I was out of the room when it happened. When I came back, there were too many bodies crowding the screen to see who’d gone down on the baseline. As soon as the huddle thinned, though, any hope I’d had that it was a false alarm quickly dissipated. Because that was Jamal Murray down there.
Jamal Murray grew up doing push-ups in the snow and ballhandling drills on sheets of ice in Kitchener, Ontario; coaches have tried to force him off the practice court by taking away his shoes only to find him later shooting barefoot. Jamal Murray suffered two sports hernias during his rookie season, yet played all 82 games, and “didn’t say a word.” If he’s holding his left knee, lying on the court in evident and unmistakable agony, it’s not a false alarm. It’s a five-alarm fire.
Everything combusted in the final minute of Monday’s Nuggets-Warriors matchup, with Golden State on its way to a comfortable win thanks to Stephen Curry, who poured in 53 points to pass Wilt Chamberlain on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Unwilling to concede in the face of Steph’s onslaught, Murray—who had missed Denver’s previous four games with right knee soreness—kept pushing, attacking the basket with a pair of hard drives to cut what was once an 18-point lead to just seven with 1:16 remaining. Then he hauled in a rebound and sprinted out on the break, looking for a bucket that could give the Nuggets some hope of snatching an unlikely victory. Hope, sadly, can be fleeting.
Murray sliced between Andrew Wiggins and Kent Bazemore at the 3-point arc, tossing his dribble ahead and sprinting after it. He corralled it at the free throw line, in full stride, ready to spring up between a trailing Wiggins and a rotating Curry, inviting contact on another tough, contested trip to the rim. It was over before the contact: As he planted his left foot, his leg buckled and he crashed in a heap next to the basket stanchion, immediately clutching his knee with both hands before he’d even stopped sliding along the Chase Center floor.
He slapped the court; he writhed; he refused a wheelchair but needed to be helped to the locker room, unable to put any weight on his injured leg. An MRI would tell the tale, and on Tuesday, it spoke in grim tones: a torn anterior cruciate ligament, with surgical repair soon to come. His rehabilitation period could last anywhere from nine to 12 months, with a full return-to-form only likely a half-year beyond that.
Murray joins a handful of other players—Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz of the Magic, Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, Wizards center Thomas Bryant—who have ruptured their ACLs in the past calendar year. He joins many more who have missed a significant amount of time due to injury this season, as the NBA and its players push through a shortened and compressed schedule constructed, in part, with the intent of allowing NBA players to participate in next summer’s Olympics (should they go on as scheduled) and returning to its customary October-through-June calendar in time for the 2021-22 season.
It’s impossible to say whether Murray, and those other players, was more likely to succumb to injury because of the fraught nature of a season conducted under the weight of a global pandemic and the protocols adopted to navigate it. Injuries on the whole are not up this season, according to Jeff Stotts of the injury-focused site In Street Clothes, and while Monday’s game against the Warriors was the Nuggets’ sixth contest in nine days, it was Murray’s first in seven days after sitting for four games to rest a sore right knee—not the one he injured on Monday.
The devastation spreads jagged and wide, like a spider-web crack on a broken windshield. It is individually awful for Murray, who just turned 24 in February and was in the midst of the best and most productive season of his career: 21.2 points, 4.8 assists, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.3 steals in 35.5 minutes per game, shooting 48 percent from the field, 41 percent from 3-point range on nearly seven attempts a night, and 87 percent from the foul line.
Only five other players are putting up numbers like that this season. Two, Paul George and Khris Middleton, are multitime All-Stars. Two, Curry and Kevin Durant, are former MVPs. The other, Murray’s teammate Nikola Jokic, may well win this season’s award.
After four seasons spent alternating between tantalizing observers with his talent and confounding them with inconsistency, Murray inserted himself into that kind of elite company in last summer’s bubble postseason. He went bucket-for-bucket with Donovan Mitchell in Round 1, scoring 142 points in three games as the Nuggets knocked off the Jazz in a seven-game thriller. He hung 40 on George, Kawhi Leonard, and the Clippers in Game 7 of the second round, punching the Nuggets’ ticket to the franchise’s first conference finals in 11 years. He averaged nearly 27 points and seven assists through the first four games against the Lakers, as Denver came within one Anthony Davis dagger of pushing the eventual champions into some uncomfortable territory before bowing out in five.
Murray had arrived, and after an up-and-down start to this season—one for which he and the rest of the Nuggets reported to training camp barely two months after their elimination from the bubble—he’d returned to that level of dominance over the past two months. That version of Murray gave Jokic the high-powered pick-and-roll dance partner he needed to help propel the Nuggets to the top of the offensive charts and within striking distance of the West’s no. 3 seed:
Jamal Murray's bubble playoffs, per-36: 24.1 pts, 6.0 asts, 4.4 rebs, 50.5/45.3/89.7 shooting— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 13, 2021
Murray's last 2 months, per-36: 23.7 pts, 5.1 asts, 4.1 rebs, 50.3/45.3/94 shooting
He'd hit *that* level again before missing the last few games. Fingers crossed for a speedy return.
That Murray will lose a year of his prime, having just ascended to the sort of stardom he’d envisioned for himself since he was dribbling on ice, is vicious and cruel. That the Nuggets will lose their second-best scorer, ball handler, and playmaker less than six weeks before the start of the playoffs, in the midst of a heated race for home-court advantage, adds bracing insult to an already withering injury.
According to my Ringer colleague Zach Kram and his NBA Odds Machine model, losing Murray has as dramatic a negative effect on Denver’s chances of surviving the Western playoff gauntlet as you’d probably imagine:
With Jamal Murray out for the season, the Nuggets' playoff odds decline:— Zach Kram (@zachkram) April 13, 2021
- 59% to 41% to win a round
- 21% to 10% to make the conference finals
- 9% to 3% to make the Finals
- 4% to 1% to win the title
What an absolute bummer.https://t.co/7KDGdciKbz
Denver, sadly, has some experience with this sort of thing, as former Nuggets head coach George Karl noted moments after Murray hit the floor:
Gallo flashback moment from eight years ago tonight— George Karl (@CoachKarl22) April 13, 2021
The 2012-13 Nuggets were the business, man. Built in the aftermath of the Carmelo Anthony mega-trade by then–Denver GM Masai Ujiri and fashioned in Furious George’s go-go image, the Nuggets pushed the pace and shared the ball, with nine players averaging at least eight points per game. With two weeks left in the regular season, they’d ridden that egalitarian approach to the West’s third-best record; with a top-five offense and a near-top-10 defense, they had the profile of a bona fide championship contender.
And then, in the second quarter of a game against the Mavericks, Danilo Gallinari—like Murray, just 24 years old, and Denver’s second-leading scorer—drove from the arc, gathered his dribble at the free throw line, planted, and buckled. He immediately grabbed for his left knee, and went down in a heap on the baseline. The following morning, an MRI confirmed what everyone feared: a torn ACL, out indefinitely, and gone for the season.
Karl’s Nuggets rallied, holding on to beat the Mavs and winning five of their last six games to go into the postseason as the West’s no. 3 seed. Their reward for such perseverance at the tail end of one of the best seasons in franchise history? A first-round matchup with Golden State, led by a transcendent young flamethrower named Stephen Curry.
Denver went down in six. Then things fell apart. Nuggets free-agent-to-be Andre Iguodala started thinking big picture. Ujiri fired Karl. It ended up taking eight years for the Nuggets to have a team that good again. And now, this.
The Nuggets’ story doesn’t have to unfold the same way this time. That 2012-13 squad didn’t have any player even remotely in the vicinity of what Jokic is now—the kind of scoring and playmaking leviathan who might be able to carry a franchise by himself through its dark night of the soul.
Jokic finished 26.6 percent of Denver’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover when he was sharing the floor with Murray this season, but when he’s played without the Kentucky product, he has assumed an even larger offensive role, boosting his usage rate to a staggering 33.6 percent. He’s averaging an eye-popping 29.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.6 assists per 36 non-Murray minutes, turning the ball over more often and scoring a bit less efficiently, but still posting very strong 53/37/87 shooting splits even with the heavier workload. You’d prefer not to need Jokic to average a 30-point triple-double to compete most nights, but it’s pretty cool to know that he can do it.
Head coach Michael Malone will likely slot Monte Morris, one of the league’s best backup point guards, into Murray’s starting role. Morris has acquitted himself well in spot duty over the years, averaging 11.6 points on 48.1 percent shooting to go with 4.2 assists against just 0.8 turnovers and 2.9 rebounds in 33 starts over the past three seasons, including the final four games of the opening-round series against the Jazz in the bubble. Denver has gone 22-11 in those games.
Morris hasn’t gotten much run with the rest of Denver’s starters since the addition of Aaron Gordon; that five-man unit has outscored opponents by just a point in a minuscule 29-minute sample. Morris can’t replicate Murray’s firepower, but he’s a patient and savvy playmaker capable of keeping the offense flowing. The Nuggets have largely stayed afloat whenever Morris has shared the floor with Jokic, scoring often and efficiently; groups featuring that pairing are plus-314 in more than 2,300 minutes over the past three seasons, according to NBA.com’s lineup data.
With Jokic already shouldering the lion’s share of the playmaking burden and Morris more of a caretaker than a creator, the Nuggets could need more dynamism and scoring oomph—not to mention someone else to carry the offense when Jokic needs a rest, given that Denver has scored at a near-bottom-five rate with both Jokic and Murray off the court this season. That might be music to the ears of Michael Porter Jr., whose elite combination of size and touch makes him an attractive option to soak up some of Murray’s opportunities. In nearly 500 minutes of floor time without Murray this season, MPJ has averaged nearly 30 points and 13 rebounds per 100 possessions on 54/37/84 shooting splits, maintaining excellent shooting efficiency at a higher level of usage.
The Nuggets, as a whole, haven’t fared nearly as well in those minutes, though, going from a plus-13.9 net rating in MPJ/Murray minutes to a minus-3.6 differential when Porter plays without Murray—thanks in part to the concerns that come on the other end.
Murray’s not an elite stopper by any means. But at 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan and 215 pounds (with a bit of a nasty and physical streak), he’s got good size at the point of attack and five years of reps alongside Jokic in Malone’s system. Denver’s never had a lockdown defense in its stars’ shared minutes, but its core lineups have tended to fall somewhere between “just below average” and “pretty good, actually!” in preventing points. Removing Murray—on the heels of shipping longtime defensive stalwart Gary Harris to Orlando in the Gordon deal, and letting Torrey Craig walk last offseason—will require Malone to rely heavily on the undersized Morris (6-foot-2, 183 pounds) and Facundo Campazzo (generously listed at 5-foot-10 and 195) against what promises to be some awfully tough opposing point guards out West.
That, as Curry showed on Monday, could prove to be a problem:
Steph cooking Campazzo and yelling he can’t guard me lol pic.twitter.com/qtTvGorYTI— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 13, 2021
Reserve swingman PJ Dozier could be a useful option if the smaller point guards are getting torched; he’s 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, and has been often deployed by Malone to guard 1 through 4 this season, according to The BBall Index’s defensive versatility metrics. But if he can’t threaten defenses enough to keep them from loading up on Jokic and Co.—he’s shooting just 41.5 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3-point range this season—then he might have a tough time staying on the court. And if Denver can’t find an answer that keeps the offense elite and the defense passable, the Nuggets might find themselves making a far earlier exit from this year’s playoffs than they’d anticipated, no matter which matchup they draw in the opening round.
It’s not fair, really, that Murray worked so hard to make himself indispensable, only to be dispensed with after refusing to accept that a double-digit deficit in the final 90 seconds was a lost cause. But fair’s never had much to do with who rises and falls in the NBA. A week ago, the Nuggets were in rarefied air, undefeated after their deadline coup and looking like a team that could win the championship. Now, they’re plummeting, hoping they can find a way to survive and build a new kind of contender next season without one of their on-court and cultural cornerstones. There’s a five-alarm fire blazing in Denver. The question now is how much of the Nuggets’ promising present and future will burn in its wake.