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The Nuggets’ starting point guard for opening night is a no-brainer in the absence of Jamal Murray.
Monte Morris has been waiting for this moment.
The fifth-year NBA pro entered the offseason intent on not wasting his opportunity. Many Nuggets chose to spend short summers back in their respective hometowns. Not Morris. Coach Michael Malone called him: Mr. Denver.
“Monte was probably the guy who was here more than anybody this offseason,” Malone said. “He put a lot of time into not just his game but also his body. Getting healthy and getting stronger. That’s what you love about Monte. He’s a gym rat. He’s never satisfied. With Jamal Murray being out, Monte Morris is our starting point guard (Wednesday) night.
“That’s a lot of responsibility.”
Morris, 26, accepts his new role with modest confidence.
“I’m not trying to be Jamal Murray. I’m just trying to be the best fashion of myself that I can be and help the team in any way,” Morris said during training camp. “That’s why there’s not a lot of pressure.”
Last year didn’t go as planned. Morris was inactive for 24 regular-season games. He said his explosiveness to the rim was limited due to lingering knee tendinitis. It equaled bad news for the Nuggets.
“When Monte is an aggressive attack-mode player,” Malone said, “he makes us a much better team and more difficult to guard.”
Morris addressed the issue during the summer with “focused rehabilitation and medical management” over a roughly 10-week period. He said a lack of explosion is no longer a concern ahead of Wednesday’s season opener at the Phoenix Suns. Morris also stressed no panic with Murray’s timeline for return uncertain. It’s on everyone to pick up the slack.
“We’re all hoopers and ballplayers. You don’t really have to say much,” Morris said. “When somebody goes down, you’ve just got to be ready when your number is called. … If everybody elevates their game one notch, I feel like we’ll be in a good position.”
It helps that reigning MVP Nikola Jokic shares a strong connection with Morris.
“We know what to expect from him,” Jokic said. “Of course, a little bit more this year because (Murray) is out. But I’m not scared. Monte is going to be good.”
Morris added: “Me and Joker both are unselfish. I’m reading him on offense when he’s got the ball like where I would want somebody to go. When you see those cuts and he’s hitting me, that’s really just a feel that we’ve got. He’s really just a point guard in a center’s body. It’s easy to play with him.”
The Nuggets’ backcourt depth — Facu Campazzo, P.J. Dozier, Bones Hyland and Austin Rivers — will also be relied upon heavily. His path from G-League standout to become one of the NBA’s top reserve point guards is appreciated among teammates and coaches. The Nuggets believe in Morris.
“He has the respect of the entire locker room and the entire organization,” Malone said. “That’s just who Monte is and how he carries himself. I love him as a player. But I love him even more as a person.”
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.”
Shaquille O'Neal believes if LeBron James passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on NBA's all-time scoring list the Lakers star should be considered greatest ever.
Despite the efforts of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers' shooting and defensive woes added up to a 121-114 loss to the Golden State Warriors.
If Nikola Jokic plays like the MVP and Tim Connelly’s big $250 million bet on Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon pays off, you will have a better chance of watching the Nuggets on Comcast than seeing injured Jamal Murray on the court before March 1.
And that could be a very good thing (well, except for the Comcast blackout part). Please, allow me to explain.
During this NBA season, when LeBron James will age in dog years before our eyes and Kyrie Irving might be harder to find than Waldo, there will be no super team. Milwaukee? Phoenix? Philadelphia? All capable of winning it all. But scary good? Nope.
Are you sitting down? What I’m trying to say is: Never in their history have the Nuggets had a better opportunity to win a championship than this season, despite the fact nobody knows for certain when — or if — Murray will be 100% recovered from the torn ACL injury he suffered in April.
Let me underline this thought three times: The team would be wise to play it cautious and take it slow with Murray. The best-case scenario? Denver plays well enough without him to be in contention for a top-four seed in the Western Conference, eases Murray back in the mix during the final 15 games of the regular season, then has the Blue Arrow sharp and ready to do serious damage in the playoffs.
If that’s the case, I like the Nuggets’ chances against anybody in what figures to be a wide-open tournament. But for Denver to have a real shot to win its first NBA championship, this team must fulfill three non-negotiable requests.
No. 1: The Joker rules
After Jokic collected the MVP trophy last season, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said: “First of many.”
Well, Joker isn’t going to collect the MVP award again this season. That honor is going in the trophy case of Dallas guard Luka Doncic.
But there’s every reason to believe Jokic will be among the top five players in the league. The era of James and Stephen Curry is coming to a close. During the next three years, Joker has the right stuff to wrestle Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Doncic for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Joker, said Malone, is nothing less than “the embodiment of our identity.”
And isn’t that the definition of a franchise player?
No. 2: MPJ, Gordon give big bang for the buck
Despite getting swept away from the playoffs by Phoenix, Connelly doubled-down on his belief the roster he built is fully capable of winning a championship. Connelly showed faith with an investment that could be worth in excess of a quarter-billion dollars in contract extensions for Porter and Gordon, both immensely talented but flawed players.
The Joker is Batman. MPJ must be Robin in the two-man offensive sets the Nuggets run. With Jokic’s passing acumen and one of the league’s purest shooting strokes, if Porter doesn’t lead this team in scoring, something’s wrong.
After a playoff performance Gordon himself labeled disgusting, he must not only step up to be an elite defender but also prove he can provide a key basket in the clutch.
“Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter are going to have to be great for us,” Malone said. “If we’re going to have a chance to be competitive, be a team that can be a playoff team and maybe get homecourt (advantage in the playoffs), that’s only going to happen if Michael and Aaron have a great season. If Michael and Aaron don’t play great, we might be in a play-in game, if that.”
No. 3: No excuses allowed
Don’t tell me how difficult it will be to replace the roughly 20 points and five assists per game Murray supplied before he tore his ACL during a late-season game at Golden State and cried on the team bus alongside Malone.
I don’t want to hear it. And if you hear the Nuggets talking about being cursed by bad luck or having to hold down the fort until Murray returns, the mindset is all wrong.
From the time I advocated Denver taking him prior to the 2016 draft, nobody in this dusty old cow town has been a bigger Murray booster than me. But he is not an all-star guard. He is not an irreplaceable part. The Nuggets can win 50 games without Murray. They need him in the playoffs to win a championship. Denver, however, can live without him and be a top-four seed in the West.
Is that too harsh on Murray? Or failure to show proper respect?
Well, as Malone is fond of saying: “Everybody is so (dang) sensitive.”
The Nuggets don’t have time to ease into this season, using Murray’s injury as a doctor’s note, asking to be excused for a lack of chemistry. If this team has the mental toughness required of a champion, the absence of Murray won’t prevent a fast start.
“After 20 games you get a real good look as to whether you’re going to be a playoff team or not,” Malone said. “If you’re 12-8 after your first 20 games, 92% of the time you’re going to make the playoffs.”
Get ‘r done.
The Nuggets kick off their 2021-22 campaign with much optimism and plenty of hurdles.
The team doubled down on the belief in its talent after re-signing Will Barton, Aaron Gordon and JaMychal Green and extending Michael Porter Jr.’s contract. But is this team strong enough to contend for a title, especially with Jamal Murray still recovering from a torn ACL?
Here’s a look at how various national experts rated the Nuggets in their power rankings entering the 2021-22 NBA season:
Bleacher Report (No. 7)
“On offense, the Nuggets have a 6’10” Klay Thompson who knows how to find the open spots on the floor, make himself available to playmakers and convert catch-and-shoot opportunities with devastating efficiency. Spending all (or most) of 2021-22 as the second option will expedite MPJ’s development and give Jokic a reliable target to distribute to,” Andy Bailey writes. See the full rankings.
CBS Sports (No. 9)
“Jamal Murray is out, but Nikola Jokic is the MVP. Denver went 13-5 after Murray’s season-ending ACL injury and made it to the second round of the playoffs, so it wouldn’t be wise to doubt what Jokic, Michael Malone and Co. are capable of doing. Murray’s absence will obviously hurt the offense, but the Nuggets were better defensively last season with Monte Morris and PJ Dozier on the court, so that could help make up some of the difference,” Colin Ward-Henninger writes. See the full rankings.
ESPN (No. 7)
“The Nuggets will once again rely heavily on the reigning MVP, who had a magical season with 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists last season. While Jokic is primed for another big season, Denver’s title aspirations rest with Murray’s return. Denver will take it slow with the star guard, but the Nuggets will need him if they are to make it out of the second round,” Ohm Youngmisuk writes. See the full rankings.
NBA.com (No. 11)
“The Nuggets rank third in continuity and coach Michael Malone is in his seventh season in Denver. But they saw the league’s biggest jump in 3-point rate from last season (38.3%, 18th) to the preseason, taking more than half of their shots from beyond the arc. That might not hold with a regular rotation as they took 48 of their 87 shots from deep with most of their regulars out on Thursday,” writes John Schuhmann. See the full rankings.
Sporting News (No. 7)
“The Nuggets will be without Murray to start the season as he recovers from an ACL injury that he suffered in April. While reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is more than capable of orchestrating the offense in the meantime, they still have to fill a starting backcourt spot. Will Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo or Austin Rivers fit that bill? Will Denver look to rookie guard Bones Hyland if he continues his level of play from NBA Summer League and preseason?” Kyle Irving writes. See the full rankings.
USA Today (No. 7)
“Good news: Nikola Jokic is the defending MVP and Michael Porter Jr.’s star turn starts now. Bad news: It might be a really long time before Jamal Murray returns. They’re going to miss him a lot,” Charles Curtis writes. See the full rankings.
NBA history is littered with examples of teams being derailed by an injury to a star player. One of the best books written on the league — David Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game” — centers around one such instance. Hint: It didn’t end well.
With the Nuggets looking to clear a similar hurdle this season without Jamal Murray, here are some recent examples of how teams responded to losing a key player for an extended period of time:
Team: Chicago Bulls
Player/injury: Derrick Rose/torn ACL
Record without Rose: 45-37
Rose’s Bulls were soaring. The No. 1 seed during that year’s playoffs, everything changed for the franchise when Rose tore his left ACL in the first round against the 76ers. The Bulls lost that series in six games. The next season, Chicago finished with the fifth seed in the East. They advanced to the second round before bowing out to LeBron James’ Heat.
Team: Indiana Pacers
Player/injury: Paul George/broken leg
Record without George: 38-44
Months removed from a second consecutive Eastern Conference finals trip, George suffered a gruesome leg injury during an exhibition game with Team USA. The 6-foot-8 forward didn’t return until the final month of the following regular season — one that ended with the Pacers out of the postseason. Indiana hasn’t made it out of the first round since then, and George was dealt to Oklahoma City two years later.
Team: San Antonio Spurs
Player/injury: Kawhi Leonard/quadriceps tendinopathy
Record without Leonard: 47-35
In one of the more acrimonious long-term injury situations in recent memory, the Spurs and their star were never on the same page after Leonard was sidelined by an overuse condition. With conflicting messages coming from both sides, Leonard appeared in just nine games and eventually requested a trade out of San Antonio. After getting eliminated by the Warriors in the first round (sans Leonard), the Spurs acquiesced and sent him to Toronto.
Team: Golden State Warriors
Player/injury: Klay Thompson/torn ACL
Record without Thompson: 15-50
Thompson’s awful string of luck began in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. After getting fouled on a breakaway dunk attempt, Thompson came down awkwardly, tearing his left ACL in the process. Following five consecutive Finals appearances, the Warriors’ magical run was over. The Warriors bottomed out the next season, missing the playoffs entirely after Steph Curry suffered an injury of his own. Thompson later tore an Achilles, which has kept him out since. He’s expected to return this season.
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Player/injury: Kawhi Leonard/partial ACL tear
Record without Leonard: TBD
Leonard suffered a partial tear of his right ACL during last season’s second-round series against the Jazz. With Leonard healthy, the Clippers secured homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs the past two seasons. Though there is no timeframe for his return, Leonard said he hopes to play this season. He could be in a similar boat as Jamal Murray, returning when he feels comfortable returning. Who is able to come back healthy could dramatically change the Western Conference playoff chase.