Nikola Jokić deservedly received all 11 votes for the 2023 NBA Finals MVP award in leading the Denver Nuggets to the franchise's first championship, but let us never forget the contributions of his pick-and-roll partner, Jamal Murray, who as of this moment is the single greatest player never to make an All-Star team.
That will not last, of course, so long as the 26-year-old point guard continues to perform to his capabilities. Never again should he finish 12th in All-Star voting among Western Conference guards, as he did in 2021, prior to tearing his left ACL. It took him until these playoffs to return to the level he reached in the bubble, where he was a certified killer on Denver's run to the Western Conference finals, and people quickly forgot.
Murray's ability to reach those same heights again and surpass them should leave us all wondering what might have been had he not missed the last two postseasons to injury. At the very least, we should course-correct for the future and rethink his current place in the hierarchy of star guards in a league full of them.
"The challenge is always for you to be an All-Star and All-NBA player, and for you to be the guy that is, along with Nikola, putting this team on your back," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said during the Finals.
Only four players have averaged 26 points, seven assists and five rebounds on the road to a championship, and they are LeBron James (2016 and 2020), Michael Jordan (1991) and now both Jokić and Murray. That is it — the two greatest players in NBA history and the two best players on the team that just won the title.
Too arbitrary a number? Make it 25-5-5 averages en route to a ring, and the list expands only to include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry, Hal Greer, John Havlicek and Dwyane Wade, all Hall of Famers. Of the 12 players who have hit those marks in winning a championship, eight are regular season and Finals MVPs. The others are Greer, Havlicek, Wade and Murray. The first three shared 36 All-Star appearances between them, including at least 10 each, and the other is Jamal Murray.
Now, the best 25-5-5 championship runs of each of those players in terms of scoring efficiency:
Stephen Curry, 2017 Golden State Warriors (65.9 TS%)
LeBron James, 2020 Los Angeles Lakers (64.7 TS%)
Nikola Jokić, 2023 Denver Nuggets (63.1 TS%)
Larry Bird, 1986 Boston Celtics (61.5 TS%)
Michael Jordan, 1991 Chicago Bulls (60 TS%)
Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2021 Milwaukee Bucks (59.9 TS%)
Dwyane Wade, 2006 Miami Heat (59.3 TS%)
Jamal Murray, 2023 Denver Nuggets (58.6 TS%)
Kobe Bryant, 2010 Los Angeles Lakers (56.7 TS%)
John Havlicek, 1974 Boston Celtics (53.5 TS%)
Rick Barry, 1975 Golden State Warriors (50.5 TS%)
Hal Greer, 1967 Philadelphia 76ers (48.7 TS%)
What stands out about this group, beyond the collective greatness, is the presence of both Jokić and Murray. No other teammates have achieved those statistical milestones together, and Jokić's ascent into the game's pantheon has left Murray in the shadows of the annual post-championship legacy discussion, even if the reigning Finals MVP would never leave his teammate out of any conversation about this title.
"He's been our best player since Round 1, and even if he doesn't make shots, his energy is always good," Jokić said when asked if Murray deserves more national attention. "I think that's the best feeling for the guys around him. We know he can make shots, he can go for 50, but even when things don't go his way, he doesn't fall down. He is still playing. He's still fighting. I think that's the best thing about him right now."
The short list of powerhouse championship duos is a CliffsNotes of NBA history. Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
And where do Jokić and Murray's combined offensive statistics rank in relation to the those tandems on their most potent championship runs? Third in scoring, third in shooting efficiency and first in playmaking.
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, 2001 Lakers: 59.8 PTS (55.9 TS%), 9.3 AST
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, 2017 Warriors: 56.6 PTS (67 TS%), 11 AST
Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, 2023 Nuggets: 56.1 PTS (60.9 TS%), 16.6 AST
Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, 1993 Bulls: 55.2 PTS (53.4 TS%), 11.6 AST
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, 2012 Heat: 53.1 PTS (55.3 TS%), 9.9 AST
Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, 1986 Celtics: 50.8 PTS (62.5 TS%), 10.9 AST
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, 1980 Lakers: 50.2 PTS (60.5 TS%), 12.5 AST
Moses Malone and Julius Erving, 1983 76ers: 44.4 PTS (54.6 TS%), 4.9 AST
Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, 2007 Spurs: 43 PTS (53.9 TS%), 9.1 AST
Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, 1962 Celtics: 38.4 PTS (46.6 TS%), 13.8 AST
Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, 1972 Lakers: 37.6 PTS (48.4 TS%), 12.2 AST
None of those pairings created more points per game than Denver's duo. Not Shaq and Kobe. Not Steph and KD. Not MJ and Pippen. Not LeBron and D-Wade. Nobody. Feel free to dismiss this as a product of the NBA's 3-point boon, but that does not account for their proximity to Curry and Durant on this list, and the fact that they are even in the ballpark of these duets should be enough to respect Murray's contributions.
"I've always felt that Nikola and Jamal Murray are one of the most elite and lethal two-man game combos in the NBA, and we've seen that growing for seven years now," Malone said after a Game 3 win, when Jokić and Murray became the first pairing to each record 30-point triple-doubles. "A lot of guys play with each other. I think those two guys play for each other and off of each other and they read each other so well."
Each tandem but Malone and Erving, Chamberlain and West won multiple rings together. Jokić and Murray must do the same to enter the chat about the game's greatest pairings, but they are 28 and 26 years old, respectively. Erving was 32 in 1983. Chamberlain and West were in their mid-30s by 1972. The rest, save for an ageless Abdul-Jabbar and Cousy a lifetime ago, were in their 20s at the time of their first titles.
Regardless of how they will be remembered in the future, it is time to give Murray his due now. He was far from his peak to start the season, still steadying his legs in his return from surgery, but he was averaging 20.2 points (on 46/40/83 shooting splits), 5.8 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 32.5 minutes per game by the All-Star break. He finished 21st in fan voting among West guards for the All-Star Game, behind Jalen Green, CJ McCollum, Kevin Huerter, Lonnie Walker IV and Anfernee Simons. Put some respect on Murray's name.
When it came time to select injury replacements for this year's All-Star Game, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver named Anthony Edwards and De'Aaron Fox. Murray may not have even been under consideration.
Four months later, after what we just witnessed, which All-Star point guard are you taking over Murray? Knowing what we know about the competition now, would the Nuggets — the reigning champs — swap Murray for Ja Morant? Kyrie Irving? Damian Lillard? Donovan Mitchell? Jrue Holiday? Tyrese Haliburton? The answer is no on all accounts, and not just because Murray is seven years into his rapport with Jokić.
The short list of point guards who we could trust to perform the way Murray just did on basketball's biggest stage is limited to Curry and Luka Dončić. Maybe Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Remember that when All-Star ballots come due again, because Murray's performance belongs in the annals of history, right next to Jokić.