The Nuggets lost star Jamal Murray for the remainder of the season after a torn ACL in Monday’s loss to the Warriors.
Murray exploded in the playoffs last season and was behind the Nuggets’ historic postseason run in which the team overcame two 3–1 series deficits.
Does Denver have any shot at contending for the title now with its second-best player out? The Crossover staff reacts to Murray’s injury and what’s next for the Nuggets.
Can an NBA team win the championship without its second-best player? Maybe, but I can’t think of any recent examples. It’s hard to see the Nuggets overcoming Murray’s absence, and all that goes with him: the playmaking, the scoring, the shot creation, the clutch shooting, the dynamic pick-and-roll partnership with Nikola Jokić.
Then again, this is not a normal season. And the Nuggets are not a typical contender when it comes to their roster construction. Their offense runs primarily through Jokić, who serves as their hub and lead playmaker. For most teams, losing an All-Star–caliber point guard would be fatal. But the Nuggets can survive, because of Jokić. The blossoming of Michael Porter Jr., and the addition of Aaron Gordon also give them some cushion.
The West race is muddled, at best. LeBron James and Anthony Davis haven’t played in weeks (and have never played with the Lakers’ new starting center, Andre Drummond). The Jazz and Suns are impressive, but unproven in the postseason. The Clippers? No one can forget their 2020 flameout.
A healthy Lakers team is still probably the best bet to win the West. But at the moment, the race looks wide open. Every team has its blemishes and concerns. Before Murray went down, the Nuggets looked potent enough to break through the crowd. The task is considerably tougher without him—but not impossible. In this strange season, anything’s possible.
Short-term, the Murray injury almost definitely ends the Nuggets’ title hopes in 2021. The only way I see them winning a championship this year is if other contenders are also dealing with major injuries, and that’s obviously a possibility. As great as Jokić has been—and he’s probably the MVP favorite—I don’t think Denver has the depth in the backcourt to overcome a Murray injury. The Facu Campazzo minutes were always going to be an adventure come playoff time; if Mike Malone has to rely on him even more I don’t know how that’s going to work out.
Fortunately, I do think Denver still has great long-term prospects! Murray is young enough to overcome this injury. He and Jokić are under contract. The Aaron Gordon addition has worked out wonderfully well and he can be retained past his current deal. The Nuggets will still be good for a very long time whenever Murray does get healthy.
It’s a really crushing injury because of how well the Nuggets have built this roster into a contender. The front office put a lot of faith in Murray and Jokić and the two have rewarded them every step of the way. The Gordon trade was a well calculated strike and it’s a bummer we won’t get to see how well he plays off the two stars in a playoff series. While this year is almost assuredly lost, Denver’s window is still very much open.
The loss of Jamal Murray is devastating for obvious reasons. As a rising 24-year-old star on a top-tier title contender in the middle of his finest NBA season, Murray’s specific value to the Nuggets is irreplaceable. The team is reliant on him, Nikola Jokić and the telepathic connection they share that’s allowed each to lift the other higher and higher over the past few seasons.
Denver’s 122.4 offensive rating when Murray and Jokić shared the floor is nearly five points per 100 possessions higher than the best offense in the league (and the best offense in the league—the Clippers—is also the best offense of all time). When Jokić is on the floor without Murray, the Nuggets are -22, and when both stars are on the sideline the team manages to outscore their opposition, albeit with really bad offense and some three-point luck on the other end.
Aaron Gordon’s ability to assume more playmaking responsibilities should be seen as the slightest silver lining, while Michael Porter Jr. appears ready for an expanded offensive role. And so long as both stay healthy, Monte Morris and Facu Campazzo won’t take anything off the table as a pair of nails-tough floor generals. None of these players can give Denver what Murray did, though. With him, their ceiling was “champion.” Now, even reaching the second round should be seen as a huge accomplishment.
But given the amount of talent—including the MVP favorite—experience and continuity that still remains, the Nuggets still aren’t a team any other will be particularly excited to face.
There's no way around it: It's a devastating injury. Not only for him on a personal level, but for the team, which—with the addition of Aaron Gordon—looked to have as good a chance as anyone to come out of the West.
Yet between what's shown to be an average defense, a shaky bench and a young No. 3 scorer that sometimes looks almost too eager to fire away, Murray's absence feels fatal. Even with likely MVP Nikola Jokić playing, Denver's offense has been 11 points worse—from a world-beating 122.4 points down to 111.3 points per 100 possessions—without Murray alongside him. As you might imagine, the club has outscored opponents by 339 points in Jokić-and-Murray minutes this season. But they've been outscored by 22 in the 550 minutes Jokić has had to play without his starting point guard.
The Nuggets without Murray are a balloon with its air slowly seeping out. They can potentially stay afloat for a while still. But it feels like there's no real chance of them soaring beyond the second round; a brutal reality for a team that seemingly had no limits just two nights ago.
It’s hard to see the Nuggets really competing for the Western Conference crown without Jamal Murray. The addition of Aaron Gordon should help alleviate the scoring void left my Murray’s injury to a degree, but considering the stack of contenders in the West, even a round-one win would be a relative surprise.
Murray’s torn ACL is especially dispiriting considering Denver’s history. This is a franchise that has never reached the Finals, and for most of their existence, the Nuggets were largely considered an NBA afterthought. That perception was changing in a hurry in 2020–21. Nikola Jokić is the MVP favorite as of mid-April, and adding Murray, Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. created perhaps the league’s most dynamic quartet. Had Denver been healthy, I would have been tempted to pick the Nuggets for the Finals. Let’s hope Murray can return to form sooner than later for a run at the 2022 title.
It’s hard to overstate the impact Murray’s injury will have on the Nuggets. The 24-year-old is delightful to watch on the court and was in the midst of the best and most productive season of his career, averaging 21.2 points, 4.8 assists and four rebounds per game. When paired with MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic, the two exhibit a chemistry and production that few duos in the league present, recording a +11.5 net rating while on the court together, the second-best mark in the league in two-man lineup combinations that have played more than 1,100 minutes together this season.
Since the trade deadline, Denver had also looked like a very legitimate threat to win the West, and maybe even the title. Aaron Gordon’s addition has been rather seamless, with the team going 7–2 in games he’s played. The five-man lineup of Gordon, Jokić, Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton had fit together nicely, recording a +18.5 net rating in 110 minutes of action. That group was on pace (albeit in a small sample) to score 127.1 points per 100 possession while conceding just under 109 points per 100 possession.
Everything, though, will change for the Nuggets with Murray out of the lineup. And what is especially concerning for the franchise is that the injury will very likely impact not just this postseason, but, due to the NBA on track to revert back to its usual schedule next year, impact next year’s season in a big way as well.
MORE NBA STORIES
Shapiro: NBA power rankings
Nadkarni: The trade that saved Caris LeVert