The Denver Nuggets have been bitten badly this season by the injury bug. That they are 15-14 and in the sixth spot in the West is a testament to reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Injured starting point guard Jamal Murray, who is rehabbing from a torn ACL, would love to be out on the floor with his teammates, and he tweeted as much on over the weekend.
I just wanna play again man damn..
— Jamal Murray (@BeMore27) December 19, 2021
Murray is in the phase of his rehab where repetition of exercises is tedious. But a steadfast and diligent approach is what will enable a successful return.
The work now will show later 🌟
— Jamal Murray (@BeMore27) December 20, 2021
Imagine what the Nuggets would be with a healthy Murray, the reigning MVP who is having an even better season this year, and a healthy Michael Porter Jr., who is out indefinitely after undergoing a second back surgery.
That version of the Nuggets would be a favorite to come out of the Western Conference and win an NBA championship.
Let’s look back at what Murray was doing before he got injured.
We all remember his insane run in the 2000 “bubble” playoffs. Helping the Nuggets battle back from down 3-1 in the opening round against the Utah Jazz, and in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers.
He elevated his game to a level on the biggest stage that not too many thought was possible.
Of course after the bubble there were the naysayers. Let’s see him do it for an entire season, with fans, etc. All fair points.
Last season, before he suffered the ACL injury, Murray was at a career-high in overall estimated plus minus at +3.3. He was in the 94th percentile in the league. His offensive EPM was +2.8, also a career high.
Murray also posted his best ever numbers in TS% and eFG% at 59 and 56, respectively. He averaged 21 points per game and shot 40 percent from three. The consistency many asked for was there.
We saw the exploits and matching Utah’s Donovan Mitchell shot for shot. But could he show up nightly? The answer was a resounding yes.
The Nuggets have been top five in adjusted offensive rating the past three seasons. Jokic is a huge reason why. But Murray and MPJ have developed a synergy with the MVP that makes this lineup lethal.
According to Cleaning The Glass, any lineup with the big 3 and any other two teammates with a minimum of 50 games played outscored their opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions.
That’s why the Nuggets signed Murray to a five-year, $158 million rookie extension and MPJ to a rookie max extension at five years, $207 million. Even with the concerns about MPJ’s back, this was the move to make.
The hardest thing to do in the NBA, particularly when you’re not a major market, is acquire top-end talent. You have to draft extremely well. When you assemble a core as lethal as this Nuggets group, you must do whatever is necessary to keep it together.
The Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden in three consecutive drafts from 2007-2009. That core made the NBA Finals in 2012. The team broke the core up essentially over $5 million. The Thunder hasn’t sniffed deep playoff success since Durant left via free agency.
Jokic, Murray, and MPJ are not KD, Harden, and Russ. But of the six players, Jokic is no worse than third-best and is much closer to second-best than third.
The Nuggets struck gold, pun intended, drafting Jokic in the second round in 2014. Murray was a lottery pick in 2017 at seventh, and MPJ, despite the back concerns, is a generational scoring machine that fell to them at the 14th pick in 2018.
Most teams are never that lucky.
The injury bug has hurt them this season. But a steady approach to injury management for MPJ and Murray as well as locking up Jokic on a max extension in 2023 will have this team’s title window open for a few more years.
In this league that’s all you can ask for.