Path to the starting five: How the Nuggets and Heat built NBA Finals contenders

This is the first time in franchise history the Denver Nuggets are competing for an NBA title. As the Miami Heat needed a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals to defeat the Boston Celtics, the Nuggets have had nine days off and plenty of rest after sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

Denver has been patient over the years building around two-time MVP Nikola Jokić and star point guard Jamal Murray. The duo reached the 2020 Western Conference finals (the bubble season in Orlando) and couldn't quite get over the hump. The front office has made some strategic trades, such as bringing in Aaron Gordon, and worked through injuries.

On the other side are the Heat who avoided a historic upset against the Celtics, after being up 3-0 and losing three games in a row to go the distance. Jimmy Butler was named the MVP of the Eastern Conference finals, but it was Caleb Martin who was the difference-maker in Game 7, finishing with 26 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists in the 103-84 win.

Each franchise had a unique road to building its team. Here’s a look at the history of how these teams' starting fives were formed.

Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokić

Jokić had one of the most interesting paths to the NBA and will end up being one of the best players to play the center position when his career is over. Other than being a two-time MVP (and in the running for a third consecutive honor this year before losing to Joel Embiid), he's averaging a triple-double in the playoffs (29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds, 10.3 assists). Jokić has recorded a record-high eight triple-doubles in the Nuggets' historic playoff run, passing Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain's record of seven, which had stood for 56 years.

Jokić, 28, was the 41st pick in 2014 NBA Draft and it was famously revealed that the Serbian center would be joining the Nuggets during a Taco Bell commercial and break in the broadcast. Jokić played one more season in Serbia for Mega Basket before joining the Nuggets for the 2015-16 season and earning NBA All-Rookie First Team honors.

The 6-foot-11 center became the centerpiece for the Nuggets as they built around him. He is now a five-time NBA All-Star, was named the Western Conference finals MVP and averaged 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists this season.

Jamal Murray

Murray joined the Nuggets in 2016 after Denver selected the point guard out of Kentucky with seventh overall pick in the draft. Murray was a five-star recruit and considered a top-10 player in his high school class and reclassified up a grade to join the Wildcats a year early.

Murray and Jokić grew into one of the best point-center combos in the NBA and first showed glimpses of what this Nuggets team could be during the 2020 playoffs. In the first round against the Utah Jazz, Murray led a comeback after being down 3-1 in the series. In Games 4 and 6, Murray recorded 50 points as the Nuggets made the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2009, losing to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Murray suffered an ACL injury that kept him sidelined the entire 2021-22 season and he came back at the start of this season stronger than ever. During the Western Conference finals, Murray averaged 32.5 points on 52.7% shooting, 5.3 assists and 2.8 steals. He also shot 40.5% from 3-point range on 4 attempts per game.

Aaron Gordon

Gordon was the fourth overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and spent seven seasons with the Orlando Magic before being traded to the Nuggets in March 2021. Prior to the NBA, Gordon was a top-three recruit coming out of high school and spent one year at Arizona before declaring for the draft.

Gordon and Gary Clark were traded to the Nuggets in exchange for Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton and a future first-round pick. The 6-8 forward became an instrumental piece around Murray and Jokić and brought size and experience in the post.

In Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, Gordon recorded 22 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks in the comeback win over the Lakers and had the daunting task of guarding LeBron James, making the final defensive stop with the game on the line.

"We have a great group of guys," Gordon said after the win. "The talent is there, the camaraderie is there, the chemistry is there, the IQ is there and the unselfishness is there. It's really a brotherhood and we do it for the person next to us."

Michael Porter Jr.

Porter Jr. was the No. 1-ranked player coming out of high school and originally committed to Washington before flipping to Missouri after his dad was hired as an assistant coach. He played in only three games after suffering a lower back injury that required surgery. Porter Jr. slipped in the 2018 NBA Draft, with concerns surrounding his back, and the Nuggets took a chance on him with the No. 14 pick without having the 6-10 wing in for a workout.

He sat out the entire 2018 season after requiring a second back surgery and after playing in only nine games to start the 2021-22 season, Porter Jr. had a third back surgery and missed the remainder of the season. Despite all of his time off the court, Porter Jr. has had a very productive season with the Nuggets, averaging 17.4 points and shooting 41.4% from 3-point range.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Caldwell-Pope was a five-star recruit in the 2011 high school class and chose Georgia over Tennessee, Alabama and Florida State. After one year in college, he was the eighth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons. Caldwell-Pope spent four seasons in Detroit before being traded to the Lakers and then the Washington Wizards. In July 2022, Caldwell-Pope was traded to the Nuggets in exchange for Monté Morris and Will Barton.

Caldwell-Pope is averaging 11.9 points on 50.6% shooting from the field during the playoffs and is seeing more minutes from the regular season, averaging 33 minutes per game.

Miami Heat

Jimmy Butler

Butler was an under-the-radar prospect in high school and spent one year at Tyler Junior College before transferring to Marquette. He was the 30th pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and spent six seasons with the Chicago Bulls before being traded first to the Minnesota Timberwolves and then the Philadelphia 76ers in the span of three years. In 2019, Butler joined the Heat in a sign-and-trade with the 76ers in a four-team deal. He seemed to find a home with head coach Erik Spoelstra and the Heat, leading them to a Finals appearance in his first season with the team in 2020.

Butler is a six-time NBA All-Star and was named the Eastern Conference finals MVP in the series against the Celtics where he averaged 24.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game in just under 40 minutes on the court.

Bam Adebayo

Butler and Adebayo are the only two starters on the Heat who were actually drafted. The Heat have nine undrafted players on the roster and have molded this team together by bringing in complementary pieces alongside Butler, Tyler Herro (currently sidelined with a fractured right hand) and Adebayo.

The 6-9 forward was a top-10 recruit coming out of high school and joined De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk at Kentucky in a monster recruiting class. After one season in Lexington, the Heat selected Adebayo with the 14th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

Adebayo began to emerge as one of the best defensive players in the Eastern Conference during the 2019-20 season. He is a two-time NBA All-Star and has been named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team four times. During this year's playoff run, Adebayo is averaging 17 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and has recorded 23 double-doubles.

Caleb Martin

Both Caleb and his twin brother, Cody, played for powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in high school and were four-star recruits who initially committed to NC State in 2014. Both players transferred to Nevada after two seasons and Martin entered the 2019 NBA Draft after a successful senior season. The 6-5 wing went undrafted and the twins were picked up by the Charlotte Hornets. In August 2021, Martin was waived by the Hornets and the next month, he signed a two-way contract with the Heat, eventually leading to a three-year deal.

Since signing with the Heat, Martin has found his rhythm. Butler might have received the MVP nod for the Eastern Conference finals, but it was Martin who was the difference-maker in the series. After averaging only 9.2 points per game during the season, Butler is playing his best basketball right now connecting for 19.3 points and shooting 48.9% from 3-point range during the series against Boston.

Gabe Vincent

Vincent played all four years in college at UC Santa Barbara and went undrafted in 2018. He played two seasons for the Stockton Kings before the Miami Heat signed him on a two-way contract. The 6-2 guard was named the NBA G League Most Improved Player in 2020 and after a strong Summer League showing in 2021, Vincent signed a standard contract with the Heat.

Vincent has been the steady floor general for the Heat during the playoffs. He missed Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals with a sprained left ankle but bounced back in a big way in the final two games. Vincent is averaging only 1.2 turnovers in the last two series and had a season-high 29 points in a Game 3 win over the Celtics.

Max Strus

Strus played two seasons Lewis University, a Division II program, before transferring to DePaul in 2017. The 6-5 guard went undrafted in 2019 and after a stint with the Celtics during Summer League, Strus signed a two-way contract with the Chicago Bulls. In December 2019, Strus suffered an ACL tear during a G League game and was sidelined for the remainder of the season.

Similar to Vincent, Strus signed a standard contract with the Heat after an excellent outing during the 2021 Summer League. He started seeing regular rotational minutes this season, starting in 33 games and averaging 28.4 minutes on the court. With Herro currently out, Strus' role has increased and he's currently averaging 10.2 points while connecting on 45% of his attempts from the field.