When Tim Connelly surprisingly released Jameer Nelson just days before the 2017-18 season began he was taking arguably one of the biggest gambles of his tenure with the Nuggets.
In Nelson, Denver had a veteran point guard with plenty of playoff experience, a respected presence in the locker room and a mentor for Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay. Jameer was also a reliable stop-gap while the two struggled to come to their own. Instead, with Nelson gone, the Nuggets have effectively put the season in the hands of two players under age 22. For a team going all in on making the playoffs (and hopefully more) this season, relying on such young players at the hardest position in the game is a gutsy move. One month into the season and the gamble is already paying off.
After last night’s win the Nuggets improved to 8-5 and have moved into the 3rd spot in the Western Conference. The team also sits alone atop the Northwest Division. They are cruising after going 5-1 on the latest six game homestand and have won seven of their last nine games. Both Murray and Mudiay have played key roles in Denver’s early success, particularly in the past two victories. Mudiay played the best complete game of his career in the Nuggets impressive win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, and last night Murray lit up the Orlando Magic for a career-high 32 points.
The Nuggets are still not quite back to last season’s form (ranked 12th in offensive rating) but the two guards are holding their own as part of the new-look offense. As the starting point guard Murray has struggled more often than not to score but as a whole he has fit in with the starting unit fairly well. The brilliant facilitating of Nikola Jokic and veteran Paul Millsap’s ability to get buckets relieve some pressure off of Murray to score. He’s finished with under 10 points in eight of the 13 games played so far this year, but like many natural shooters when his shot is falling Murray can rack up points quickly. He’s already put up four 20+ point games this season.
Mudiay on the other hand is shooting lights out. He’s 48.4% from three on 2.4 attempts per game and 42.4% overall. For the first time in his career he is over 50% in the restricted area; his struggles at the rim are well documented. Though by the eye test his decision making is markedly improved, statistically he’s on par with his first two seasons when it comes to turnovers. Regardless, Mudiay has worked his way from 26 DNP-CDs in 2016-17 to becoming a key contributor on the Nuggets bench unit. Without his stellar play against Atlanta and Oklahoma City in particular, the argument can be made that the Nuggets lose those two contests.
Both Murray’s and Mudiay’s play is encouraging - especially when taken in the long term perspective of how this experience will help them down the road - but a few really good games does not guarantee smooth sailing the rest of the way. With 69 games still remaining in the season and with such a steep learning curve it is almost inevitable that Murray and Mudiay will struggle at some point.
The risk of relying on two young point guards is mitigated by Jokic, Millsap and other veteran players like Will Barton who can and will run the offense throughout the game. The risk will also be magnified later in the season if Denver is on the postseason fringe, or even come playoff time when Murray and Mudiay could be head-to-head with types like Westbrook, Stephen Curry or Chris Paul for an entire series.
When the Nuggets didn’t trade for Suns guard Eric Bledsoe despite the stockpile of assets on hand, the message for Murray and Mudiay was loud and clear. For better or for worse, the Nuggets are rolling with the up-and-comers in hopes that they can still succeed. For now at least, that appears to be the case.