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The Denver Nuggets have arrived

With finally-healthy stars operating at their peak, the Denver Nuggets have proven themselves as the class of the Western Conference.

Do you remember Nicola Jokić’s first playoff appearance? It wasn’t that long ago: A 2019 first-round seven-game series win against the San Antonio Spurs, followed by a second-round loss to the Portland Trailblazers. But despite Jokić being named MVP twice since then, the Nuggets haven’t advanced past the conference finals in his tenure. That is ready to change this season. 

In an otherwise evenly-matched Western Conference, the Nuggets stand firmly in the top spot and number one in overall net and offensive ratings. They are a powerhouse thanks to back-to-back MVP Jokić, and with stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. finally healthy enough, this year should be the year they break through to the Finals. 

The Nuggets have stepped up in a crowded West

As mentioned in our midseason awards feature, head coach Micheal Malone should win Coach of the Year for the adjustments he’s made through injuries. His integrating Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, while building an offense through his superstar center, has also succeeded despite it usually not working outside of Philadelphia. Furthermore, Malone has notched four years of playoff experience under his belt and has gotten to know what it feels like to lose in the playoffs, testing his and his team’s mettle under playoff pressure. That contract extension he signed in March looks like the right move for both parties.

But a coach can’t win without stars, and the Nuggets have theirs in place. Jokić at 27 years old has already accomplished individually what few in NBA have. But despite his historic individual accomplishments, he seems dialed in on team goals this season, with a Finals appearance in mind. And that mindset is going to be important, because the West has never been wider. 

The Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks, both in last year’s Western Conference Finals, have taken huge steps back but still remain dangerous competitors. In their place have come the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans, two teams with minimal playoff experience and various roster issues. That’s not to mention the surging Los Angeles Clippers and the revitalized Sacramento Kings. Though these teams all present a challenge, and though any of them can beat the Nuggets in a seven-game series, Denver has better depth, shooting, and coaching than any of them. Smart money should go on the Nuggets in any matchup. 

Jokić, Murray, and Porter are all healthy and balling

The Nuggets’ second star Murray has returned to the form he possessed before missing all of last season with a torn ACL. He is currently averaging 20.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, and 5.8 APG, ideal stats for a second scoring option on a championship team. MPJ is also back to full health after a second back injury that kept him out of most of last season. He’s averaging 17 PPG and 5.4 RPG while shooting a blistering 41% from three. Along with Jokić, the Nuggets’ big three builds a lethal combination of athleticism, passing, shooting, and size. 

It’s also a more offensively talented trio than any three players the Grizzlies can combine, and on par with the Zion Williamson, CJ McCollum, and Brandon Ingram trio in New Orleans. But the Nuggets’ ability to spread the floor and keep the defense honest with perimeter shooting sets them apart. And if it comes down to matchups in the playoffs, the Nuggets’ years of postseason preparation should give them the edge over the upstarts in Memphis and New Orleans.

This team isn’t perfect. For one, the defense needs to improve for the Nuggets’ path to a championship to come into focus, especially if a team like Boston or Milwaukee awaits them in the Finals. But they have the personnel to get there and the offensive firepower to outlast any team in the West, even if they can’t build a top-five defense in the coming weeks. 

They have all the essential elements of a contender: a true superstar, an All-Star caliber second option, playoff history, continuity, a deep bench, and an elite coach. The Nuggets are finally fully healthy and at full strength. They’re here. The rest of the West is officially on notice.