Will the Nuggets Be Ready to Strike Gold Once Jamal Murray Returns?
NBA

Will the Nuggets Be Ready to Strike Gold Once Jamal Murray Returns?

Evolution or Revolution is a series that analyzes whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. This edition focuses on the Denver Nuggets post-Jamal Murray’s injury and the continued evolution of Michael Porter Jr. alongside MVP Nikola Jokic. 


With 50.6 seconds left in their game against the Golden State Warriors on April 12, the Denver Nuggets’ season changed in an instant. 

While driving to the basket, Jamal Murray went down with what was confirmed as a torn ACL shortly thereafter. To most, Murray’s injury meant that the Nuggets were no longer a serious championship contender. ESPN commentator Zach Lowe went so far as to say that had it not been for Murray’s injury, the Nuggets might have been his pick to win it all. 

And while the Nuggets knocked out the talented Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, they were swept by the eventual Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns in a series that was rather uncompetitive. With their star guard likely sidelined until April, the Nuggets are at a crossroads as they prepare for next season.  

Let’s consider some of the factors that the Nuggets must think about as they approach 2021-22:

Replacing Murray

Following Murray’s injury, the Nuggets finished the regular season 13-5 and played perhaps better than expected in the postseason. But even with MVP Nikola Jokic leading the way, it might be too much to ask them to continue that level of play for most of a full season without their rising star playmaker. 

The fact is that Nuggets aren’t going to be able to fully replace what Murray brought, both tangibly and intangibly. He averaged a career highs of 21.2 points, 47.7% shooting from the field and 40.8% from 3 while continuing to form a dynamic partnership with Jokic. 

If Denver is going to have success during the 2021-22 regular season, the team must figure out how to recover some of that value. Though Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo did an admirable job under the circumstances, the Nuggets experienced significant drop-offs without Murray.

Nuggets Starting Lineups, 2020-21 Regular Season

LineupOff RatingDef RatingNet Rating
Murray, Jokic, Porter Jr., Gordon, Barton130.6114.216.4
Morris, Jokic, Porter Jr., Gordon, Barton139.9135.54.4
Campazzo, Jokic, Porter Jr., Gordon, Barton128.6125.92.7

The Evolution of MPJ

When they picked Michael Porter Jr. 14th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Nuggets knew they were either getting a future star who may have gone as high as third if healthy or a player whose injuries might prevent him from reaching his full potential. 

While the jury is still out, Porter Jr. is showing signs of trending toward the former. After a year off recovering from a back injury, he had a promising rookie season with 9.3 points per game before blossoming with 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2020-21. 

Porter Jr. particularly shined down the stretch, averaging 23.5 points on 56.0% shooting – including 48.9% from 3-point range – and 85.4% from the free-throw line over the final 17 games of the regular season.  

But after his promising final month, MPJ had an uneven performance in the postseason. He averaged 17.4 points on 47.4% percentage shooting overall despite totaling 52 points on 62.5% shooting in Games 5 and 6 of the first-round series versus Portland. 

Along with MPJ’s growth, it will be equally important for Nuggets coach Michael Malone to find a rotation that works. While Porter Jr’s net rating went up following Murray’s injury, Jokic’s took a hit. With Porter Jr. off the court after Murray’s injury, the Nuggets had a dismal minus-7.0 net rating. Without Murray, the Nuggets are pretty much forced into always having either Porter Jr. or Jokic on the floor. 

cover art for Denver Nuggets net ratings

Verdict: Evolution

The biggest consideration for the Nuggets is their potential when healthy. They went 17-4 in the games in which Aaron Gordon played after arriving in a trade with the Orlando Magic. And with Murray, Jokic and Porter Jr., they’re likely to be considered a serious title contender. 

They could seek an upgrade at point guard to hold things down until Murray returns in March or April and the continued development of their young core (Bol Bol, Zeki Nnaji and PJ Dozier) will be a priority. After finishing with a 47-25 record, Denver selected guard Nah’Shon Hyland from VCU with the No. 26 overall pick in this week’s draft. 

With Paul Millsap, JaVale McGee and Austin Rivers set to be unrestricted free agents and Will Barton and JaMychal Green owning player options, the Nuggets could look very similar next season.

If they get some steady fill-in play at the point, Porter Jr. takes a leap forward in his development and Jokic continues to play at an MVP level, the Nuggets figure to be a team to be reckoned with when Murray returns – perhaps just in time for a potential playoff run. 


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