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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, to be fair, a couple of MVP trophies mixed in, we would get to see the Nuggets as they were meant to be seen.

We had only briefly experienced this team’s version. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon played just five games together after Gordon hit the 2021 trade deadline; that core shared the court for just 117 minutes before Murray’s torn ACL and Porter’s injured back put a pause on the franchise’s best plans. What Denver’s brass saw in those 117 minutes, however, made believe.

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

Well, we’re more than halfway through the 2022-23 season. Murray is playing more or less a full complement of minutes and has even resumed dressing for both ends of back-to-back sets. Porter is back in the fold and firing after missing a month with a heel injury. Jokic, as always, is on pace — the mind-blowingly dominant, brain-wrenching beast barreling toward, if not Bethlehem, perhaps a third straight MVP — and Gordon has fit right in next to the big man, playing the best ball double meaning of his career and building an interesting case for his first All-Star selection.

That quarterback has played a combined 395 minutes this season — more than triple his starting career two seasons ago and enough to get a feel for whether what these early returns show could be viable long term. And in those 395 minutes, Denver has:

He outscored his opponents by 143 points;

With a net rating of plus-15.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions;

Even though he was scoring at a rate (123.6 points per 100) that would put the best offenses in league history to shame.

And by the way: After coming back to defeat the Timberwolves on Wednesday, the Nuggets have 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 which projection model you choose, between a 6% and 15% chance of winning it all at the end of the season, north of the 5% odds that Daryl Morey says marks the dividing line between the pretender and the true contender. the point at which a team should be fully focused on winning the title.

The main reason the Nuggets can be conceived this way, literally and figuratively, is Jokic, the intractable problem that continues to argue as the best basketball player on the planet and seems to have opted for 30-point triple-doubles. 60% shooting as a preferred way to pass the time between now and the start of the playoffs. No. 2, however, is the ongoing recovery of the firebrand Murray, whose production, while remaining quiet, has returned almost exactly to where it was before the knee injury:

Murray in 2020-21, per 36 minutes: 21.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.3 turnovers, 48/41/87 shot splits, 24.4% usage rate, 59 .2% true shooting, 2.14 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Murray since Thanksgiving, for 36: 21.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.1 turnovers, 47/40/81 shooting splits, 24.4% usage rate , 58.9% TS, 2.94 ATO

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

And production, it seems, isn’t the only thing going all the way:

The more physically comfortable Murray has become with his surgically repaired wheel, the more rust has destroyed both his jumper and ground game. The result: His partnership with Jokic in the two-man game, based on both their feel for each other and a shared ability to torture defenses by both pulling up and driving to the glass, is back in the ranks of the league’s elite.

Since Thanksgiving, Denver has scored 1.22 points per chance on any offensive trip that includes Jokic’s projection to Murray, according to Second Spectrum tracking — third-best of 110 pairings to run 100 or more pick-and-rolls in this period. Break that down to possessions where Jokic, Murray or a player they pass to immediately shoots, and that jumps to 1.28 points per possession, a level of blistering efficiency that serves as the centerpiece of an offensive attack Denver’s devastating, coverage riots. and demanding so much defensive attention that it opens up golden opportunities for everyone else.

Like, for example, Gordon, who is making 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 is second in the NBA in 3-point shooting, shooting a career-best 47.4 percent on the diet tastiest looks I’ve ever seen. Or his offseason teammate Bruce Brown, whose true shooting percentage (which takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) is 22 points higher when sharing the floor with Jokic, according to PBPstats. Or Porter, who is shooting a scorching 61% from the corners this season, and has returned to averaging an efficient 21 points and 6.5 rebounds per 36 since Christmas.

One of the most intriguing parts of this year’s model is the increased optionality that gives Denver a deeper roster. 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 been outscored by 120-100 points through three quarters, head coach Michael Malone left of 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 of right now. The decision paid off: Brown, who trails only Jokic and Murray in fourth-quarter minutes per game for the Nuggets, played the entire quarter, made some key contributions on offense and guarded in four positions while Denver held the Wolves to five points in the game. last four minutes to seal the victory.

Brown, Caldwell-Pope and rookie Christian Braun join Gordon to give Denver better size, athleticism, malleability and defensive ability on the perimeter than 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 rank as positive defenders , the Nuggets do have it. positional size and plenty of experience playing with Jokic in Malone’s scheme. Combine that with Jokic’s better-than-he-gets-credit for playing touch in the pick-and-roll and sparing the paint with dribble coverage, as The Ringer’s Michael Pina recently pointed out , and Denver looks have the basics for, if not good defense, then good enough. Indeed: While the Nuggets are 20th in defensive efficiency all season, they are 13th since Dec. 1 and have played top-level defense with Jokic on the court.

The problem, of course, is what happens when Jokic is off the floor. As expected, the news has been mostly bad: Denver has scored 17.8 fewer points per 100 with the Joker on the bench, given up 8.8 more points per 100 and has been, by The Count of the NBA’s advanced statistics, the second least effective reserve corps in the league. Such a drastic disparity might be good for bolstering an MVP case, but in terms of winning games, it’s not really what you want.

These divisions haven’t completely reversed lately, but they’ve moved a bit in the right direction. Denver has been outscored by 5.4 points per 100 with Jokic on the bench over the past 15 games, still very bad, but not insurmountable, with signs that the upward trajectory could continue.

Persistent second-unit woes led Malone to bring back third-year big man Zeke Nnaji just before Christmas and juggle his rotation to begin pairing effervescent sixth man Bones Hyland with Murray on more drives back of two balls. That trio, along with Brown and prominent dunk enthusiast Vlatko Cancar, has shown some encouraging signs as an athletic and versatile reserve lineup; small sample size warnings apply for a group that has only played 59 minutes together but has been outscored by less than a point per 100. If this group, or others like it, can keep it up, just holding the fort, essentially playing the opposition even with Jokic off the floor, would represent a massive win for the Nuggets. Considering how summarily they hammer the competition whenever it’s on the court, that might be all they need.

We are still a long way from the postseason, with many unknown variables to resolve between now and then. What we’re seeing now in Denver, though, is the best plan of a franchise that’s finally coming together: a team that can win the Finals, that’s paying the price for the unwavering faith in what those 117 minutes showed and that is, night after night, giving fans a stronger and stronger reason to believe.

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