The Denver Nuggets were arguably the most surprising team in the Western Conference in last season’s NBA Playoffs.
The Nuggets came back from 3-to-1 deficits to win a series in the first and second rounds, including against the heavily favored Clippers in round two. They lost to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, but their run, particularly the ascension of Jamal Murray, had them looking like a trendy pick to potentially unseat the Lakers this season.
Denver got off to a sluggish start, though. Despite the brilliance of MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets hovered around .500 and near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff standings much of the season. The losses of versatile forward Jerami Grant and backup center Mason Plumlee in free agency hurt their depth, particularly on defense. Michael Porter Jr missed a significant stretch of games while in the league’s health and safety protocols. Murray, who had two 50-point games and two other 40-point games in last season’s playoffs, didn’t take as big a leap as expected in the first half of the season. Murray’s numbers were fine, but they were pretty much in line with his career averages.
But that all started to change in late February. Between February 27 and April 9, the Nuggets won 17 of 20 games and vaulted themselves all the way from seventh to third in the Western Conference standings. Multiple factors contributed to that jump.
The first was Murray catching fire. He averaged 26 points per game in February, and shot over 50 percent overall and 45 percent from three-point range in February and March. After spending much of his career as a streaky scorer, he finally emerged as the reliable complement to Jokic the Nuggets have been hoping he’d become.
Murray’s play hasn’t been the sole reason for their success, though. Porter has blossomed in a full-time role. After spending last season in and out of the rotation, Porter is the team’s starting power forward and averages 18 points and 8 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent overall and making 43 percent of his three-pointers.
The trade deadline also brought new life to the team, as Denver acquired Aaron Gordon from Orlando. Gordon fit seamlessly into the role Grant had vacated as a versatile forward who can defend multiple positions. Grant is also an exceptional finisher and underrated passer on offense. His skillset perfectly complements Jokic and Murray, and the Nuggets immediately won eight straight games. They once again looked like a team that could contend in the playoffs.
Then, on April 12, disaster struck. On a drive to the basket, Murray came up hobbling. He tore his ACL and will miss the rest of the season, putting a serious dent in their futures odds for a title. The Nuggets lost that game, and the loss of Murray seriously deflates the momentum they’ve built.
But NBA teams have to be resilient, and Denver still has talent. Can they contend without Murray?
The immediate question is who will replace him in the lineup. Many of his minutes will likely go to Monte Morris. Morris actually represents an upgrade defensively and as a traditional point guard. He’s a strong defender and is a great facilitator who excels at taking care of the ball, with a nearly 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He’s a career 39 percent three-point shooter as well, so he should still provide the floor spacing Murray did with the first unit even if he’s not as explosive of a scorer.
Denver could also rely more on Will Barton. Barton is an effective spot-up shooter, but he’s capable of bigger scoring outbursts and should see more shots with Murray out.
The Nuggets can also use Gordon more as a scorer. He’s only averaging 12 points per game with the Nuggets, and consistency as an offensive threat has long been a knock on his game, but he is capable of creating his own shot and it is reasonable for Denver to expect more offense out of him even if he’s currently excelling in his complementary role.
Denver still has depth, and they have one of the most difficult players to defend in the league in Jokic, but their playoff run was predicated last season on Murray’s big-shot making abilities. Unless they can replace that internally – and quick – they won’t be able to contend with Western Conference’s elite teams.