The Nuggets unintentionally left Jamal Murray hanging out to dry
On April 12th of last year, Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray tore the ACL in his left knee in the final minute of a 116-107 loss to the Golden State Warriors. Due to the late start of the season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nuggets still had 18 games left to play before finishing with a 47-25 record to earn the third-seed in the Western Conference. The Nuggets went on to knock off Portland in the first round before being ignominiously swept from the playoffs by the eventual conference champion Phoenix Suns.
To Nuggets fans, it felt like a missed opportunity. Center Nikola Jokic’s undeniably brilliant season made him the first league MVP in team history, and hopes were high that next season’s team — with a healthy Murray — might become a legitimate championship contender.
Fast-forward to today. One year has elapsed, and little has changed. The Nuggets went from 47 to 48 wins (albeit in 10 fewer games than that abbreviated season), and Jokic has been every bit as brilliant — if not better — than last season’s MVP-winning performance. And Murray’s still not there.
Now, the Nuggets face those same Warriors in a first-round playoff matchup in which they’re a decided underdog without Murray and Michael Porter Jr., who underwent another back surgery after playing only a handful of games in October and November. Despite the optimism from the blogosphere, Porter was never expected to return until next season. Murray, however, was — at least in some capacity — and his expected return would give the Nuggets more than just a puncher’s chance at making a run to the Western Conference Finals.
The Nuggets organization had rightly and consistently tamped down any talk of Murray’s return for most of the season. On March 31, coach Michael Malone continued to quash any rumors about Murray’s status.
“I think the question on everybody’s mind is, ‘Will he play this year? I’ll be honest, we still don’t have an answer,” Malone explained. “There’s been zero pressure from me to him about him coming back this year. Now we have (five, at the time) games to go, and it’s kind of a weird time to come back because every game is so important. (There’s a) balance of trying to work a guy back in, as well as understanding that, ‘Hey man, every game matters.’ That is a tough dynamic to balance. But if Jamal Murray says to me, ‘Hey coach, I’m ready, man, I’d like to play,’ — and he’s been cleared — then, we’d figure it out. I think, like anybody coming back, there are good days, there are great days, and there are some tough days. I think that’s kind of what he’s been dealing with probably the last month as he’s ramped up a little bit. And certain days I’m sure he feels great, and the next day he might feel like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this.’ The biggest part for him, right now, is the confidence to go out there and be able to play without thinking about everything he’s doing. That’s the hardest thing when you’ve been away from the game for almost a year like he has been.”
Malone’s sensible and sensitive approach to the mental aspect of recovery was fully in line with his style as one of the league’s more renowned “players’ coaches,” and offered more than a bit of insight into Murray’s challenges; transparency that’s appreciated and easy to respect.
Only one night later, however, everything changed. Following an underwhelming performance in Minnesota on April 1 that saw the Nuggets lose the game and also lose ground to the Timberwolves in the chase to avoid the league’s play-in tournament, the dam finally broke.
“His mental (game) is there,” guard Monte Morris said of Murray after that loss. “He’s ready to get back out there. He’s looked good. He’s dunking and everything; both legs. It’s a matter of time, I guess, but hopefully we can get him back.”
Indeed, Murray had been working out with the team’s development staff prior to games and looked to be progressing somewhat, but he hadn’t been fully practicing or scrimmaging with his teammates at that point, and what was expected to be a rehab assignment to the G-League’s Grand Rapids Gold weeks before immediately short-circuited. Until Morris broke the seal, the presumption was, naturally, that there was no longer time to get Murray game-ready for the remainder of this season. Malone had an opportunity to try and close the potential Pandora’s Box moments later, but didn’t.
“We’re not shutting down Jamal Murray. This is not a black-and-white issue. We’re not running a race with a definitive finish line. Who knows what the season’s going to look like after (the final) four games? Are we going to be in the playoffs? Are we going to be in the play-in? Who knows? That’s yet to be determined,” a clearly frustrated Malone said. “Jamal is getting better every day. Trust me, we all want him back. I want him back. We’re a better team with Jamal Murray, and he wants to be back. He’s making great progress. But I can’t sit here and say that he’s going to play any of the last four games. But I also can’t say that he won’t.”
Murray had an opportunity to speak with Warriors guard Klay Thompson in March, who offered both his support to Murray and some advice. Thompson, who missed the prior two full seasons and most of this one after a series of injuries and setbacks during his long recovery, reportedly shared with Murray the importance of returning only when fully healthy after such a serious injury.
The sentiment was shared by the reigning MVP, who took a decidedly opposite tack than Morris or Malone.
“I told Jamal, ‘If you’re not 100 percent ready, don’t come back. It’s stupid,'” Jokic said, his firm, dismissive tone unmistakable. “You risk (further injury) if you’re not 100 percent ready to go, especially in the playoffs.”
Only a few days later, and even after an embarrassing, home-court 116-97 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Aaron Gordon still expressed a similar sentiment, intimating that while the team would love to have Murray back on the court — if he was fully healthy, that is.
“I told him to take his time. You don’t want to rush this. This isn’t something to rush coming off of injury, especially coming back in such a high-level game, (like the) playoffs,” Gordon said. “We need him. We could use him, obviously. But numero uno is him and his health and well-being. That’s the number one thing. Nothing else matters past that. Once he feels that he’s healthy — completely — sure, come back to the team and help us. Be Jamal Murray, the Blue Arrow. First things first. Take care of yourself.”
Jokic and Gordon fully understand what they’re saying. Without Murray, they probably won’t get past the Warriors, and definitely won’t get past either the Memphis Grizzlies or the league-best Suns.
And they’re still telling him to wait.
The Nuggets haven’t formally said that Murray has been medically cleared, but the organization has been revealing in its comments; more than they probably mean to. On Friday, president of basketball operations Tim Connelly joined “The Drive” with Darren “D-Mac” McKee and Tyler Polumbus on 104.3 The Fan and explained Murray’s situation.
“We’ve told Jamal this entire year, ‘We’ll tell you when you’re physically ready. And you’ve got to tell us when you want to get out there,’” he said. When asked if the decision to play this season was now up to Murray, Connelly was clear. “One-hundred percent. One-hundred percent.”
It’s hard not to interpret that as pressure — if unintentional — on Murray to return. After all, if it’s now “100 percent” up to Murray, that implies that he’s medically ready to go.
As if that wasn’t enough, Malone all but confirmed Sunday that after the regular-season finale; a meaningless, 146-141 overtime loss to the visiting Los Angeles Lakers that resemble little more than a preseason game. Following that game, Malone said that he offered Murray the chance to play in that game, if only for a couple of minutes, and Murray declined.
According to the Denver Post’s Mike Singer, “Michael Malone said his extended conversation with Jamal involved checking in. Malone said he told Jamal, ‘If you want to play a few minutes in a low-stakes game, cool. If not, that’s cool, too.’ Said there’s a “mental hurdle” Murray needs to overcome.”
In a week and a half, the Nuggets’ attempts to keep speculation from spiraling out of control have all fallen apart. Unless Malone was being dangerously, colossally careless, there’s no way he would have offered to play Murray at all unless he absolutely knew that his guard was physically ready to go. Malone isn’t that. As evidenced by his other comments, he obviously cares for and respects Murray a great deal, making the theory that Murray’s challenge is no longer physical the only one that makes any sense.
That’s a problem.
Between certain teammates openly believing that Murray’s return is right around the corner, to others stating their belief that he still shouldn’t hurry back, even at this late date, Connelly and Malone’s comments have opened the door for fans and critics to scapegoat Murray for any potential first-round defeat to Golden State.
Already, The Fan’s own James Merilatt has called Murray’s mentality, professionalism and dedication to his teammates in question. The Denver Post’s Sean Keeler danced around it in early April, writing, “If he’s ready, it’s time. Time to get out and test it. With Murray, it’s now or never, at least as far as the rest of this erratic, unpredictable 2021-22 season is concerned… and no time like the present.”
If the Nuggets lose this series, expect the blowback to be even worse.
It didn’t have to be this way. The Nuggets could have done what the Chicago Bulls did with injured guard Lonzo Ball, clearly and publicly stating that he’ll miss the rest of the season following left knee surgery in January. If the Nuggets had done the same with Murray, not only would none of these uncomfortable questions come up, but if Murray was somehow able to play, he’d return as a hero, fighting against the odds to help his team in their time of need — and if it turned out he wasn’t particularly effective, fans would forget all about that, instead hailing his toughness and dedication.
Not anymore, however. The Blue Arrow is exposed. Unintentionally, to be sure, but exposed nonetheless. Instead of firing them, Murray should expect to be receiving the slings and arrows of professional and personal criticism… or risk his health, and the Nuggets’ longterm future. It’s a choice with no right answers, and the Nuggets could have — and should have — avoided putting him in this situation. Sometimes, players even need protection from their own relentless optimism; the kind that champions have to possess.
Righting the ship after the tumultuous end to this season — in whichever playoff round it happens — will be critical, because the Nuggets’ championship window could be as open next fall as it is closed today. It’s hard to admit, of course, but recognizing that earlier — for Murray, Malone and Connelly — would have made things easier for everyone involved.
Here’s hoping that the eventual storm passes as quickly as it arrived.