The NBA's most interesting teams: Nuggets ready to unveil what they've got cooking

We're one week away from the start of the 2022-23 NBA season, and after considering the championship cases of the seven teams the Vegas sharps project at the top of the league, I decided to take a closer look at a few other squads I find particularly compelling as we tiptoe closer to tipoff. Our look at the most interesting teams in the NBA — to me, if not necessarily to anyone else — begins in the Mile High City, with a question of faith.

How much can you believe in 117 minutes?

That's not quite two hours; it's the running time of The Big Lebowski. It's also less than two and a half regulation games of NBA basketball — not exactly the most robust sample size on which to make sweeping conclusions and stake a franchise's future.

But what if everything that led you to those 117 minutes left you certain that what you saw in them was real? The years of scouting, scrimmages, scrambling and sacrifice, the untold hours of film study, player development work and conversations about what kind of basketball team you wanted to build — what if all of it pointed toward precisely what you'd put together, to what you saw work with your own two eyes? How much could you believe in it then?

By the time they open this new campaign, more than 18 months will have passed since the last time we saw the Denver Nuggets as they were meant to be. Circumstances conspired to limit the team that Denver's brass envisioned to a mere cameo appearance. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon — added from Orlando at the 2021 trade deadline as the hoped-for missing piece in a potential championship puzzle — played in only five games together before Murray tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. That three-week sneak peek, though, featured enough offensive fireworks and defensive possibility to make NBA observers stand up and take notice.

Denver was devastating on offense, confounding and contorting defenses with a rare combination of size and skill. Every action revealed new terrors for opponents. Shade too much help toward Jokic, and he'd drop the ball over the top to one of his super-athletic giant cutters. Stay attached to Gordon and Porter as they slice off the ball, and you're liable to let Murray, who'd been flirting with 50-40-90 for three solid months, get loose for a clean look.

Bring help early to tag the cutter through the lane, and you might have left Porter, a catch-and-shoot menace who at times resembles a 6-foot-10 Klay Thompson, open in the corner. Bring it too late, and there’s Gordon, with inside position down low, leaping up to reverse dunk on your skull. Switch everything to try to avoid creating any crevices to exploit, and whoops: You just wound up with a guard on Jokic, who’s about to mouse-in-the-house him to hell.

Denver scored 127.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Jokic, Murray, Porter, and Gordon on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass — a rate of offensive efficiency so ludicrously torrid as to make the KD-era Warriors seem like a quaint and cute little attack. It's the worst kind of "choose your own adventure" story: Whichever path you pick, whichever page you turn to, you're dead.

The addition of Gordon solidified Denver's defense, too, flanking Jokic — a stout and positionally sound center with active hands, but not exactly an imposing rim protector — with a pair of athletic forwards with 7-foot wingspans who could come in from the weak side to help contest shots at the rim and clear the defensive boards. Gordon also filled the Nuggets' biggest gap, serving as a legit 1-through-5 defender capable of taking on the toughest assignments, be they big wings or smaller guards. The Nuggets conceded 110.1 points-per-100 in Jokic-Murray-MPJ-Gordon minutes — equivalent to a top-five mark over the course of a full season.

The Nuggets went into Los Angeles, stared down Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and beat the Clippers wire-to-wire, holding what had been the NBA's No. 3 offense to just 94 points on 41 percent shooting; their loss in those five games came on the road to Golden State, on the night they lost Murray. The theory bore out, the pieces all fit, and the results were fantastic: The Nuggets outscored opponents by 46 points in 117 minutes with its top four players on the floor. But then Murray went down before the 2021 playoffs, and then Porter went down at the start of the 2022 season, forcing Denver's dream to lie dormant, even as Jokic put the franchise on his back, a pair of MVP trophies on his mantle and a pair of disappointing (if expected) postseason losses on his resume.

Now, though, Murray and Porter are back, knocking the rust off in preseason and eager to return to the business of blitzing unsuspecting defenses. So much about the league has changed since last we saw them together, but the fundamental underpinnings of what made that Denver core look so special and dangerous — the size and interchangeability of Gordon and Porter at the forward spots, the huge targets they give Jokic, the stress their off-ball movement puts on defenses, the possibility for all sorts of interesting screening combinations with eager pick-setter Murray, the defensive switchability on the wing, the overall firepower — should still be there.

On top of that, the pieces surrounding that foursome might be even more fearsome. Will Barton, vaunted people's champ, was a stalwart spark plug in Denver for nearly a decade. He was also a reed-thin shooting guard, often undersized and overmatched when defending on the perimeter, who shot an up-and-down 36 percent from 3-point range as a Nugget, and who's always been better at creating with the ball in his hands than finishing plays off the catch. He went to Washington, in favor of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — a stronger and more versatile perimeter defender who's shot 39.5 percent from deep over the past three seasons and who played a vital low-usage 3-and-D role on the bubble-champ Lakers. He should be a central-casting fit alongside Denver's big four as a handoff partner for Jokic who can shoot on the move, spot up on the weak side of the primary action, and shadow opposing scorers all over the floor. (Joining Barton in the move to D.C. was assist-to-turnover-ratio lord Monte Morris, which created more space for rising sophomore Bones Hyland to step into a larger on-ball playmaking role with Denver's second unit.)

KCP will be joined in Denver’s revamped wing corps by jack of all trades Bruce Brown Jr., who began his NBA life as a backup guard on the Pistons and carved out a surprising role as a defend-everyone small-ball big in Brooklyn. Brown comes to Colorado on a two-year, $13 million contract as a 6-foot-4 bulldog with a 6-foot-9 wingspan who can guard up and down the positional spectrum while giving Jokic another live-wire cutter, another spot-up shooting threat (if last year’s 40.4 percent mark from long distance is legit), and, potentially, another weirdo inverted pick-and-roll partner.

It's possible that, come the postseason, any defense built around Jokic will always be susceptible to opponents going small, spreading it out, and trying to force the big fella to help and defend in space. It seems likely, though, that a version of the Nuggets that can deploy Gordon, Caldwell-Pope, Brown, and the pugnacious Murray at the point of attack stands a significantly better chance of holding up in the crucible of the playoffs than the ones that had to rely heavily on Barton, Morris, and Austin Rivers over the past two seasons. Combine Caldwell-Pope and Brown with expected steps forward from the likes of versatile big man Zeke Nnaji, who can defend in space and shot 47 percent from 3 during an extended stay in the rotation last season, and swingmen Davon Reed and Christian Braun, and head coach Michael Malone might find himself with a greater level of flexibility to mix and match his coverages as situations dictate. (Just spit-balling here, but Brown, Gordon, Nnaji, and the immortal Jeff Green feels like the start of a pretty solid switch-everything defensive unit when Jokic needs a breather.)

Never one to shy away from the burden of elevated expectations, Malone set a goal for this year's Nuggets to be a top-five defense in the NBA. That would represent a massive leap for a team that finished 15th in points allowed per possession last season. (And, in fact, hasn't cracked the top five in any year since 1996-97, the first year in which the NBA tracked play-by-play data.) It's a worthy aim, though: If the new recruits and returning players can help Denver get even close to the top five, that stability, paired with a ball-movement-heavy offense with multiple shot creators and finishers led by a two-time MVP who is both historically elite and only getting better, could be incredibly tough to deal with.

Maybe that's not enough. Given how stacked the West has become, it's possible that even a healthy and retooled version of the Nuggets doesn't have quite what it takes on both ends to survive the conference gauntlet and advance to the Finals for the first time since Larry Brown was coaching them in mod fits in the ABA. I'm psyched to see them try, though. The team Denver built before Murray's injury scuttled it all was brilliant, made sense, and felt real. Maybe those 117 minutes aren't much to believe in. But it's a hell of a lot more than what most teams have.