With their Western Conference Semifinal series tied at 2-2 with the Phoenix Suns, the Denver Nuggets are at a crossroads. While anything is possible, the most likely two scenarios for the Nuggets look something like this:

Win, and the series is theirs.

Lose, and what should have been a dream season will suddenly be in grave danger becoming the franchise’s biggest nightmare.

For all intents and purposes, the Nuggets – including Stan Kroenke and his dusty ol’ checkbook – are all in. At least by Nuggets standards.

Say what you will about Uncle Stan, but Stan the Man has ponied up this season. The Nuggets are $9.4 million over the NBA’s luxury threshold, thus paying $15 million in “penalties.” There are currently nine NBA teams over the threshold; all except for the Dallas Mavericks are playoff teams. Of the nine, the Nuggets rank 8th in total spend over the threshold. In other words, the Nuggets have pushed more chips into the center of the table than 22 other teams. Of the big spenders, however, they’re still relatively modest; the Warriors, for example, are currently paying $169.2 million in penalties alone.

Money aside, the belief heading into the season – and still, really – is that the current iteration of the Nuggets is built to win. It’s a roster that’s well-constructed. Big investments have been made in franchise players Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. More money than is typical has been spent on critical role players – everyone from superathlete Aaron Gordon ($21 million) to much-needed perimeter stoppers like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($14.7 million) and Bruce Brown ($6.8 million). No NBA team has a flawless roster, but the Nuggets GM Calvin Booth did his very best to plug any hole he could possibly identify.

On the bench, Michael Malone is at the tail end of his eighth season as the Nuggets head coach. Last March, he was signed to a multi-year extension and given a nod of confidence from ownership.

When a team like the Nuggets, with an owner like Kroenke, bets big on its current personnel, winning is the expectation. There’s no grey area, no confusion. It’s time to win in Denver.

But rich guys don’t get rich by chasing good money after bad. And while levels of patience and competitiveness likely vary among the rich, purchasing an unsatisfactory product never goes over too well. If history is any kind of indicator, when Stan Kroenke smells blood in the water, the sharks are released. Across his many professional sports properties, he’ll spend money to win. But if and when the winning doesn’t follow, the results are mixed; it’s never an endless checkbook to fix problems, most often a gradual return to “young and competitive.”

“These” Nuggets, however, are in a peculiar, if not precarious, place. Rare is the case where any team is blessed with the best player in the sport. Even rarer is the case when that superstar is more than thrilled with his surroundings, wanting to begin and end his career as “Denver’s version of Tim Duncan.” Even when the Nuggets had Carmelo Anthony – an indisputable NBA superstar – he was never considered the best player in the game; his relationship and attitude for Denver had ups and downs and ultimately fizzled.

With Jokic, a two-time-shoulda-been-three-time MVP, the Nuggets always – always! always! always! – have a foundation from which to build.

Which leads us back to Game 5.

Is this the biggest game in Nuggets history? That might sound like hyperbole, but is it really? What game in Nuggets history has ever shaped, or could have ever shaped, the future of the franchise like Tuesday night’s Game 5 against the Suns? There might be a short list of such games, but May 9, 2023 is most certainly in the discussion.

Win, and the plan remains intact. Bumps in the road in Phoenix will be nothing more than a good team holding serve. That’s to be expected.

Lose, however, and the Nuggets are gripping, facing the possibility of an up-2-0 meltdown that’s going to sting for a long, long time.

In addition to the sting, some real soul searching will likely take place. Booth, along with Stan and Josh Kroenke, will be forced to ask themselves hard questions.

Do they have the right coach? Malone has been an exceptional regular season coach. His lone “impressive” playoff performance, however, took place in the Bubble of 2020. No matter what or who, there will always been an asterisk placed beside any result occurring in the Bubble. If the Suns series represents a recurring criticism of Malone, it’s that his teams – over the course of a seven-game series – fail to make adjustments. Do the results of the current series – a big home win followed by a scratch-it-out home win and most recently ending in two road losses – mean the Suns have “figured out” the Nuggets, while the Nuggets have stayed stagnant? The Nuggets have a better roster, but there are times when it looks as if Malone’s team is playing checkers while the opponent has graduated to chess.

Was the big bet on Michael Porter Jr. a big mistake? As impressive as Porter Jr. can be, if his career can be defined with one word, it would likely be “inconsistent.” The problem, however, is that the Nuggets paid him as if he was destined to be a superstar – to the tune of $179 million through the 2026-27 season. Porter Jr. can certainly be electric; but against the Suns, he’s been consistently inconsistent. Perhaps a better question is Why? Why is Porter Jr. so wildly inconsistent? Are his woes a product of being an oft-injured wunderkind lacking real basketball experience up until recently? Or, has he been mishandled by Malone, a coach who seemingly has a short leash for his enticing swingman, despite the fact the franchise invested big on his development?

And speaking of superstars, is Jamal Murray truly one? The belief in Denver is that he is – or should be considered one. “Bubble Jamal” – a term he’s not necessarily fond of – is a player that’s literally unstoppable. On the flip side, does he put the weight on the world on his shoulders and, at times, come up short. Regardless, the team paid him as if he’s a star. He’s yet to play in an NBA All-Star Game, but a heroic performance in Game 5 would put him squarely back under the national spotlight.

To put it mildly, Game 5 in Denver is pivotal.

Win, and let the good times roll.

Lose, and a potentially painful game of wait and see could ensue. A Nuggets team that loses a series to the Suns will surely look different by the time October rolls around.