Leave it to coach Michael Malone to find a silver lining for one of the most devastating injuries in Nuggets history.
In the immediate aftermath of Jamal Murray’s torn ACL last April at Golden State, emotions were raw. The 24-year-old guard’s season was over in an instant, and a long, grueling recovery period ensured a significant portion of this upcoming season would be missed, too.
Malone sat and cried with Murray during a somber bus ride to the airport, grieving for the player he’d come to love. But given the perspective of an offseason, Malone managed to find comfort while assessing the biggest challenge hanging over his team this season: How will the Nuggets survive without Jamal?
“The good thing is, compared to those 18 games, we had no preparation,” Malone said during the team’s training camp. “It was ‘(Jamal’s) gone, and we’ve got a game tomorrow.’”
At least this time, they’ll have a plan.
Losing Murray’s swagger stung. Losing the institutional knowledge he and MVP center Nikola Jokic have accrued hurt even more.
“People forget, it’s not just losing Jamal,” Malone said. “It’s losing the dynamic of Jamal and Nikola. That two-man game is one of the more lethal and efficient, especially in closing time, two-man combos in the NBA.”
Jokic was non-committal when asked what it’ll be like not to have Murray on the court in crunch time this season.
“We will see when we have a close game how we’re gonna do it,” he said.
The Nuggets may not be able to replace Murray and Jokic’s devilish two-step, but it’s not as if the rest of the roster is incapable of elevating their play. If the offense still flows through Jokic (a decent bet), then there are two other swing pieces likely to determine the course of the Nuggets’ season.
“I really feel that Nikola’s going to play at an MVP-level once again,” Malone said. “It’s going to come down to Michael Porter and Aaron Gordon. Are they willing and capable of playing at a high level every single night?
“If they’re able to do that, we’ll be able to weather the storm while Jamal Murray’s out. If we’re not able to do that, then it could be a really tough year.”
Without draping the fortunes of their entire season on the duo’s shoulders, Malone insisted that for the Nuggets to entertain the thought of earning homecourt advantage in the playoffs, Porter and Gordon would need to be great. If not, given the depth of the Western Conference, the play-in tournament, or even missing the postseason entirely, is plausible.
Having won at a high level for the past three seasons, the Nuggets aren’t accustomed to this much potential variance.
Their gamble, though, was embodied in the form of two lucrative contract extensions, first for Gordon, then for Porter.
Of the two, Gordon may be the biggest question mark, if only because he’s never been in this situation before.
In Orlando, Gordon was rarely jockeying for the postseason. Now, not only is he on a team with legitimate championship aspirations, if they get there, he’ll be one of the reasons why.
“I love it, I know it’s true,” Gordon told The Denver Post. “No lies in (Malone’s declaration). We gotta pick it up for us to get anywhere.”
Disgusted with his postseason play last spring, Gordon has all the motivation he needs.
After a healthy offseason spent revamping his jumper and honing his interior game, Gordon has shown flashes of his growth throughout training camp. He’s made a concerted effort to play stronger near the rim, and Malone has empowered him as a creator.
The versatility Gordon has — as a playmaker, slasher, rebounder or scorer — is rare. Defensively, expect Gordon to guard the opponents’ most dynamic offensive player. Think Damian Lillard to LeBron James, and anyone in-between.
“It’s just about being on a contending team and being one of those horses,” Gordon said. “I’m excited about it. I know I have the ability. I know I can be everything this team needs from me for us to be a winning team.”
Knowing how much of this season hinges on their production, Gordon said he’s been in Porter’s ear constantly. Their on-court chemistry was obvious minutes into the Nuggets’ preseason opener, when, on three consecutive occasions, Gordon fed Porter for easy baskets, teasing the potential of their relationship.
“We can be one of the coldest tandems in the league,” Gordon said.
There are different question marks for Porter. In some ways, it’s why Nuggets management was confident in him working well with Gordon. Where Porter struggles, Gordon excels. And vice versa.
Lavished with a gleaming max contract only weeks ago, Porter was bound to be featured regardless of Murray’s status. Murray’s absence, however, only underscores Porter’s importance. The 6-foot-10 forward was already authoring a fantastic season before the offensive hierarchy got shaken like a Yahtzee roll. Post-Murray injury, Porter erupted.
Over the final 17 games, he averaged 23.5 points on 56% shooting, including nearly 49% from 3-point range. At that volume – nearly 8 3-pointers per game – no one in the NBA was more deadly.
Put another way: his touches leapt from 38.8 per game to 48.2, according to NBA.com’s tracking data, without losing an ounce of efficiency.
“He’s settling in feeling comfortable and confident,” Malone said last April. “I just love, and take a lot of pride, in seeing him grow and care as much as he has.”
Offensively, Porter harbors All-Star talent. Defensively, Malone is done hiding him.
During training camp, Malone has challenged Porter numerous times to focus on the details. Whether it’s crashing the defensive glass before leaking out, contesting shots, rotating on defensive coverages, disrupting the passing lanes or even simply communicating, Malone has implored Porter to take pride in the weaker aspects of his game.
“It’s gonna be a big opportunity,” Porter said, “and I’m ready to do it.”
When Murray’s left knee buckled near the baseline at Golden State on April 12, the Nuggets had about 48 hours to mentally recover and compose themselves before playing their next game.
The Nuggets scrambled, elevating Monte Morris, Facu Campazzo and P.J. Dozier to expanded roles. Soon, veteran guard Austin Rivers was added to that mix. Gordon, recently acquired in a trade, was now a focal point, as was Porter. Over the next 18 games and into the playoffs, the Nuggets assembled a patchwork offense built around Jokic.
Without Murray, Denver’s offensive efficiency dropped from fourth in the NBA to eighth, and their assists, long a hallmark of their selfless identity, fell from third to 10th. Even without Jokic’s primary dance partner, Denver reeled off a 13-5 record, then survived Lillard’s onslaught in the first round of the playoffs. Something worked.
Even though Morris and Will Barton each missed significant time with injuries, and Gordon was battling an ankle injury of his own, the Nuggets stayed afloat. Operating at far less than full capacity, they had pieced together the second-most wins in the league to close the season.
Beginning with the defense, the Nuggets survived. If they’re going to do it again, it’s going to take buy-in, health, a superlative season by Joker, and a commitment from Denver’s two young forwards to improve.
“Nobody’s gonna be Jamal Murray,” Dozier said recently, echoing the same message Malone conveyed immediately following the injury. “He’s one of a kind … We’re all gonna have to step up, play our own games, be a star at our role.”