The number one draft pick combined with Lonzo Ball for massive half-court alley-oop against San Antonio, as New Orleans remain unbeaten in the pre-season.
The Denver Nuggets are mostly confusing, uneven and complicated, interrupted only by moments of breathtaking clarity and perfection.
Little feels fluent on the court for them at the moment. Their point guard doesn’t really pass, their small forward is a power forward, and their power forward is from somewhere else, and is playing very much like he’s from somewhere else. Their starting center is the de facto point guard, and Kenneth Faried is still on the team.
And yet, in the muddle of these complex moving parts that right now are moving into each other more than with each other, is an undeniably bright future. Talent will always be the richest currency in the NBA, and when it is willing, and selfless, it will find a way.
So the hope is for the Nuggets, who have an odd roster construction, as intricate as it is enticing. Three pieces, though, make unquestionable sense: Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Harris makes sense on this team because he would make sense on every team – a capable defender and lights out marksman who exists to do all the right things. He is the small chunk of confidence that warms every fan, knowing that they can pencil him in to do all the things that he does.
Jokic is the big chunk of universe that makes fans believe in a higher power. He is perhaps the most majestic nightly watch in the NBA, a dazzling melange of balletic footwork, extra-terrestrial passes, exquisite touches and things you’ve never seen before and have never even considered seeing before.
Every game, Jokic will do something magically absurd. Against Oklahoma City, it was receiving an entry pass one-handed and laying it in off the glass in the same motion that he received the ball. He is a joy.
As marvellous as Jokic is, the Nuggets might only go as far as Jamal Murray can take them. Jokic is known – he is a superstar, a foundational franchise player. Murray is … kind of, sort of known.
His talent is visceral and commanding, but it relents far too often. Any shortcomings can be attributed to his youth – he’s still only 20 years old – but when he’s off, like he was in the first half against OKC last week, he looks like he’s never played basketball; afraid to dribble into traffic and loose with his handle when he does, making misguided passes, losing assignments on defence, and taking timid, poorly chosen shots.
When he is on, though, he shows flashes of being the league’s closest facsimile of Stephen Curry, with less genius but more athletic force. He jacks step-back threes with his perfect shooting motion and sees them swish, he meanders into the lane and hits Steph’s on the move one-legged side-on foul line pull-up jumper, and when he wants to, he drives fiercely at the rim and lofts lefty lay-ups in high off glass.
Murray has everything, and when he plays closer to ‘everything’ than ‘nothing’ the Nuggets begin to make devastating sense. When his meandering is not purposefully into the lane, but aimlessly around the perimeter, everything gets confused. The offence becomes too dependent on Paul Millsap’s over-dribbling and dated post moves, and Wilson Chandler begins to look much more like a plodding, ground-bound small forward than the athletic, rangy power forward he was just a year ago.
All the other weirdness about Denver’s roster comes to the fore too. Emmanuel Mudiay is still around, and playing the best ball of his career – but to what end? Will Barton is an electric life force, but one that is a free agent in nine months. Mason Plumlee, Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, Richard Jefferson and Darrell Arthur are all on the roster and want minutes.
None of this matters a great deal in the scheme of things if Jokic continues on his upwards trajectory, Harris remains reliably reliable, and Murray – the swing piece for this franchise – becomes the player his talent dictates that he should be.
If those things happen, words like ‘Kenneth Faried’ become harmless semantics, and the basketball world will have another force to deal with.