Nikola Jokić is the all-everything for the Denver Nuggets. There’s no disputing that.

A two-time MVP with a credible case for a third straight award, Jokić has been the most impactful player in the NBA across the last three seasons. No matter who’s out there with him, the Nuggets always have a chance. That’s born out in several examples and is why Jokić will always get the lion share of the credit.

But with the healthy and successful returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., the possibilities for the Nuggets this season have been endless. Both Murray and Porter returned after prolonged absences, excited to contribute but tentative in many ways. The Nuggets knew they had to be cautious with both players initially, and it appears that caution has paid off.

For Murray, it was watching his confidence in his knee develop in real time. Over the course of the season, Murray went from jumping and turning around backwards in mid-air to seeking out contact in high pressure moments. There was a level of thinking about his knee that Murray was doing early on. Now, it’s just a thing that happened in the past.

“I try not to separate my good leg and my bad leg. It’s just two good legs,” Murray shared last week when asked about his knee. “I haven’t thought about it until you brought it up.”

ACL injuries are always a difficult recovery process. Modern medicine has improved the overall level players can return to after sustaining a tear and the ensuing surgery, but the rehabilitation remains physically and mentally draining. A common thought process says that a basketball player can normally return to the court a year after surgery, but to return to full strength, confidence, and explosiveness, it takes an additional year.

Last week, Murray crossed the two year threshold from when he sustained the initial injury, and the residual effects on his game appear to have faded. Murray’s playing with maximum confidence and aggressiveness again, and that sets up the Nuggets extremely well. In his first playoff game since the bubble in 2020, Murray started slow but picked up steam throughout the night, finishing with 24 points, eight assists, and eight rebounds, playing solid defense, and leading the team with a +24 plus-minus. By the end of the night, he was absolutely cooking.

“He’s playing the right way. That’s the most important thing,” shared Nikola Jokić in practice on Tuesday.”He’s taking open shots. He’s making the open pass. He’s attacking the paint. He’s reading the game. I think that’s the most important.”

Jokić continued: “He’s becoming a star in this league. Every game he’s getting better.”

For Porter, his return to the court was more straightforward, despite the ramifications of his injury being more ambiguous. Porter received a third back surgery in December of 2021 to relive pressure on his lumbar spine. Porter immediately experienced relief and was working his way back to try and return by the end of the 2021-22 season. Unfortunately, Porter started to feel pain in his back again, and the Nuggets did the smart thing for his long term health and shut him down altogether.

During the 2022 offseason, Porter fully recovered and stopped feeling inhibited by the pain in his back. He got himself ready to go and was in Denver’s starting lineup in each of the 62 games he played this season. Very few of Porter’s absences were due to his back, but Porter’s lack of athleticism was apparent early on. He continued to work hard in the weight room and on his flexibility, trying to unlock more explosiveness. By the end of the season, Porter was attacking the rim, dunking hard, and appeared to be thinking very little about the pain he had previously been feeling.

Along the way, Porter has bought in to what the Nuggets are doing in every step of the process. In Game 1, Porter had 18 points and 11 rebounds. He wasn’t shooting the ball well early on but got himself going with rebounds, cuts, and dunks, making an impact without shooting threes until those threes also started to fall.

“Michael’s really maturing on both ends of the floor, and I just love his activity and his aggression,” head coach Michael Malone shared following Porter’s Game 1 performance. “That was something we talked a lot about going in.”

The Nuggets have stressed to Porter that scoring isn’t the only way he can help the team. With the natural pecking order often being Jokić and then Murray on most sets, Porter has had to lock in defensively, crash the glass, and make hustle plays to be more impactful. He accomplished that in Game 1.

“He was playing strong all game,” Murray said of Porter’s physicality and aggression. “Just playing physical, not just shooting the ball…I thought he had an all-around game.”

The Nuggets know how important it is for both Murray and Porter to be playing elite basketball in these playoffs. They’ve seen what happens without those guys firsthand, and there’s only so much Jokić can do when it’s all on him. Being able to rely on other people, sharing the weight of that burden, has been great for Jokić all season. The Serbian center is probably in the best physical condition he’s been entering the playoffs in each of the last three MVP caliber seasons.

It isn’t often that a team’s fate is so closely tied to the returns of two injured stars, but the Nuggets have been looking forward to this moment for a long time. They’ve gone all-in on Murray and Porter too, trading away all three of Monte Morris, Will Barton, and Bones Hyland, three of Denver’s top scorers during the 2021-22 season. Instead, Denver’s entire identity is now surrounding Jokić, Murray, and Porter with athletic, versatile defenders. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Aaron Gordon perfectly fill those roles in the starting unit. Bruce Brown and Christian Braun come off the bench and wreck havoc on opposing offensive players. Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan don’t care how many shots they get. They just want to win.

The Nuggets know they have to share the ball to make their offensive system work. Nikola Jokić is the perfect conductor for Denver’s offensive system, but don’t sleep on Murray and Porter making it work to perfection. They have a ton of pressure on them to be the other supremely talented offensive players that can help make Jokić’s life easier. Coming off of major injury absences, I’d say both Murray and Porter have done a great job of that so far this season.

If the Nuggets do end up finding that success at the highest levels, the credit will extend to more than just Jokić. It will be the coronation of Murray and Porter as the stars they truly are.