Ask any Denver Nuggets fan, and they will tell you this is the year the Nuggets do it.

Ask any non-Nuggets fan, and they will tell you it may never happen.

Ask the Nuggets themselves, and they will tell you absolutely nothing.

“We just trust each other,” shared Michael Porter Jr. after last Friday’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies. “We’re just trying to be mature as a team.”

The Denver Nuggets have been on the doorstep of contention before. During the 2020 playoffs in the bubble, the Nuggets miraculously recovered from two separate 3-1 series deficits to make the Western Conference Finals. They lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games, highlighting various weaknesses on their roster and in their best player: Nikola Jokić.

Since that point, Jokić has won two straight MVP awards and is on his way to a third. Much to the chagrin of his biggest critics, Jokić continues to get better every single season, though the playoff runs in each of his MVP seasons went out with a whimper. The Nuggets somehow made the second round of the playoffs without Jamal Murray and Will Barton (their starting backcourt) in 2021 over the Portland Trail Blazers. When Michael Porter Jr. aggravated a back injury in Game 1 of the second round against the Phoenix Suns and struggled to move on either end, it was all but a wrap. “Suns in 4” and Jokić being ejected for hitting Cameron Payne became the lasting images of Jokić’s first MVP season.

“We got a taste of it,” Porter lamented. “We knew when we had everybody healthy we had something special.”

In 2022, the Nuggets lost Michael Porter Jr. nine games into the season due to back surgery to relieve immense pain he was suffering from. That left the Nuggets without two max contract players (though Porter’s contract didn’t start until the 2022-23 season) and two elite scoring weapons. It didn’t matter as much in the regular season in which the Nuggets still won 48 games and claimed the sixth seed. Jokić won his second straight MVP for posting some of the most absurd per game numbers in NBA history. It was an incredible run from Jokić, and also incredibly short lived. The Golden State Warriors were the third seed last year due to injuries dropping them below the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Nuggets just could not keep pace with Golden State’s firepower. The Nuggets were eliminated in five games in the first round.

If it weren’t for season-ending injuries to Murray and Porter in one or both of the last two seasons, the story might be different. It’s also possible that the Nuggets needed those heartbreaking moments to make the changes requisite to becoming a leading title contender in the Western Conference today.

Mar 3, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) looks on prior to the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Former Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly had assembled plenty of talent on the roster. When the offseason arrived though, Connelly departed for a similar role on way more money with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Calvin Booth then stepped into the limelight, becoming the lead decision maker tasked with tough choices trading players involved with the organization for a long time. Sometimes, change can be good though, and the Nuggets needed to shake things up without destabilizing the identity of the team.

Enter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Ish Smith, and DeAndre Jordan.

Booth focused on maximizing Denver’s defensive capabilities by adding size, intelligence, and veteran leadership. He didn’t know whether Murray and/or Porter would be fully healthy, playing to their best capabilities so soon. Booth took that chance though, trusting in the plan surrounding Jokić, Murray, Porter, and Aaron Gordon with the right combination of role players and supporting talent necessary to be formidable. Booth continued tinkering with the roster at the trade deadline last month, sending out fan favorite Bones Hyland while bringing back Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant, two veterans the organization hopes can bolster a championship run themselves.

To this point on March 8th, 2023, the plan has been executed to near perfection. Jokić is playing at an incredibly high level without having to shoulder the scoring burden, maintaining triple-double averages without having to put the team on his back entirely. Murray is averaging nearly 24 points and seven assists per game in his last 20 games. Porter is averaging nearly 19 points and five rebounds per game in his last 20 games. Both are showing their dynamic scoring talent on elite efficiency, with Murray and Porter at 60.0% and 65.8% True Shooting in their last 20 games respectively. Gordon nearly made the All-Star team for his contributions during the first half of the year while Murray and Porter were getting up to speed.

The role player additions have also gone swimmingly. Caldwell-Pope and Brown are integral pieces of the Nuggets rotation. Braun has still played the seventh most total minutes on the roster despite currently being out of the rotation. That trio has helped the Nuggets improve to 12th in defensive rating on the season, according to Cleaning The Glass. Across the last 41 games, the Nuggets are ranked fourth in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating, one of just two teams with top 10 rankings in each category (the other being the Cleveland Cavaliers).

Beyond the wing additions, the Nuggets have found reasonable contributions from Vlatko Čančar, Zeke Nnaji, Jeff Green, Reggie Jackson, and Thomas Bryant across the regular season. How much any of those players play in a playoff series is a legitimate question. That quintet represents the optionality the Nuggets have for different situations though, something the Nuggets simply didn’t have the last two seasons due to significant injuries.

Now, with the first seed in the Western Conference not just on the table, but almost a given due to the West playoff standings, the Nuggets have an opportunity to relax. Denver’s Magic Number to clinch the top seed in the conference in 11 with 17 games left to go. If the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings each lose at least three games in the next four weeks, the Nuggets simply have to win half of their games the rest of the way to clinch homecourt.

The Nuggets will continue to take the rest of the regular season seriously, but there’s an opportunity to also arrive fully rested and recovered for what’s hoped to be a long playoff run. Jokić should get some rest days, as will Murray, Porter, and everybody in the Nuggets rotation. How many games they rest will likely be determined by how soon they clinch. It’s possible they could do so before the end of March, giving the team plenty of opportunities in the final week of the season to rest.

No matter how great things appear to be though, the Nuggets have stressed as an organization how much further they still have to go. They know these moments can be ripped away at any time. That’s why they’re still taking games one at a time. They’re not looking ahead to the Phoenix Suns with Kevin Durant or the Golden State Warriors with a healthy Stephen Curry. They will cross those bridges when they appear.

Reggie Jackson got a great introduction to Nuggets culture and belief when he first arrived in Denver, summarizing what many around Denver know to be true:

“These guys are for real. Their belief is unshakable. When you get into that locker room, and you hear how they talk, this is not something they lucked into. This is something they manifested.”

The Nuggets have avoided crowing about their successes. They know it does no good, dragging in drama and distractions rather than rising above them. Instead, the Nuggets are simply out to prove it in the playoffs this time around, righting the wrongs of previous seasons.

“We know what we have,” declared Porter.

Soon enough, there will be time enough to show it in April, May, and June.