When the Denver Nuggets acquired Aaron Gordon at the 2021 trade deadline, he was considered a vital piece for a run at the NBA title.

Soon after, Jamal Murray tore his left ACL and those hopes were dashed.

Nearly two years later, Murray is back, the bench has been bolstered with veterans and versatile players and Denver is looking like the team it thought it would be at the time of the trade. The Nuggets are atop the Western Conference at almost the halfway point of the season and will look to solidify that spot when they host the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night.

Los Angeles, which has dropped three straight, might be without stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the first of back-to-back games — both on the road. Leonard is dealing with a non-COVID illness while George tweaked his right hamstring in Monday’s loss to Miami.

George missed seven games earlier this season with a similar injury but has not been ruled out for Thursday night’s game. He and Leonard are on the trip and are listed as questionable for the matchup with Denver.

The Clippers have had a tough time finding a rhythm this year because of injuries. They won seven of nine games before the current losing streak and have had Leonard and George healthy at the same time for less than half of the season.

“The hardest part is with PG and Kawhi, they’ve only played 14 games together,” coach Tyronn Lue said Wednesday. “Until we finally get a chance to see our whole team and continue to have sample sizes with different lineups, it’s going to be tough.”

The Nuggets can empathize with Lue after dealing with multiple injuries to key guys over the last two seasons. Murray, who sat out all of 2021-22 while recovering from his surgically repaired ACL, is still working his way back to full health. Coach Michael Malone will keep him out of games to manage his recovery and maximize his performance.

Despite all that, Denver is still in a great position for the second half of the season. The Nuggets have played 20 road games already and will play nine of their next 10 games at home, where they are 14-3.

They’ve also had bad games — a home loss to Detroit being one of those — but have survived missing Michael Porter Jr. for an extended period of time with a heel strain, as well as Nikola Jokic sitting for three games due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol.

What is encouraging to Malone is that he hasn’t seen his team tap its full potential yet.

“The great thing about it is I don’t think we’ve played our best, and we currently sit atop the Western Conference, knowing that we have room to grow and room to improve,” he said. “That’s a pretty good situation to be in.”

The only player expected to miss Thursday’s game for Denver is Jeff Green, who is out with a fractured hand. His absence has given opportunities to others, including rookie Christian Braun. Braun’s minutes have been inconsistent, and Malone has said it has been a challenge finding floor time for him.

–Field Level Media