Now finally whole, the Nuggets are looking like a true NBA powerhouse

Before the season, I thought Denver would be one of the most interesting teams in the NBA, because after more than 18 months of injuries, false starts and frustrations — with, in fairness, a couple of MVP trophies mixed in — we’d get to see the Nuggets the way they were meant to be seen.

We’d only briefly glimpsed the version of that team. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon played just five games together after Gordon arrived at the 2021 trade deadline; that core shared the court for only 117 minutes before Murray’s ACL tear and Porter’s injured back pushed pause on the franchise’s best-laid plans. What Denver’s brass saw in those 117 minutes, though, made it believe.

The Nuggets outscored opponents by 46 points in those 117 minutes with the Jokic-Murray-MPJ-Gordon quartet on the floor in 2021 — a net rating of plus-17.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, scoring at a rate (127.2 points-per-100) that would put the best offenses in the history of the league to shame. The way the pieces fit, and how overwhelming the sum of those parts looked, convinced the powers that be that if they just got everybody healthy, made some tweaks around the margins and stayed patient, they could win the NBA championship.

Well, we’re more than halfway into the 2022-23 season. Murray’s playing more or less a full complement of minutes and has even resumed suiting up for both ends of back-to-back sets. Porter’s back in the fold and firing away after missing a month with a heel injury. Jokic, as ever, proceeds apace — the jaw-droppingly dominant, brain-breaking beast slouching toward, if not Bethlehem, then perhaps a third straight MVP — and Gordon has fit in perfectly alongside the big fella, playing the best two-way ball of his career and mounting an interesting case for his first All-Star selection.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 18: Nikola Jokic (15) and Bruce Brown (11) reacts to the clutch play of Jamal Murray (27) of the Denver Nuggets down the stretch against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the fourth quarter of the Nuggets 122-118 win at Ball Arena in Denver on Wednesday, January 18, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Nikola Jokic (15), Jamal Murray (27) and Bruce Brown (11) enjoy their win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

That foursome has now played 395 minutes together this season — more than triple its initial run two seasons back and enough to get a sense of whether what those early returns show might be viable for the long haul. And in those 395 minutes, Denver has:

And oh, by the way: After coming back to take down the Timberwolves on Wednesday, the Nuggets have now won 18 of their last 21 games. They sit atop the Western Conference at 32-13, one game behind the Celtics for the NBA’s best record, with the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 3 net rating, according to Cleaning the Glass. They have, depending on your projection model of choice, somewhere between a 6% and 15% chance of winning it all come season’s end — north of the vaunted 5% odds that Daryl Morey has argued marks the dividing line between pretender and true contender, the point at which a team should be totally focused on winning the title.

The biggest reason the Nuggets can conceive of themselves that way, literally and figuratively, is Jokic, the unsolvable problem who continues to make his case as the best basketball player on the planet and who appears to have chosen putting up 30-point triple-doubles on 60% shooting as his preferred way of passing time between now and the start of the playoffs. No. 2, though, is the ongoing recovery of backcourt firebrand Murray — whose production, quiet as it’s kept, is back to pretty much exactly where it was before his knee injury:

It was Murray who closed the door on the Wolves on Wednesday, scoring seven points in the final 3:10 and finishing with 28 to go with four assists in 33 minutes to ice Denver’s eighth straight win:

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And the production, it seems, isn’t the only thing that’s all the way back:

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The more comfortable Murray’s gotten physically on his surgically repaired wheel, the more rust he’s knocked off both his jumper and his floor game. The result: His partnership with Jokic in the two-man game, built so much on their feel for one another and shared capacity to torture defenses both by pulling up or driving to the cup, has returned to the ranks of the league’s elite.

Since Thanksgiving, Denver has scored 1.22 points per chance on any offensive trip that features Jokic screening for Murray, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking — third-best out of 110 pairings to run 100 or more pick-and-rolls in that span. Winnow that down to the possessions where Jokic, Murray or a player they pass to shoots it right away, and that goes up to 1.28 points per possession — a blistering level of efficiency that serves as the centerpiece of a devastating Denver offensive attack, scrambling coverages and demanding so much defensive attention that it opens up golden opportunities for everyone else.

Like, say, Gordon, who’s taking nearly two-thirds of his shots directly at the rim and making just under three-quarters of them. Or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, an almost unbelievably perfect fit as the fifth man in Denver’s starting lineup, who’s second in the NBA in 3-point shooting, splashing a career-best 47.4% on the tastiest diet of looks he’s ever seen. Or fellow hand-in-glove offseason addition Bruce Brown, whose true shooting percentage (which factors in 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) is 22 points higher when he shares the floor with Jokic, according to PBPstats. Or Porter, who’s shooting a scorching 61% from the corners this season, and who’s back to averaging an efficient 21 points and 6.5 rebounds per-36 since Christmas.

One of the more intriguing parts of this year’s model is the increased optionality that a deeper roster affords Denver. Take Wednesday, for example: With Porter struggling through a rocky shooting night and the Nuggets needing to tighten the screws on a Minnesota offense that had scored more than 120 points-per-100 through three quarters, head coach Michael Malone went away from Porter in favor of Brown, who lacks MPJ’s elite jumper but brings a level of defensive activity, versatility and skill that Denver needed more in the moment. The decision paid off: Brown, who trails only Jokic and Murray in fourth-quarter minutes per game on the Nuggets, played the entire fourth, made some key contributions on offense and guarded across four positions as Denver held the Wolves to five points in the final four minutes to seal the win.

Brown, Caldwell-Pope and rookie Christian Braun join Gordon to give Denver better size, athleticism, malleability and defensive skill on the perimeter than it had last season. (Which is good, because Malone probably still has the occasional nightmare about Will Barton and Austin Rivers guarding Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in the first round last spring.) And while neither Murray nor Porter grade out as positive defenders, the Nuggets do have good positional size and plenty of experience playing with Jokic in Malone’s scheme. Combine that with Jokic’s better-than-he-gets-credit-for work playing up to touch in the pick-and-roll and walling off the paint in drop coverage, as recently highlighted by The Ringer’s Michael Pina, and Denver looks to have the building blocks for, if not a good defense, then a good enough one. Sure enough: While the Nuggets rank 20th in defensive efficiency for the full season, they’re 13th since Dec. 1 and have actually defended at a top-five level with Jokic on the court.

The issue, of course, is what happens when Jokic is off the floor. As you’d expect, the news has been mostly bad: Denver has scored a gobsmacking 17.8 fewer points-per-100 with the Joker on the bench, has given up 8.8 more points-per-100, and features what has been, by NBA Advanced Stats’ reckoning, the league’s second-least-effective reserve corps. A disparity that drastic might be good for bolstering an MVP case, but in terms of winning games, it’s not really what you want.

Those splits haven’t totally reversed themselves of late, but they’ve moved in the right direction a bit. Denver’s been outscored by 5.4 points-per-100 with Jokic on the bench over the last 15 games — still very bad, but not insurmountable, with indications that the upward trajectory might continue.

The persistent second-unit issues prompted Malone to turn back to third-year big man Zeke Nnaji just before Christmas and to juggle his rotation to start pairing effervescent sixth man Bones Hyland with Murray in more two-ballhandler backcourts. That trio, along with Brown and noted dunk enthusiast Vlatko Cancar, has shown some encouraging signs as an athletic and multifaceted reserve lineup; small-sample-size caveats apply for a group that’s played only 59 minutes together, but it’s been outscored by less than a point-per-100. If that group, or others like it, can keep that up — just holding down the fort, essentially playing the opposition even with Jokic off the floor — it would represent a massive win for the Nuggets. Given how summarily they hammer the competition whenever he is on the court, it might be all they need.

We’re still a long way from the postseason, with plenty of unknown variables left to suss out between now and then. What we’re seeing now in Denver, though, is a franchise’s best-laid plan at long last coming together — a team that can win the Finals, that is paying out the reward for the unshakable faith in what those 117 minutes showed, and that is, night after night, giving fans a stronger and stronger reason to believe.