The return of the West’s sleeping giants

Last season, the Denver Nuggets became just about as dependent on Nikola Jokic as any team has ever been on one man. 

Behind his brilliance, they won 48 games with a limited roster, earning Jokic his second straight MVP trophy. There was much froth about whether he or Joel Embiid deserved the award, but at the end of the day, the easiest way to distinguish yourselves in the eyes of voters is by working with less. Jokic probably doesn’t prefer it this way, but when the guy you’ve spent most of your career developing a two-man game with misses the whole season (Jamal Murray), and your new $179 million scoring-and-rebounding wing (Michael Porter Jr.) make it through just nine contests, you’re in a ripe position to show the audience everything you can do, every single night.

With Murray and Porter due back, the Nuggets figure as a basketball giant that’s been asleep for two seasons, now about to wake all the way back up. They have re-tooled the supplementary parts of their roster to best complement what Jokic does, too: gone is Will Barton, who needs to do more things with the ball than this version of the team will allow him to, as well as Monte Morris, who becomes a bit superfluous with Murray’s return and Jokic’s proven comfort with the ball speaking for so many of the team’s possessions. Morris’ exit can also be seen as an investment in the lethal second-year guard Bones Hyland, who provides both spacing and speed in great volume.

In are Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, two theoretically perfect Jokic teammates. Both are excellent, gritty defenders and both have versatile, fill-in-the-blank utility belt games that have formed by playing with similar high-usage superstars—Caldwell-Pope won a championship with LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers, while Brown has spent the past two seasons making a name for himself playing off Kevin Durant and James Harden with the Brooklyn Nets. 

In the process, Brown has become one of the more delightful oddities around, as an unusually effective 6’4” roll man and rim finisher. Brown is not even an especially wide guy as an undersized forward, but does what a high-end big man can do in those actions purely off his feel for them and his touch with the floater and ability to pass out of a collapsed defense when necessary.

Add that kind of guy to what Jokic does, and the effect is likely to be a multiplier. That’s a pretty wild thing to say, given that the Nuggets’ offensive rating with Jokic on the floor in ‘22 was a staggering 126. Caldwell-Pope’s shooting and cutting will fit in just as well, and we’ve barely even gotten into how Murray and Porter’s returns will raise the room in Denver. It’s a potentially complicated mix for head coach Mike Malone to figure out, but Jokic’s instinct toward the most efficient play for the team is trusted by everyone involved by now—in the past two seasons, he has established a kind of clout that naturally orients how things move on the floor and in the locker room culture.

The last time the Nuggets had all the fingers of their fist together like this was 2020 and they came back from a 3-1 deficit to unseat the Western Conference’s other returning titan, the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Like the Nuggets, the Clippers come into 22-23 with their star core back—Paul George missed 50 games last season and Kawhi Leonard missed all of them. Also like the Nuggets, they have greatly improved the rest of the team, deepening their already fearsome collection of size and versatility and boasting maybe the best “wingball” potential we’ve ever seen. Like the Boston Celtics did to the tune of an Eastern Conference title last year, the Clippers will look to overwhelm teams with huge defensive lineups that feature five switchable players.

Norman Powell and Robert Covington each finished the season with the Clippers last year, but obviously never got to play in lineups with Leonard and fit into a full sense of what this team can be. Both can slot into those aforementioned hyper-versatile Total Basketball brand of looks, with Leonard, George, Marcus Morris, Nicolas Batum, and Terance Mann as the five other all-ball players around. The Clippers are outfitted to destroy teams with these assemblages, but also to win in plenty of other ways, with two devastating point guards now—they’ve added John Wall to Reggie Jackson’s spot on the depth chart—and with Ivica Zubac returning as their trusty extra-large center.

Like Mike Malone, Ty Lue has a lot to figure out with all these new and returning pieces, but also like Malone, he’s got guys at the top who have proven more than most players ever will, which provides a heavy helping of automatic hierarchy and structure. 

Perhaps Wall will feel a way about his old superstar days, but most likely he’ll just be glad to contribute after so much time off the floor. The Clippers look, as the Nuggets do, like a Western Conference contender poised to mess up the plans of climbing squads that thrived in their absence like the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and even the drama-stricken Phoenix Suns. The Golden State Warriors have their path back to the Finals chiseled out until someone proves otherwise, but it’s these two teams that look more well-equipped to do so than anyone else around.

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