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Roundtable: Is Jamal Murray all the way back?

Harrison Wind Avatar
December 1, 2022

The Nuggets are on a four-game winning streak and are rolling. Wins over the Rockets (twice), the Clippers and Thunder have Denver sitting at the No. 2 seed in the West and just one loss back of the top-ranked Suns. That’s with the Nuggets having played the fewest home games in the league (Houston has also played just eight home games.) DNVR Nuggets discusses what they’ve learned from the Nuggets’ win streak, if Jamal Murray is all the way back, what Denver should do with its second unit, and more.

What’s your biggest takeaway from the Nuggets’ current four-game winning streak?

Adam Mares: That Jamal Murray is rounding into form quite nicely. He’s already back up to scoring at the same rate as he was in his last healthy season on a per minute basis. The efficiency is slightly below 2021 but on the rise. More importantly, he looks the part. The two-man game with him and Nikola Jokic is as good as ever and he’s starting to take, and make, the tough shots that we grew accustomed to before the injury.

Harrison Wind: That this team is taking care of business. For years we’ve stressed about the Nuggets playing down to their competition. Well, these were four games that the Nuggets should have absolutely won, and Denver did so convincingly. It speaks to a couple of things. Nikola Jokic is as dominant as ever. Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon are playing insanely confident and composed basketball. And the Nuggets’ depth is real. They’ve been able to rely on it as of late and Denver hasn’t missed a beat. Maybe this stretch of basketball is when this Nuggets team matured and told themselves that we’re done playing down to the likes of the Pistons.

Brendan Vogt: Depth. Their success in MPJ’s absence tells me less about Porter and more about Calvin Booth’s success in rounding out the roster. Bruce Brown is a revelation. Ish Smith did exactly what you hope a vet will do to the league’s bottom feeders. Examining the strength of the schedule across this streak takes some of the wind out of the sails. We have much to learn about how this roster holds up against the stiff competition. But they’re built to win a lot of games.

Is Jamal Murray all the way back?

Mares: I won’t say that he’s all the way back since we know that he has another level athletically that he can reach. Whether or not he gets there is still a question mark but I wouldn’t bet against it. He’s shooting just 65% at the rim this year. That number is more in line with most of his career but well below the 81% he shot in 2021. That leap in his last healthy season was part of what appeared to indicate he was truly making a leap. Getting back to that level of aggression and finishing at the rim is going to be the final piece of his ascension on offense.

Wind: His confidence is all the way back. Murray’s 20-point first half against the Pistons felt like a throwback from two years ago. The pace, the rhythm, the timing and the execution of Murray’s offensive game was all there. I think he knows he can get to all of his spots now, which I don’t think was the case earlier in the season. He’s only going to get into better shape and expand his game more as the season goes on. Also, his two-man game chemistry with Nikola Jokic leveled up again this last week. Those two look so comfortable in their pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off games. That, along with defensive improvement, is what I’ll need to see to know Denver can win a title this season.

Vogt: He’s back to applying pressure at the rim and fully in rhythm with his two-time MVP partner in crime. That’s enough to make a defense think about more than Jokić, and that’s the core of what Murray provides this team. Will he ever perform again as he did in the bubble? It’s hard to believe he’ll shoot that well, but for me, it’s all about how well he’s moving. As he gets in better shape, he’ll grow more dynamic en route to the rim.

Who should be playing off the bench when everyone’s healthy?

Mares: I still start with Bones Hyland. Ish Smith has been great over the last few games and I’d love to give both of those guys minutes alongside each other to see if it is a viable option. But I have no doubts that the job belongs first to Bones. After those two, I think staggering with Michael Porter Jr. is key, with Bruce Brown playing half of his minutes with the starters. And from there, the next guy that I think is essential is…Vlatko Cancar. He has had a better 5-game stretch than any other player on Denver’s bench and deserves to see if his performance is sustainable. He’s a connector, a great defensive player, and a reliable finisher from all three levels. After that, I don’t think you can go wrong. Jeff Green, DeAndre Jordan, and Zeke Nnaji all provide an interesting look at center alongside Cancar.

Wind: With everyone healthy (including Michael Porter Jr.), three guys off the bench should be locked into minutes right now: Bruce Brown, Bones Hyland and Vlatko Cancar, who absolutely needs to stay in the rotation even if Jeff Green’s available. Ride this Cancar wave now and save Green for later in the year. You don’t want to burn him out during this portion of the season, which I think happened a little last year. Then, I’m fine with the Nuggets mixing and matching to form their second unit. Some nights that might be Ish Smith. Some nights it might not be. Mix and match DeAndre Jordan and Zeke Nnaji too. I think Christian Braun should be playing ahead of Davon Reed, and he’s in my near-lock category for minutes, but it doesn’t seem like Michael Malone holds that same line of thinking. My ideal group would be Hyland-Braun-Porter-Cancar-Nnaji.

Vogt: Early turbulence scattered Malone’s rotation, and he’s been forced to tinker. Maybe that’s for the best. The bench unit may never find a final form outside of Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown as staples. Perhaps there’s room to play all of these forwards/bigs as the matchups dictate strategy. Realistically, though, this question is best answered via consolidation trade. One of Zeke or Jeff might make the most sense on the market. I’d keep trying with Vlatko one way or another. He’s playing too well to put him back on the shelf. That leaves Davon Reed and Christian Braun on the outside looking in for now. And I’m in on Ish Smith as a certified tiny king. But the bar for cracking a healthy rotation has to be higher than beating up on Houston.

When will the Nuggets turn it around defensively?

Mares: In the 4th quarter of close games. I’ve all but given up hope that the Nuggets can be a great defensive team for 4 quarters and 82 games. Great defensive teams can defend easily. Denver can reach some impressive defensive highs but it takes all of their energy, effort, and focus. I think that bodes well for their chances at being an adequate defensive team in the playoffs but it also means that they are almost certainly going to be a below average defensive team in the regular season.

Wind: It’s the biggest question facing this team right now. It’s crazy how bad Denver’s defensive numbers look this season. The Nuggets rank 24th defensively, only ahead of the Jazz, Knicks, Magic, Rockets, Pistons and Spurs. Everyone needs to be better, including Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Denver’s starters. But maybe this is just their reality, and I’m thinking that might be the case more and more as each day passes. If they do finish in the 20’s defensively with this roster, that’s an indictment on a lot of people. The good news is that we know the Nuggets can lock in when it matters. Denver has the best clutch defense in the league.

Vogt: Perhaps playing at home more aids them in extending runs and the realm of shot luck, but I don’t expect them to flip a switch and reestablish a team identity. The Nuggets’ path is wielding a potent enough offense to hang with anyone opponent and winning the clutch time battle via the two-man game. They’re even better suited to win the clutch minutes after Booth put his finishing touches on the roster. If that means closing with Brown over MPJ, so be it. That’s the beauty of depth and versatility. That’s the goal when building a roster.

What do Nikola Jokic’s next 10 games look like?

Mares: Jokic has provided exactly as much scoring as the team has needed so far this season and not a point more. The next 10 games will probably require more scoring from him than the previous 20 so I suspect that we will see Jokic get slightly more aggressive on that end of the floor. There will be a 30 point game or two sprinkled alongside a bunch of 20 point games and a 15 point game in a blowout win.

Wind: I’m blown away by how Jokic is managing this season. He’s barely putting out any effort — compared to last year’s first 20 games — and has captained Denver to the No. 2 spot in the West while recording the highest individual offensive efficiency of his career. Not enough people are talking about how he’s managing himself right now. It’s so obviously by design too. Jokic came into the season looking to get Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in rhythm. He’s tried to get Denver’s role players comfortable too. Jokic has turned it on when he’s needed to, but it has only been on a couple of occasions. He’s dictating games with such ease while expending minimal energy. It’s honestly incredibly impressive. I love his start and have confidence that he won’t wear down later in the season as we’ve seen in year’s past. He’s got this thing figured out.

Vogt: Whatever he wants them to. He’s in complete control again — striking his preferred balance of seeming indifference and real impact. The criticisms over his effort across the first handful of games were fair, in my opinion. But we’re well past that. He’s been aggressive when the game calls for it and flexed his playmaking genius when he can afford to. He’s got plenty in the tank right now, too.

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