. Marchessault won the Conn Smythe trophy, given to the MVP of the playoffs.
THE SOUTHWEST RULES THE WEEK (AND THE REST OF THE SUMMER)
The Larry O’Brien and Stanley Cup trophies likely will not be making their way to Albuquerque any time soon, but two of the best in the NBA and NHL reside in our part of the country.
The fun for fans and work for those teams really get started now. There is no more flying under the radar once you win a championship. The narrative around your team changes forever.
As we look ahead to 2024, no more snide comments about time zones, and national relevance in between Dallas and LA. Whoever wants to take those trophies back will have to come out here to do it.