57 wins. This Denver Nuggets team is now on pace for 57 wins. You may remember the last (and only) 57 win team the Denver Nuggets have ever had…

They were a weird confluence of hustle, defense, and bravado, that 2012-13 squad. Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Andre Iguoudala, Andre Miller, JaVale McGee and the rest of a somehow ragtag band pieced together a Nuggets season for the ages, piecing together their most successful season in history. You could tell they were percolating coming into the All-Star break, having gone on a nine-game winning streak (capped by a three-game cold streak) during their last 12 games.

Coming out of the break, the Nuggets were well rested, as only Faried had participated in the Rising Stars game over the weekend. The team went on to a win and a loss out of the gates before ripping off a 15 consecutive wins on their way to a two-seed in the West.

Hard to believe that was exactly a decade ago.

After their incredible streak, some bad luck befell the team, both in terms of injuries and their playoff matchup. Denver ran into version 1.0 of Steph and the Warriors, and Iguoudala liked it so much, he swapped over in the offseason. Heck, maybe even during the series. The humming, purring, whirling dervish of a switching, scrambling squad would be gone in a moment. The successes enjoyed by the team – including Coach and Executive of the Year Awards – was pretty pale in the face of a first round exit, the firing of the coach, the departure of the exec, and the semi-dismantling of the squad via injury and greener pastures.

Those greener pastures brought four rings along with it, though…

But for a moment, watching a basketball engine running so successfully here in Denver was a true sight to behold, no matter how much a mirage it seemed in the distance. On both ends of the court, those Nuggets were truly humming on all cylinders.

It’s close to a miracle what can happen when an engine runs perfectly that way.

For instance, a couple of Rolls Royce turbofan engines can get you up over 750 miles an hour…

But when it goes wrong, things fall apart pretty spectacularly.

The 2012 Nuggets team had that engine blow out moment when Danilo Gallinari blew out his knee in a Game 76 win over the Mavericks… for a team that would win eight of their last nine games.

It’s nerve-wracking. A very similarly constructed team to this current Nuggets squad was just starting to have that running-on-all-cylinders feeling when Jamal Murray went down to an injury that we’re just fully getting him back from.

This shit is fragile, and no one knows it better than Nuggets Nation. All of that said… This Nuggets engine may be running more efficiently and smoothly than it ever has. Nearly every hoped-for improvement and piece is falling into line for these Nuggets at the moment, and things are looking terrifyingly bright.

To wit…

Michael Porter, Jr.

MPJ is playing the best and most complete basketball of his professional career, and is probably still at least two or three levels away from how devastating a player he could be. He is no longer the team’s defensive liability, and sleep on his athleticism on that end of the floor at your own peril. He has learned to channel his tough starts into high contribution games, and his fast starts into incendiary contests. He’s not just bought in, he’s realizing just how much more powerful he can become in a game he now more fully understands. He’s already bordering on unguardable, and is still yet to fully unlock the next level of offensive dominance in his game. Staggeringly, this 6’10” offensive demi-god… is Denver’s third option on that end.

Aaron Gordon

AG took an amazingly brave step at the end of last offseason, calling out his knowledge and insight into the game, and promising to be better. Gordon delivered on that promise and more this season, rounding himself into the Nuggets second-most reliable threat on offense throughout the year, and as their swiss-army-knife defender. He sees not only where and how to better unlock opportunities for himself, but also his teammates in Denver’s precision engine, and was somehow still passed over for an All-Star nod in what is undoubtedly also the best and most complete season of his career.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

While Kenny P may not be putting up career highs on the offensive end of floor, he is devastatingly effective when left alone, which has added up to career highs in shooting percentages from both beyond the arc and everywhere on the floor. While Caldwell-Pope was somehow ignored for his .450% 3-pt average this season in this season’s 3-point contest, Brendan Vogt is right… KCP will simply use that slight as fuel to feed a more burning desire. Beyond that, he’s also a lethal defender on the perimter, freeing up Gordon to take a larger defensive assignment. Arguably the best, and surely the most efficient year of KCP’s career.

Jamal Murray

How will you spin this one, doctor, do you wonder? Well, I won’t try – like my previous three entrants – to tell you that Murray is in the midst of his best and most efficient or complete year, because if I did, I’d be forgetting about all of this…

But I will tell you that things are looking up…

While Murray is still working his way physically back into the grind of an 82 game season, the meter, the swagger, the shot, the creativity… all have looked to be back since Murray hit a dagger to seal a game a several weeks ago. He’s also rounding out his game enough to notch the first triple-double of his career in a Joker-less win a couple weeks back. Best basketball of his career? Not yet. Back to that form? Prettttty damned close.

Nikola Jokic

What is there to say in any manner that hasn’t already been said? The guy who would never would an MVP and could never get them back-to-back is damned near running away with it again a third in a year where virtually no one but his most faithful fans would want him to. The numbers that bolstered his case the last two seasons are somehow even more efficient and sparkly, and he’s about to possibly do something only three other pantheon guys have ever done. Somehow the dude who couldn’t crack the 75 best players ever a year and half ago after his first MVP might now be one of the best 40 or 50 to ever lace them up. But I’ll leave that sort of argument to the Bill Simmons crowd. He’s one of the best athletes Denver has ever had, he’s the best bang-for-the-buck pick in the history of the sport, and he’s just happy to be here and kinda wishes you’d all stop making a big deal about it. Best basketball of his career? Astoundingly, amazingly… yes. The cylinder that keeps all the others in motion and tune.

Bruce Brown

Brown has literally spackled every crack on Denver’s ever-shifting lineup over the early season, and the team was ever the better for it. Brown is an incredible complement to the starting five filling in for Murray, can shift to a swap on-an-off-ball with KCP, and understood to make cuts for Joker before he actually landed in Denver. He’s been the steadying presence on the second team when relegated, and can play all the way to the smallest-ball five on the floor. He’s a consummate role guy, defensive guy, locker room guy, and all-around fit. Is it the best season of his career? Maybe not statistically, but he’s an integral and necessary part of this success, and he’s having one of his finest moments of fitting his role to a T.

Vlatko Cancar

Cancar, on the other hand, is having what is undoubtedly the breakout season of his career, as Harrison Wind ably noted the other day. While Vlatko has always been a killer locker room guys who occasionally stepped in for some big moments along the way, he has taken his game to a new level this season. As a guy who can be rotated into spots 2-5 on the floor, is an above average defender, an above average shooter and three point shooter, and has sneaky-good hops, Cancar has gone from what a lot of folks perceived as Nikola’s best buddy to yet another Nugget you’d best not sleep on.

Christian Braun

The rookie continues to impress in what mathematically would HAVE to be the best (and worst and longest and shortest) season of his career. He’s so prototypically a Malone guy that you wonder if young point guard Malone didn’t play a lot like Braun when he was still taking it all out onto the floor. Safe to say the already top-tier defense, the hustle, the focus, and a few plays like these tend to raise your stock in Denver a little bit, even at a mile high…

The Rest

As for that guy he’s passing to, new center addition Thomas Bryant, he’s also having a bit of a breakout season-plus for himself, and looking to prove himself. Fellow center DeAndre Jordan has been a remarkable locker room presence. Ish Smith has always steadied the team in moments they were light on guards for a game or three. Jeff Green occasionally pulls a foot out of the grave and drops 24 on someone just to remind you he’s still able. Zeke Nnaji brings stability. New addition and former Coloradan Reggie Jackson brings a stellar resume to his old home right as he looked like he might just need a change of pace… so many pieces feeling as if they are falling into place, into rhythm, at just the right time. Even Reggie can’t quite believe how good all of this looks… 🙂

(that was Reggie standing for the Braun/Bryant alley oop as well. Going to be a lot for whoever is on the Denver bench to stand up and cheer this next 40-50 games or so)

The Defense

Well, even with all of those cylinders nearly perfectly in motion, none of that historic offense matters in the playoffs, even if you’ve managed to staunch the bleeding that comes every time Jokic takes the bench, right? No one wins a title without a top-10 defense… right?

While it’s true that defense invariably plays a huge component in who wins out at the end of the season, AND a top-10 defense is almost always a prerequisite to bringing home that ring AND the Nuggets spent the early third of the season amongst the league’s bottom feeders defensively AND there’s no real statistically probable way they can now make it into the top 10…


After prioritizing defense from their bench, solidifying their starting rotation’s D, and allowing their team time to gel, the team has been playing above top-10 level defense ever since. The Nuggets are playing D at a rate that has now vaulted them to 13th in the standings coming into the break, and should keep them climbing until year’s end, whether they end up averaging top-10 or not. Do you care if you were a top-10 defense for the season if you can field a top-five level defense when playoff time comes?

Am I crazy? It’s all in place, isn’t it, Nuggets Nation? The NuggLife crowd is literally vibrating with worry as we cruise into the last third of what is already one of the most successful season in Nuggets history. Is this finally the year? This Nuggets engine is humming and primed to finally win this race.


Mike Olson is a weekly columnist for DNVR. The Colorado State University alum was born and raised in Fort Collins and has been writing about Denver sports for the last decade-plus. After over a decade away, he is thrilled to be back in and around Colorado. No place like home.