The meteoric rise of Nikola Jokić and his superstardom is palpable.

After winning two MVPs and nearly claiming a third, the NBA audience, from players to fans to executives, descended upon the Denver Nuggets ahead of a pressure-packed playoff run. The goal? Let’s see if Jokić and the Nuggets are actually for real.

In a down year for the superpower teams across the NBA from the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference and the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference, there was a distinct lack of celebrity at the top of each conference. Sure, the three best teams in the East appeared formidable at the beginning of the playoffs, but the three best teams in the West were the Nuggets, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Sacramento Kings. Many believed the top of the West to be vulnerable and were waiting for those teams to prove themselves while banking on the more steady East teams, or at least taking the Phoenix Suns with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in the West.

As it turns out, in a year full of parity during the regular season, the playoffs featured plenty of parity as well. Four teams that were lower seeds won in the first round, including a seventh seeded Lakers team and an eighth seeded Miami Heat team. Instead of those upsets being an aberration, the Lakers and Heat each won in the second round as well. The Heat were so good and so surprising that they became the first eighth seed to advance to the NBA Finals since the 1999 New York Knicks in a lockout shortened season.

The Bucks, Grizzlies, and Kings were all upset in the first round, showing that they simply weren’t ready to handle the playoffs this year. The Sixers, Warriors, and Suns bowed out in the second round to teams that were simply better than them. The Celtics and Lakers ultimately exited in the Conference Finals after having impressive runs but also showing serious flaws.

And then there were two: the Heat and the Nuggets.

The Heat are the perfect encapsulation of the 2022-23 NBA season: a gritty, tough, serious team that didn’t mess around in the playoffs. The Celtics nearly caught them in the Conference Finals, but the Heat stayed the course and allowed the Celtics to self-combust once again. Miami’s game plan these playoffs has been simple: trust our process and culture, believe in our best player, and empower our role players to be the best versions of themselves in pressure situations because we, the Miami Heat, are tougher than you. That approach was enough to punish every team they’ve faced so far, and with the way Jimmy Butler is playing, it might be enough to win a championship this season.

The Nuggets though, are what the NBA has desperately needed to rally their coverage around this season: a great team.

In a season fraught with mediocrity, load management, and instability in the NBA, the Nuggets have been an unseen overseer. They’ve watched, listened to the criticism, slowly perfected their craft leading up to the playoffs, and waited for the perfect time to hit “boost” on their afterburners. Denver treated the regular season as a marathon rather than a sprint, never getting too high or too low when the wins were coming or the losses were piling up. Interestingly enough, that process led to Denver achieving the best record in the West in what was a down year, despite the fact that the Nuggets left at least five wins on the table during the regular season due to apathy, rest, and calculation. Denver’s goals weren’t about regular season wins, and it masked just how good they were going to be.

Then, when the Nuggets turned on the jets this postseason, they haven’t looked back. They’ve put together a 12-3 record featuring a 4-1 gentleman’s sweep over the Minnesota Timberwolves, a 4-2 series win over the Phoenix Suns that only lasted that long due to historic shooting from Devin Booker, and a 4-0 shellacking of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers.

Through it all, the NBA world has been able to watch Jokić absolutely cook everybody in front of him. Teams are loading up to stop him and his two-man game with star guard Jamal Murray, and nothing has worked to this point. The genius on display to shred even the best defenses in the league has been magical, and the Nuggets have won by making teams work so hard just to see Jokić make insane shots whenever the Nuggets need him to do so.

After operating in the shadows for so long, Jokić and the Nuggets are finally in the spotlight. As it turns out, they’re way cooler and more fun and more compelling than many gave them credit for. They’re the only team in the playoffs that has consistently performed at an elite level throughout. (No disrespect to the Heat, who deserve to be where they are today. They were simply three minutes away from losing to the 10th seeded Chicago Bulls in their second play-in game though.)

The NBA audience hates it when they don’t have a story to latch on to or a team that can captivate them. In many ways, this year felt like the 2014-15 season after the San Antonio Spurs won the championship the previous year and LeBron James went back to the Cleveland Cavaliers and a flawed roster. The NBA world didn’t want to believe that the Golden State Warriors, a team that won 67 games, was going to be the most dominant and compelling team that year and ultimately of the next eight years. Stephen Curry was a player the NBA had never seen before, but once he got to shine on the brightest stage, fans began to believe in the Warriors, and they became a dynasty.

Could the same thing be happening with Jokić and Denver? Were they a dominant team hiding in plain sight all season? Their regular season numbers don’t bear that out, but the playoff numbers certainly do. Jokić’s numbers do too, as he’s averaging a near 30-point triple-double in the playoffs. Nothing like this has ever happened before, and the uniqueness of Jokić should be captivating fans everywhere just like it did with Curry.

There’s a changing of the guard happening in the NBA. LeBron James just wrapped up his 20th season. Curry is 35 years old. Durant is 34 years old. Chris Paul and James Harden are past their primes. So much of the previous generation of NBA history is slowly fading, and other players are getting ready to step in and take over. Who the NBA features next will be very, very interesting, with players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, Jayson Tatum, and Devin Booker possessing much of the limelight so far.

Why can’t Jokić and the Nuggets be on that list though? Why can’t this season of the NBA be about Jokić and what he’s accomplished so far in his eight-year career? After all of the pressure placed on his shoulders, for him and the Nuggets to carry that burden as well as they have is admirable. They’re four wins away from carrying it mostly perfectly.

It’s why this season should be all about the Heat and the Nuggets. Butler and the Heat are the most emblematic team of where the NBA’s at today.

Jokić and the Nuggets are the team that could embody the NBA’s tomorrow.