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Nikola Jokic has arrived and the Nuggets are on schedule

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The List explains why it’s time to get on the Denver bandwagon.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets have been knocking on the playoff door for the last two seasons. They narrowly missed out in 2016 by one game, and they were cruelly ejected on the last day of the regular season this past April. The Nuggets’ postseason drought has now reached five seasons and counting. The flip side to that is they have improved from 33-to-40-to-46 wins under coach Michael Malone and their patience is about to pay off.

General manager Tim Connelly elected to stand pat this summer and trust his young core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris. One year after signing Harris to an extension on his rookie contract, Connelly re-signed Jokic to a max deal, and re-upped with invaluable veteran Will Barton. He also extended Malone’s contract, who is entering his fourth season at the helm.

That stability, combined with cutting bait on veterans like Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried, has opened up playing time for some of the young talent that Connelly has been stockpiling over the last few seasons. The lone free-agent addition of note was Isaiah Thomas, who is rehabbing from his hip injury.

That core, along with a healthy Paul Millsap, makes this the year for the Nuggets to take their long-awaited next step and reach the playoffs. They’re young, talented, and hungry. In a Western Conference that seems primed for a shakeup, that’s a winning combination of traits.

It helps to have a generational talent to anchor the whole enterprise.

Jokic is 23 years old, and on the cusp of superstardom. Now in his fourth season, he’s steadily risen up the ranks from cult curiosity to an All-NBA caliber performer. The only thing missing is a playoff drive and the recognition that comes along with it. Jokic is an excellent rebounder and has range for days, but it’s his passing that makes him such a compelling player. Imagine Bill Walton in a sturdier body, or a younger Arvydas Sabonis.

Blasphemy and heresy, you say! Possibly, but the list of players who averaged better than 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists per game, like Jokic did last season, is miniscule. To put it another way: How many big men his age would you take before getting around to Jokic? (The answer is three, maybe. Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, and Karl Anthony-Towns.)

Jokic is not the all-around destructo force that AD has become, nor is he a defensive stalwart like Embiid. Still, he held his own in the middle last season and was a net positive for a Denver defense that has struggled for years to gain any kind of consistency.

Ah yes, consistency. It has been the Nuggets’ nemesis these last few years, owing mainly to their youth and manifested by a maddening habit of losing winnable games.

The (very) early returns have been encouraging. After beating the Clippers in Los Angeles to open the season, Denver blew out the Suns at home, and then narrowly snuck past the Warriors on the end of a back-to-back on Sunday. Even in October at home against a Warrior team that waited until the 8-minute mark of the fourth quarter to kick into gear, this was a quality win.

Denver beat the Warriors while somehow missing 18 free throws in 42 attempts on a night when Murray and Millsap combined to shoot 1-for-16 from the floor. That speaks to their overall talent level. Both Murray and Millsap have struggled in the early going, but the Nuggets are deep enough to survive off nights from two of their best players.

The victory was even more impressive when you consider that the Nuggets were without Will Barton, their Swiss Army knife of a player. Barton is out with what a groin injury, “for the foreseeable future,” according to Malone.

Barton’s absence can’t be overstated. He does so many things for this team that it’s like losing two players. He’s both a complementary playmaker for Jokic and a capable lead scorer. He’s versatile enough to initiate offense and play off the ball.

In his place, Malone started Torrey Craig, a 28-year-old journeyman with a defensive mindset. That was an interesting choice because the key lesson the Nuggets need to learn this season is how to beat teams without simply trying to outscore them.

The Nuggets managed to hold each of their opening week opponents below 100 points. A modest accomplishment, but one that has to be considered in the context of a week one scoring surge throughout the league. From a team that has treated defense like something to do between offensive possessions, it’s practically a milestone.

The Nuggets were 25th in defensive rating last season, which was an improvement after finishing 29th the year before. They will not get anywhere without significant improvement on that end of the floor.

The Golden State game ended, fittingly, on a block by Juan Hernangomez, who came over from the weak side to deny a Damian Jones layup that would have tied the game near the end of regulation. Three games does not make up for two years of mishaps and blown assignments, but it’s a really nice start.

Outside of Jokic, the hottest Nugget is Gary Harris, who is too good to be underrated much longer. Harris picked up the scoring slack against the Warriors with a tough 28 points that included numerous drives to the basket where he finished in traffic down the stretch.

Harris is much more than a 3-and-D wing, at least offensively. (Like everyone else in Denver, the D is coming along.) Harris has finishing moves you didn’t know he had, and he and Jokic have developed a wonderful psychic connection on backdoor cuts that served as the team’s best offense in the final minutes.

For a team with so much young offensive talent, the Nuggets have a surprisingly well-balanced attack. All five of their regular starters averaged between 11-and-13 shots last season, a distribution of duties that is aided in no small part by Jokic’s unselfish passing.

While this Denver team is still searching for its true identity, it has already discovered that their path to success runs through Jokic. Dumping the ball into the big fella on the block is a charming antidote to the late-game trend of playing five-out spread basketball. With proper spacing and smart cutting, there’s no telling where or how the Nuggets can try to attack you down the stretch.

Jokic was tremendous against the Warriors, posting a 23-11-6 line in 32 minutes of action and hearing MVP chants from a hopped up crowd.

It’s hard to overstate that last part of the equation. For years, the Nuggets enjoyed a unique home court advantage, owing to the altitude and what used to be one of the liveliest crowds in the league. The altitude hasn’t changed, but after an extended period of mediocrity, the Nuggets have struggled to connect with one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Wins like Sunday go a long way toward re-establishing that relationship.

There will still be bumps along the way, of course. Despite his strong play down the stretch of last season, Murray is still learning on the job as the team’s lead guard. Millsap missed more than half of last season with a wrist injury and hasn’t looked good at all through the first three games. Thomas would really help juice the second unit that lacks a natural scorer off the bench.

While IT recuperates, there are roles to be sorted out in reserve where youth is finally being served. Players such as Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, and Malik Beasley are getting a chance to solidify their standing as contributing players. That will all take some time.

Still, this is a team to believe in now, and Jokic has arrived. Get on the bandwagon now. The Nuggets are one of the best basketball experiences you can have this season.