At the beginning of every season, the goal for each team is to hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy when it is all said and done. Some teams are closer than others, but the aspirations remain the same. The Nuggets have been in clear championship contention over the last three seasons, but injuries derailed the practical prospect of bringing home that trophy. With a healthy roster last year, Denver appeared to be a top-five team in the league with a real shot at a championship. There were multiple teams in the West talented enough to win the conference, but if Murray stayed healthy, the Nuggets might have had their best shot at a Finals appearance.
Now, it is a different story. Even though the Suns finished with the 2nd seed last year, they seemed to hit another elite gear that no team has been able to match this year. The Golden State Warriors welcomed back Klay Thompson and reunited the best shooting backcourt ever, but it is their role players along with their experience that make them a championship team. Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies have shown they have the talent, toughness, and energy to run any team out of the gym. The Utah Jazz have the capabilities, coaching, and home-court advantage to go all the way. Although the Mavericks and Timberwolves might not have enough this year to win a championship, they are two teams nobody wants to face come playoff time.
While other Western Conference opponents elevated their championship chances, the Nuggets have not. The majority of that reasoning is due to circumstances out of their control such as the injuries to their two stars, but hope is on the horizon. It is not only possible, but the Nuggets front office has implied optimism Murray and Porter will return this season. They still do not have a timetable for any return, but does the potential return of those two players change how we view the Nuggets this season? We perceive Denver not to be a contender without them, but are they a real contender this season even if they return?
This is the answer many Nuggets fans desire to hear, but it very well could be the truth yet this truth has its limitations. Even if Murray and Porter come back 100%, the Nuggets would not be a favorite to come out of the West. The Suns have earned the right to be the favorite and the Warriors have the pedigree to be favored over a Nuggets team who has never been to the Finals. Yet, the Nuggets beat the Suns twice in their own arena last season with a healthy lineup, and this season, the Nuggets are 1-0 against the Warriors without a full lineup. Denver still has three more games left to go against the Warriors, so we will see if that can continue, but the point remains, it is not far from the realm of possibility the Nuggets can beat those teams.
The Nugget's success of late, especially offensively, augments their position in the argument. At the beginning of the season, the injuries seemed like too much to overcome because the Nuggets could not find their footing on the offensive end. They were scoring 104.6 PPG in November, and the chances of them beating the high-powered offenses in the West seemed slim. But as the season progressed, the Nuggets have gotten better each month. They have increased their PPG every month by about three, and in January they went from scoring 109 PPG to 115.8. It remains to be seen whether the Nuggets can increase that number again. They are at 114 PPG for February so far, but it appears their role players are beginning to find a groove.
Throughout this month, Denver has seven players averaging double figures. The new addition in Bryn Forbes is beginning to pay off as he is shooting 42.4% from three this month but has also carried the scoring load when other Nuggets are struggling. Davon Reed has shown he is not just a solid defender, but he can be trusted to make open shots. Although DeMarcus Cousins is not the All-Star he once was, he provides a physicality and a presence inside that is essential to have when making opponents uncomfortable.
When you add Murray and Porter back into the mix, it might hurt their on-court chemistry at first, but it also places the role players in more comfortable situations. Rookie Bones Hyland won’t be forced to lead the offense in crunch time, Monte Morris can lead the bench unit once again, Jeff Green will fortify the scoring off the bench, and Forbes can return to being a sharp-shooter instead of a shot creator.
When you look at a healthy Nuggets squad, there are not many with a better starting lineup. Murray, Barton, Porter Jr., Gordon, and Jokic are a championship-contending lineup. Each player can not only create but capitalize on open looks which only makes Nikola more dangerous. Teams will not be daring Denver to shoot as much because you have two elite perimeter shooters returning to the lineup. It opens up the floor dramatically, and at that point, it becomes pick your poison. Further, the bench improved from being one of the worst scoring benches to an average scoring group. That notion may not be exciting, but when you add two current starters in Monte and Uncle Jeff to the bench, the Nuggets can trust their bench with more minutes without Jokic, and you can shuffle starters with that unit as well.
As they are constructed now, Denver is not a better team than the Suns, Warriors, Grizzlies, Jazz, or possibly the Mavericks. If you add MPJ and Murray, they are a top-three team in the West and have the capabilities to defeat the Suns and Warriors. It is far from a lock, but when you have the MVP leading this team along with a deep, talented starting lineup it moves this team from hoping to be a contender to expecting it.
While the starters could be one of the best units in the NBA, they will most likely be a shell of their potential this season. MPJ has been out for four months and presumably five or more, while Murray has been sidelined since April 2021. If they were able to come back mid-season, they could regain their strength and agility at a more comfortable time frame, but if they do come back, it will be very close to playoff time. At that point, it is difficult to assume or expect them to regain full capacity in such a short time frame.
Returning to true basketball shape takes several weeks for some, but when dealing with severe injuries, it can take months. With that being said, getting back into shape might not be the biggest issue. Murray has to be able to fully trust his knees to make a full return. Yes, his best asset is his shooting but it is also creating space. If he is not able to create effective space, it is going to be much more tricky for him to find open looks. MPJ also has to recover strength and trust in a back that last let him down for years. It could be possible for him to do that quicker than Murray because he has more stand-still shooting in his game, but Porter Jr. is at his best when he is attacking the rim and the offensive glass.
The reunion of the normal starting five is an exciting notion, but we should expect these two to be playing at well less than 100% if they return. Even if they do return all their capabilities, the Nuggets are not a favorite to win the West nor should they be. They have to prove themselves against the West which they have not done this season. They are 0-4 against Utah, 0-3 to Memphis, 1-2 to Dallas, and 1-2 to Minnesota. Within their own division, they are 4-8 which is the 3rd worst record among the top-10 teams in the West. They are also 17-17 in the conference which suggests they are not an elite Western Conference team.
Well of course they are not an elite Western Conference team without Murray and MPJ, but will they be this season if they return? On paper maybe, but on the court probably not. They have to regain the chemistry they once had while all other teams continue to build on theirs. There will be bumps in the road when they come back. The Nuggets have had thousands of game reps without them, so when they return, most of that muscle memory will have to be altered by ingratiating them back into the lineup. Players won’t get the shots they were used to getting earlier in the season, defensive rotations will be off because that is based off on-court chemistry, and spacing could be an issue as well.
The largest factor in this argument is that MPJ and Murray will more than likely not be 100%, and even if they were, the West appears to be too loaded this year. We have talked about the Suns and the Warriors, but the Grizzlies, Mavericks, and Jazz cannot be ignored. Memphis plays with such great chemistry and tenacity, led by an MVP candidate Ja Morant, so it is difficult to favor the Nuggets over them this season even if they are fully healthy. The Mavericks were once a great offensive team who couldn’t defend, but now they have the best opponent’s PPG numbers in the West. Then you have the Utah Jazz who are the best coached and most balanced team of the three. When Denver regains their full roster with the on-court chemistry they once had, they expect to be better than those teams, but it does not look feasible for them to rekindle their harmony in such a short period of time.
Throughout my time as a Nuggets fan, it seems as though something always gets in the way of a Finals appearance. Whether it’s Kobe Bryant, LeBron and Anthony Davis teaming up with the Lakers, or injuries derailing a promising season. It’s not expected the Nuggets will truly contend for a championship this season, but I’ve grown to pause my doubt since Nikola Jokic introduced his greatness to the league. They say to never bet with your heart and listen to your mind.
My mind tells me even if MPJ and Murray return, they will not be at full strength and the chemistry will not be there this season, thus they are not a championship contender. My heart tells me I don't have the answers I perceive I do. I don’t know how Murray and MPJ will return. I don't know if the top West teams choke like the top-seeded Jazz did last year. I don't know. That is the beautiful part of this season. Expectations were low due to the injuries, but hope is on the horizon, and maybe for once that hope manifests itself into a successful, deep playoff run.