The upcoming season will be an uphill battle for the Denver Nuggets without their starting guard Jamal Murray.
Murray averaged a career-best 21.2 points in 48 appearances last season before suffering a torn ACL in April. He is not expected to return during the regular season and the Nuggets will have to lean on their frontcourt even more in the upcoming campaign.
Denver will zig as the rest of the league continues to zag more and more towards a more guard-centric approach. 2021 NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic will once again be the fulcrum of their attack, though he will have to make do without Murray, someone who he has built an exciting two-man game with over their five seasons together.
Jokic, who averaged an impressive 26.4 points on 56.6% shooting from the field, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists last season, will have to have another MVP-calibre year if they are to entertain hopes of yet another deep postseason run.
Without Murray in the most recent postseason, they were unable to book a repeat trip to the Western Conference Finals, managing to make it just to the second round where they were swept by the Phoenix Suns.
They now have an entire regular season to acclimate themselves to playing without the high-scoring guard and much of his responsibilities are expected to be carried by their two starting forwards.
Both fresh off signing lucrative extensions this past offseason, the play of Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon is one of the most pertinent factors that will determine how far the Nuggets can go.
Porter Jr. was rewarded with a five-year, $207 million extension following a sophomore campaign that saw him double his scoring average from 9.3 to 19 points, and he will have to take it up by another notch in ‘21-’22. His rare mix of shooting and mobility at 6’10 have him pegged as a future NBA All-Star, but Denver needs the 23-year-old to make the leap quickly.
Like Murray, Porter benefits immensely from the opportunities created by Jokic’s elite court vision and passing skills, so it will be interesting to see how he fares as the primary target.
The third member of their frontcourt, Aaron Gordon, will also have immense opportunities with the Nuggets this year. Acquired by the Nuggets via a midseason trade with the Orlando Magic earlier in 2021, the 6’8 forward immediately developed a strong on-court chemistry with Jokic.
His size and top-tier athleticism make him an ideal utility player for this team that rewards cutters and thrives in transition. Gordon’s main weakness lies in his shooting, though he made 50% of his shots in 25 regular season games with the Nuggets last year which is far above his career 45% norm.
If he can build on the momentum from his initial run in Denver, this might be the season that Gordon finally becomes known more for his in-game exploits rather than his jaw-dropping NBA Slam Dunk Contest performances.
While the veteran pair of JaMychal Green and their well-travelled offseason acquisition Jeff Green should provide them with ample support from the bench, progress in the development of the 7’2 Bol Bol can turn the tide for the Nuggets.
Now entering his third year in the league, Bol’s shot blocking ability is sorely needed on a Nuggets team that is bereft of it. If he can come in and provide them with a few solid runs throughout the season, the upside of this team will grow incrementally.
Though often overlooked, Denver’s backcourt will be integral to their success. If they can come in and collectively provide the team with league-average production to complement their elite frontcourt, it is not farfetched to imagine this team securing home court advantage in the opening round of the 2022 postseason.
The dazzling Facundo Campazzo and the ever-steady Monte Morris will fill Murray’s shoes by committee. They performed admirably after his injury last season and are expected to continue to do so this year while bolstered by the additional experience from their playoff run.
At shooting guard, the streaky pair of Will Barton and Austin Rivers may not strike fear in opponents, but all that the Nuggets need from them is to produce at a decent clip offensively and play stellar defense on a nightly basis. These two mercurial guards can single-handedly win games for their teams on rare occasions, though what will be more important is their ability to reign themselves in when their shots are not falling.
Historically, offense has never been the problem for the Nuggets, even in the previous iterations of this franchise over the past few decades. They should enough firepower to overcome the absence of Murray, but that’s not saying that the Canadian star’s contributions won’t be missed.
The difference-maker for them this coming year will be defense, and area where they have consistently struggled. If they can make some progress on that end, this team will be tough to keep up with.
It may very well be a transition campaign for Denver as they are likely to fall short of their championship aspirations without Murray. However, this can be the year that they awaken their potential on defense and build further on their chemistry, carrying whatever momentum they can gather into a legitimate run at the title in ‘22-’23.
Whatever success that they can achieve this year will be a bonus, but that does not mean that they will have a relaxed approach to this season. With the reigning MVP, a dynamic young scorer, and a gritty group of veterans on their roster, it will be in the best interests of the rest of the league not to take this team lightly.