As the 2019-20 season begins, I can't help but look backwards and forwards to try to figure out what the key to this season is.
The 2018-19 season was a success in nearly every area of the franchise. Michael Malone improved his ability to conduct a defense that not only wasn't a liability, but was somewhat of a strength the team could rely on throughout the season. Tim Connelly was able to bring back Will Barton after the swingman was courted by other teams, and bought two 6’10” lottery tickets in the draft, selecting Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt. Those two players, along with a European prospect in Vlatko Cancar, gave the Nuggets some players with athleticism and height, two things that were missing on the 2018-19 roster.
Jokić made an All-star Game, and the rest of the team performed well enough for the team to finish with the second-best record in the Western Conference. They made the second round, knocking off the San Antonio Spurs before falling to to Portland Trail Blazers in seven games. For many, this was their first taste of the playoffs, and based off the conversations they had at media day, they don’t want anything but that again.
This summer, the Nuggets pounced on the opportunity to sign their young point guard to a max contract extension, making Murray one of the highest paid players in the league. There are only 27 other players in the league that can claim to be as well or better compensated than Murray. None of those players (for the 2019-20 season, the extension doesn’t begin until next season) will be on the Denver Nuggets.
The 2019-20 Nuggets will look much different than this year's team. The Nuggets don't currently have a first-round pick in the 2020 draft, having traded it to Oklahoma City for Jerami Grant, which makes it likely that the only new young face is 2019 second-round pick Bol Bol, who will likely spend most of the year with a G-League team. Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Juancho Hernangomez, and Malik Beasley, all key pieces of the rotation, are set to be free agents. Jerami Grant seems likely to exercise the player option in his contact, which would also mean he would become a free agent. The Nuggets can't bring back all five of those free agents without rocketing off the luxury tax cliff like Wily E. Coyote in an episode of Looney Tunes.
That financial reality is looming on the horizon, and while it is inevitable, it does make this year incredibly important for both the Nuggets and their precocious point guard.
(Broncos fans - don’t read this)
In the NFL, the most valuable contract is a good starting quarterback on a rookie scale contract. That type of contract has helped the Chiefs, Rams, and Eagles be Super Bowl contenders in recent seasons. With quarterbacks that are extremely underpaid relative to their contribution to winning, the teams can invest in other players that give them superior talent and depth for a championship run. It's what allows teams like the Bears and the Browns to go and trade for players like Khalil Mack and Odell Beckham Jr. - when you can have the leader of your team be on a bargain contract, you can splurge in other areas of the team.
NFL teams like the Falcons, Panthers, and Seahawks can bear witness that once it comes time to pay the quarterback a market value salary, it becomes much more complicated to build a winning team, especially if the quarterback isn't actually as good as it seemed. The defense doesn't have quite the same number of playmakers, the offensive line loses that cog that helped create a pristine pocket, and your kicker can't hit the extra point kick anymore. Instead of being a perennial playoff team, suddenly you're stuck with Matt Ryan failing time after time to get the football to Julio Jones in the red zone.
The Nuggets were able to surround Murray with excellent talent and depth both last season and this season because, while he hasn’t made an All-Star game, he is able to lead a playoff team as the starting point guard. That financial situation ended the second Murray’s name was signed on the new contract. The front office gave out big contracts in the past to veterans like Millsap, Plumlee, and Will Barton, and could afford to trade for Grant, largely in part because they're only paying Murray about $4.5 million for this season - that's only 3.4 percent of the team’s payroll.
For the Nuggets, fans need to realize there is a strong possibility that players who we have grown to love might not be around for much longer. That veteran forward that helped spur the defensive growth over the last few seasons? He might be back, but he will be spending as much time in an ice bath as he does practicing defensive rotations, and he has PTA meetings to prepare for on top of the next slate of games. The center that the Nuggets overpaid after negotiating against no one? He has brothers that he can be replaced by, and if they aren't available, they can always sign a Zeller brother. The other two players from the 2016 draft? There's no money there to keep them all together without serious luxury tax penalties.
It's not worth my time or your time to say this any other way — Jamal Murray needs to be better on offense and defense. It's part of the responsibility that comes from not only being the starting point guard, but from being the highest-paid player on the roster. Take a look at the stats and accomplishments of the players that are getting paid as much as Murray will be. He can either enter the camp of overpaid max players like Gordon Hayward, Devin Booker, or Andrew Wiggins, or he can elevate his game to be included in the conversation with players like Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving.
Let's compare Murray’s production to Walker, Lillard, Irving, Steph Curry and Mike Conley Jr., just for the 2018-19 season.
- Murray made the fewest 3-pointers of that group, per game and in total.
- Murray had the fewest made free throws and attempted free throws, per game and in total.
- Murray had the fewest assists of that group, per game. He had two more than Curry, but played six more games.
- Murray had the fewest steals of that group, per game and in total.
- Murray had the lowest effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage of that group.
If he's going to start getting paid like one of the best, he needs to play like one of the best. Most of his peers made a jump their fourth season, but that time is now for the Nuggets point guard. If he doesn't start to show improvement, the pressure will start to build on him to live up to the contract he signed. He's not at their level yet, and while he still has time to get there, he will soon be paid to perform at that level.
It's not an easy path to travel for Murray to become an elite point guard in the league. He has to take over more playmaking responsibilities, score often from the perimeter, get to the free throw line, and become a more intimidating defender.
In the past, Jokić repeatedly talked about how “this is Millsap’s team, not my team.” He's the reluctant leader of the team, with the talent to be the best player but a personality that wants to avoid the spotlight. In my opinion, Jokić doesn't want the commercials, the sponsorships, the media interviews, or the billboards. The question is, maybe that's the role that Jamal Murray is better suited for?
Murray has the skills, style of play, and opportunity to become one of the best players in the league. He's going to be the starting point guard on a team that could be contending for championships - not one, not two, not three - multiple championships. But once the team starts losing the supporting cast that helped Murray early in his career, he'll need to be “the man” in order for the Nuggets to reach and maintain that level.
This doesn't mean abandoning the identity that they found during their playoff run last season. Even if Murray becomes the guy for the Nuggets, Jokić can and will likely be their best player. The offense should continue to heavily rely on Jokić and his ability to create open shots for his teammates. But what I saw in the playoffs was a team that realized they had a two-man game with Murray and Jokić that was incredibly difficult to stop. If Murray raises his game up to the level of Conley, Walker, Irving, Lillard and Curry, the Nuggets will continue to be an elite team for the next five years.
In order for the Nuggets to achieve their stated team goals for this season, the key isn’t who starts at small forward, Michael Porter Jr.’s development, or Will Barton’s health. It isn't a mid-season trade for an All-Star from the Eastern Conference (although it wouldn't hurt). The key to the season is for the Nuggets to become Jamal Murray's team.