Following Jamal Murray’s 48 point performance in a comeback win over the Celtics, the Stiffs called an emergency meeting at the roundtable to discuss the ceiling on the Nuggets’ young point guard and the team’s blazing hot start.
Stiffs of the roundtable, assemble!
Murray is 21 years old and just dropped 48 on the best defense in the league. Just how high is his ceiling, and what does that mean for the Nuggets long-term?
Brendan Vogt (@Bvogt422): It’s so hard to tell what Murray’s ceiling is. There are still several areas of the game in which he struggles, particularly at the point guard position, which he fills by default on this Nuggets team. In more than one way, Murray isn’t the ideal guard to pair with Jokic—but he’s just 21 years old, and we saw on Monday what he does provide this team with. Murray is a ruthless scorer, and the sky is the limit on that facet of his game. He might be a bonafide star one day, and if he is, then Denver is cooking with more than just future playoff appearances. They’ll have a chance to contend for the real prizes. I just don’t know if he’ll hit that ceiling. But I’m excited to find out.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): I go back and forth on this. Judging 21-year-old players is tough, and Murray has some undeniable skills as well as some areas of weakness. I don’t believe he’s a point guard - and that can create some problems going forward as Gary Harris is a tremendous shooting guard with a long-term contract. That said, Steph Curry didn’t average more than 3 assists a game when he was 19 or 20 (in college). Murray has a drive to improve and wants to run the point, and his offense can be pyrotechnic. He has limitless range when he’s on, and can finish in traffic with a spread court. He just needs consistency - as most players on rookie contracts do. His ceiling is probably Curry-lite, which would be stellar. To hit it, he’s going to need growth in his game - and to hit that ceiling in Denver he’s gonna need to hit that on his second contract, after Denver signs him for cheaper than Steph-lite would be signed for.
Ryan Blackburn: (@NBABlackburn): Like Gordon said, judging a 21-year-old players can get a lot of people in trouble. That said, the following active players have scored 45 points or more in a game before turning 22: Devin Booker, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Carmelo Anthony, Andrew Wiggins, and now Jamal Murray. Not a foolproof list, but impressive company nonetheless. The two players I compared him to most often during the draft process were Stephen Curry at his ceiling and Eric Gordon as a baseline. I don’t think he will have the handle and passing vision of Curry to be capable of the best offensive season of all-time, but if he’s as dangerous as Curry is transitioning from on to off-ball scorer, then that’s a top 10 player in the NBA. Nikola Jokic is already on that track as soon as this year, so if Denver had two top 10 players? That’s a perennial contender.
Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash): Honestly, and I know this seems blasphemous after last night, but his ceiling could be as low as someone in the mold of a Jamal Crawford. Look, what Murray did last night is no small feat and was an outstanding performance, but let’s not forget the abysmal stretch of three turnovers he had in the 1st quarter. Jamal can light it up with the best of them, no doubt, and if you can do that like he can there’s always going to be a roster spot for you in the NBA, but if he is going to be a star player, a championship caliber player, then he’s got to become a better a better ball handler and distributor. If he can do that then sky is the limit but it doesn’t appear that he is there yet, despite the obvious scoring prowess.
The Denver Nuggets are 9-1. While the season is still young, it’s a far better start than any of us could have hoped for. Are the Nuggets really the second best team in the West?
Vogt: Let’s push the record aside for a second and run through a simple exercise. In your head, list the Western Conference teams one by one, and ask yourself if they are definitively better than the Nuggets. I count one team, a team that Denver’s already beaten this year in Golden State. The Nuggets have a long way to go to earn this distinction, and the season is still so young. But with last night’s victory they moved into the top ten for defensive rating on both sides of the ball. They’ve got a chance to finish as one of the best teams out West. They might be one of the best teams in the league.
Gross: Yes. Will they finish as the team with the second-best record? Probably not. Denver is too young (the second-youngest team in the league) and will hit a rocky patch that a more veteran team might ride out. But if you want to look at the struggles of other teams and say “well, they will improve as the season goes on” that also happens to be Denver’s pattern as well. Jokic is not playing his best, Barton is injured, and the team has been unable to make open shots. This is not Denver’s best either, and that bodes well for them.
Blackburn: Right now, they definitely are. Utah and Houston are their primary competition talent wise, but both teams have noticeable weaknesses and have gone through struggles to begin the year. Denver is playing at a different level than everyone else though. Portland and San Antonio are good teams, but they aren’t producing at Denver’s level right now. The Nuggets are finding ways to win with a defensive foundation, and while that’s unlikely to continue forever, Portland and San Antonio are having some unsustainable success as well.
Mikash: I think I want to see another 10 games before making that call. There’s so much talent in the West that after ten games its hard to make a proclomation like that. That being said, the front runner for second best team in the West when the season started, Houston, has stumbled out of the gate and the Nuggets are churning out win after win so when we revisit this question ten games from now there’s certainly a chance I’ll be firmly in the “Yes” column.
Through 10 games, this new and improved defense has been the story of the season. What’s Denver’s ceiling on that end, and are you worried that a return of their offensive dominance will affect their effort on the other end?
Vogt: We’ve already seen the ceiling. Denver almost certainly won’t finish in the top 10 on defense, but they’ve answered a question we’ve all been asking. Can they play at a league average level over the course of 82 games? The answer is yes. But it will take an extraordinary focus, a focus that will be put to the test if and when the offense finds its rhythm again. My guess is as the ball starts popping and the threes start falling, so will this defensive rating.
Gross: I think their defensive ceiling is probably in the 8-10 range. If their offense returns to a top-3 level, then that level of defense is contender-caliber. If it falls back to the middle-of-the-pack on defense that’s fine too, though it will hamper their ability to progress in the playoffs. I expect some teams to defend Denver’s hedging better and to attack them at the rim, but it’s nothing that should turn their defense back into a disaster. Denver has a better-than-average defense and it should be here to stay this season.
Blackburn: The Nuggets don’t have the physical athletes to maintain this level of play forever, but they are continuing to put in the effort, which is half the battle. Eventually, they will hit a physical wall where they simply cannot score and defend at a top 10 level on both sides and will have to choose. More than likely, they will continue to be a strong offense because that’s where most of the talent is, but they have set the foundation to rank in the top 10 defensively at the end of the year. Their defensive rating through 10 games of 101.8 ranks 3rd in the NBA. I’d expect that to drop to around 104 to 106 by season’s end, which would still put them squarely in the top 10.
Mikash: They are probably playing to their ceiling right now. Jokic has been the type of defender those who have watched him closest know he can be and that’s making a huge difference, but we’ve still seen Murray struggle and we know that until Michael Porter Jr can get regular playing time the Nuggets are most likely going to be undersized on the wings. Returning to a high powered offense shouldn’t hurt that provided the Nuggets take care of the basketball. Part of what has consistently killed their defense in the past is giving up way too many easy points from live ball turnovers so if they limit those their defense will be far better equipped to stand up against the test of time.