Nuggets put title chase on hold after Murray's injury
Jamal Murray suffered a torn ACL and will return in the middle of next season at the earliest. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Jamal Murray’s a slow starter. Every year, he sets a lagging pace over the first quarter of the calendar and gets up to speed through midwinter into thawing spring. You wish he were a little more efficient, a little more reliable, and as the performances accumulate, you realize that he’s headed in that direction. If you’re paying attention to the trendline, that is. This is hard to do with Murray, because he might score 40 points or 15, and he struggles and excels with the same wild verve. There’s an upset inside him that won’t settle down, and when he’s really locked in, when he’s as close to calm as he gets, bombing 27-footers and flowing from Nikola Jokić handoffs like water around a boulder, he still gives the impression of somebody ironing a shirt aboard a turbulent plane. Murray illustrates the difference between having it figured out and having it under control. It’s all so palpably — sometimes painfully — tenuous.  

Another way to put this is he’s a fascinating player. And I root for him; I think a lot of basketball fans do. The Nuggets in general are a likeable bunch, and they looked to be rounding into championship-contending form following their recent move for Aaron Gordon, before the bad news came down: Murray suffered a torn ACL, and that’s that. It’s not an injury you can negotiate with; there’s no chance that he can maybe kinda return for the second round of the playoffs, something like that. His season is over, and by extension so is the Nuggets’. They would have needed some great performances out of Jokić, Murray, and their capable cadre of role players to make it out of the Western Conference. As I wrote in my piece about the Aaron Gordon trade: He’s an excellent third or fourth option, but if you’re expecting him to play like a star, he’s going to disappoint you.

Is it encouraging or just cruel to point out that Murray was reaching new (regular season) heights before his knee gave out? Since the start of February, he had been putting up 22.7 points per game on 49.1 percent shooting and 44.1 percent from deep. His playmaking, always more of a secondary skill for him, was as good as it’s ever been, and his synergy with Jokić was approaching perfection. There are guys who develop a strong on-court rapport over the course of a few seasons, and there are guys who seem to grow into a single entity, their consciousnesses intertwining like a pair of saplings planted too close together. Murray and Jokić understand each other, and although the latter is probably a leading MVP candidate with or without his more diminutive partner, they do their most satisfying work as a tandem. We’re going to have to wait until the middle of next season, at the earliest, before we get to enjoy that show again.

The penetrating analysis you seek: This sucks. It’s not quite a tragedy, because Murray is only 24 years old and a good bet to bounce back, plus the Nuggets are set up to retain their best talent for at least one more season after this current campaign, but the volatile nature of the league makes you nervous. We expect distinct iterations of teams to last longer than they typically do. Entire franchise eras can be condensed to only a season or two these days. Denver’s going to soldier on and end this campaign with a first- or second-round playoff exit. It wouldn’t be shocking if Murray comes back late next year and doesn't get up to speed in time, sparking some amount of institutional strife. An unhappy Jokić or a front-office reshuffle. I’m making this stuff up, but it’s possible Murray’s injury is merely a blip. However, time seems to advance at quadruple-speed in the NBA — and its reality takes frightening turns. If you have an affection for a particular player or team, you do well to savor what they are right now, because their future isn’t remotely guaranteed.

So what’s immediate? Grief, swearing and kicking the dirt. It’s a shame that Murray won’t be allowed to finish the thought he had been developing over the past couple of months. Before he went down clutching his left knee, it would have been difficult to imagine him playing even better in these upcoming playoffs than he did last year, but that’s simply a comment on how awesome he was in Orlando. If he were able to recreate those performances on a Denver squad that could actually put a hurting on the Lakers rather than hang on for dear life against them, that’s the substance of stories that get passed around forever. Scoring 40 points in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals is incredible. Doing it two or three weeks later is eternal. That’s the opportunity Murray has forfeited, until at least the warming spring of 2022.

You hope it doesn’t evaporate, by the the time he’s physically and mentally ready to seize it again. It’s worth noting that Murray doesn’t struggle early in the season because he’s rusty or playing himself into shape. He’s a maniacal worker. My amateur theory is that it’s overexcitement. He wants to be playing basketball all the time, and when it arrives after a long layoff he comes in too hot, like a kid popping a water balloon with his eager grasp. Which is to say Murray will be the most committed and diligent rehabber in the history of exploded knees, but he’ll need some authority in his ear reminding him not to rush the process. Whether he has time to heal up completely or not, the Nuggets can’t get where they’re trying to go if he’s not 100 percent right. But if he is, and nothing too drastic changes during this spell he’s forced to miss, they can pick up right where they left off: in the thick of a championship hunt they just might come out of on top.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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