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Now finally, the Nuggets look like a true powerhouse in the NBA

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Before the season, I thought Denver would be one of The most interesting difference In the NBA, because after more than 18 months of injuries, false starts and frustrations – with two MVP honors in the league – we will watch Nuggets The way it’s meant to be seen.

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We were only briefly released by this team. Nikola JokicAnd Jamal MurrayAnd Michael Porter Jr And Aaron Gordon They only played five games together after Gordon You have reached the 2021 trade deadline; This basic is common in court Only 117 minutes Before Murray Anterior cruciate ligament rupture and porter The casualty appeared Paid pause on the best franchise plans. What the Denver brass saw in those 117 minutes, He made her believe.

Nuggets outperform their opponents With 46 points in those 117 minutes With the Jokic-Murray-MPJ-Gordon quartet on the floor in 2021 – net rating of Plus 17.1 points per 100 possessions is not rubbish time, scoring at a rate (127.2 points per 100) that would put the best offense in league history to shame. The way the pieces fit together, and how overwhelming the sum of those parts seemed, convinced the powers-that-be that if they just got everyone healthy, made a few tweaks around the margins and were patient, they could win the NBA championship.

Well, we’re more than halfway through the 2022-23 season. Murray plays fairly a full set of minutes and has resumed playing for him Both finish from Back-to-Back groups. Porter showed up at the barn and shot away after missing a month with a heel injury. Jokic, as ever, is progressing by leaps and bounds – the Stunningly dominantBrain-breaking monster towards laxityif not Bethlehem, then perhaps A Third best player in a row – And Gordon fit right in alongside the big guy, playing the best two-way ball of his career and going up An interesting case of his first All-Star selection.

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DENVER, CO - JANUARY 18: Nikola Jokic (15) and Bruce Brown (11) react to a clutch play by 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), Jamaal Murray (27) and Bruce Brown (11) enjoy beating the Minnesota Timberwolves On January 18, 2023 (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)

The quartet have now played 395 minutes together this season – more than triple their initial run two seasons ago and enough to get a sense of whether what those early returns show might be viable in the long term. And in those 395 minutes, Denver has:

And by the way: After returning to beat 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 Celtics For the best record in the NBA, with the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 3 net rating, according to cleaning the glasses. They have, depending on your prediction Model from optionsomewhere between a 6% and 15% chance of winning it all at the end of the season – north of the brag 5% odds which Daryl Morey has argued marks the line between a racer and a real racer, and is the point at which a team must be fully focused on winning the title.

The biggest reason Nuggets envision themselves this way, both literally and figuratively, is because of Gokick, Unsolvable problem who continues to make his case as the best basketball player on the planet and who seems to have made a choice Subtract 30 triple triple points on 60% of the shooting As his favorite way to pass the time between now and the start of the playoffs. Number 2, though, is the ongoing recovery of backcourt hacker Murray – whose production, quiet as he is, is back to exactly what 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 as the Denver Aces clinched their eighth straight win:

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

The more physically comfortable Murray was on his surgically repaired wheel, the more rust he scraped off both his playing jacket and his game on the ground. The result: His two-man partnership with Jokic, built so much on their sense of each other and their combined ability to torment defenses whether by standing up or driving to the cup, has returned them to the ranks of the league’s elite.

Since Thanksgiving, Denver has scored 1.22 points per opportunity on any offensive drive that features Murray’s Jokic screening, according to Second Spectrum tracking — third-best out of 110 pairs to run 100 or more catches and tackles in that span. Know that down to the possessions that Jokic or Murray pass or the player they pass on the spot, that goes up to 1.28 Point Per Possession – An astonishing level of efficiency serves as the cornerstone of Denver’s devastating offensive offense, demanding coverage and demanding so much defensive attention that it opens up golden opportunities for all.

Like, say, Gordon, who takes Almost two-thirds of his shots Right on the edge and made Just under three-quarters of them. or Kentavius ​​Caldwell Popeand is almost unbelievably perfect as the fifth man in Denver’s starting lineup, which is Second in the NBA in 3-point shooting, achieved a 47.4% career success rate on the tastiest diet they’ve ever seen. Or his gloved teammate plus Bruce Brown, whose real shooting percentage (affecting two-, three-point, and free throw accuracy) is 22 points higher When he shares the floor with Jokic, according to PBPstats. Or Porter, who shoots A.J burner 61% from the angles This season, he averaged 21 points and 6.5 rebounds Per 36 since Christmas.

One of the more interesting parts of this year’s model is the increase in options offered by a deeper list for the Denver. Take Wednesday, for example: with Porter struggling through a rocky shooting night and the Nuggets needing to tighten the screws on Minnesota’s scoring offense More than 120 points per 100 through three quarters, head coach Michael Malone went away from Porter in favor of the Browns, who lack the elite jacket in MPJ but bring a level of defensive action, versatility and skill that Denver needs most right now. The decision paid off: Brown, who trails only Jokic and Murray A quarter of a minute per game On Nuggets, I played a full fourth, making Some a key contributions On offense and guarding across four positions as Denver lifted the Coyotes to five points in the final four minutes to seal the win.

Brown, Caldwell Pope and rookie Christian Brown join Gordon to give Denver better size, athleticism, stamina, and defensive skills than they did last season. (Which is a good thing, because Malone may still be suffering from the occasional nightmare Will Barton And Austin Rivers guard Stephen Curry And Clay Thompson In the first round last spring.) And while neither Murray nor Porter are rated positive linebackers, the Nuggets have good positional size and ample experience playing Jokic in Malone’s scheme. Combine that with Jokic’s best-of-the-best credit for work that plays for touch in catch and roll and seals paint in drop coverage, as recently highlighted by Michael Pena Rangerand Denver is looking to own the building blocks of, if not a Hassan Defense, then okay enough One. Sure: while the Nuggets ranked 20th in defensive efficiency for the full seasonThey’re in thirteenth place Since December 1 And they defended already at a the top five Level with Jokic on the field.

The issue, of course, is what happens when Jokic is turning off floor. As you’d expect, the news was mostly bad: Denver posted a huge upset 17.8 less point for every 100 With Joker on the bench, he surrendered 8.8 more points per 100, and features what was, as judged by NBA Advanced Stats, the league The second least effective reserve team. High contrast can be good for boosting MVP status, but in terms of winning games, that’s not really what you want.

Those splits haven’t quite reversed themselves lately, but they’ve moved in the right direction a bit. Denver was outscored by 5.4 points per 100 with Jokic off the bench over the last 15 matches Still very bad, but not insurmountable, with indications that the upward trajectory may continue.

Ongoing second unit problems prompted Malone to return to big man for the third year How are we calling? Just before Christmas and to juggle his rotation to starting pairing sparkling sixth man Bones Hyland with Murray in more backcourts. This trio, along with Brown and Noted excited dunk Vlatko Kankar has shown some encouraging signs as a sporty and versatile spare tire; Small sample size warnings apply only to the group being played 59 minutes togetherbut has been overridden by less than one point per 100. If this group, or others like it, can maintain this level — just pressing the fort, essentially playing the opponent even with Jokic off the ground — it would be a massive win for the Nuggets. Given how succinctly hammer the competition whenever it is he On the field, that may be all they need.

We’re still far from the post-season, with plenty of unknown variables left every now and then. What we’re seeing now in Denver, though, is the franchise’s best plan after so long coming together – a team that can win the Finals, that pays the reward for a firm belief in what those 117 minutes showed, and that is to say, night after night, giving fans Stronger and stronger reason to believe.

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