Jamal Murray just received the largest restricted free agent contract in NBA history that wasn’t a super max extension. Five years, $170 million.
Let that sink in for a moment. Yes, the salary cap rising had something to do with it, but one would assume that Giannis Antetokounmpo or Karl-Anthony Towns or Nikola Jokic would be the one receiving such a large sum of money. The fact that it’s Jamal Murray should be surprising.
There will be no hometown discount coming Denver’s way for extending Murray rather than making him sweat it out for another year. There will be no speculation of what contract number he gets. The Nuggets decided to pencil in the words “MAX” next to Murray’s name on the salary cap sheet.
And that should be exciting and terrifying for the Nuggets.
Zach Lowe of ESPN once called Murray the league’s most important swing player of the next three seasons, capable of becoming an All-Star and turning the Nuggets into a title contender or topping out as simply pretty good. The Nuggets are betting on Murray’s upside, and it’s a good time to do so after Murray showed some excellent poise and skill in a playoff environment.
After struggling through 11 of the first 12 quarters against the San Antonio Spurs (save for a 21 point fourth quarter explosion in Game 2) Murray found his footing in the rest of the playoffs. Starting with a 24 point, six assist, one turnover performance in Game 4 on the road in San Antonio, Murray began to showcase exactly why the Nuggets were willing to offer this extension. From Game 4 onward, Murray averaged 22.8 points, 5.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and just 1.5 turnovers per game, displaying poise under playoff pressure at just 22 years old. It wasn’t perfect of course, but the bad performances were mixed in with a bunch of good ones. From back-to-back 34 point performances against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers to 23 points in Game 7 against the Spurs that featured the absurdly clutch series-clinching basket.
Who could forget some of Murray’s best regular season moments this year either? His 48-point performance against the Boston Celtics sent ripples around the NBA. His matchups and defeats of Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder that caused frustration in the mercurial point guard. His showdown with Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns netted another 46 points.
But it was his synergy with Nikola Jokic that spoke the loudest this year. The two-man game those two ran throughout games and during the closing moments of most contests gave Nuggets fans a glimpse of the future. From the pick and pop passes to Jokic to the dribble hand-off dance that Murray runs with his favorite big man, the two players share a chemistry that’s difficult to guard. Blink once and you will miss the quick cut.
The Nuggets are committing to this vision for the next five years (and maybe beyond) and they paid a lot of money to see it through. Between Jokic’s and Murray’s combined contracts, the Nuggets committed an average annual value of $62.4 million between their two young cornerstones. The salary cap for the 2020-21 season (the amount used to project Murray’s salary figure) is set for $115 million. That means that Denver’s two stars will garner over 50 percent of the cap space going forward, leaving little room to fill out the roster with role players. If the Nuggets ever decide they want to sign a star in free agency, they will need to clear almost the entirety of their salary cap sheet before considering the thought while Jokic and Murray are locked up.
With little wiggle room, the Nuggets need to be sure that Murray is going to be the star they paid him to be. After averaging around 18 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds in his third season, no one would confuse Murray with a legitimate superstar right now. He hasn’t displayed the efficiency and consistency needed from a player of that caliber yet. That doesn’t mean he can’t get there, but it’s important to acknowledge that he’s not there yet. He ranked 56th league wide in Real Plus-Minus wins added (6.57), 41st in Player Impact Plus-Minus wins added (7.3), and if you don’t like advanced metrics, he ranked 38th in points per game (18.2).
There’s still a ways to go before Murray can be a star. He must improve his efficiency (53.7 True Shooting %) if he’s to take the next step as a scorer in the mold of Irving, Lillard, or Stephen Curry. He could also stand to improve as a playmaker for others and reading the defense, though he minimized his turnovers nicely in the playoffs this year. In the end though, he must display an ability to match up with other guards defensively. The Nuggets took him off Lillard and CJ McCollum as often as they could in the playoffs, and Derrick White famously scored 36 points almost entirely on Murray in Game 3 against the Spurs in the first round. The easiest way to show tangible improvement is to work on his skills stopping the ball handler in front of him by being smarter and working harder on the less glamorous end.
The Nuggets asked Nikola Jokic to be better defensively last offseason, and he spent a lot of time improving his foot speed, lateral quickness, and engagement level defensively. He will never be an elite defender, but he dedicated himself to becoming solid. For Murray, it’s time to do the same. The talent level and skill will carry him offensively, as will his synergy with Jokic, but defense is where I have the most questions and where he can offer up the most answers. If he’s consistently competing and being smart on that end of the floor, the Nuggets can make it work.
Jokic wasn’t quite a top 10 player when he signed his new contract, but after the first year, it became clear the Nuggets made the right decision to pay him max money. With Murray, I’m not sure how quickly the Nuggets will get their answer. Quickly knowing whether it was a good or bad decision would imply that either Murray is very good or very bad over the next two years. The Nuggets are surely hoping for “the leap” to come very soon for the young scoring guard, because now there are sky high expectations on him to perform.
Whether the Nuggets compete for championships or look to make drastic changes to their core soon is almost entirely dependent on Murray’s next couple of seasons. The Nuggets pushed their chips in by committing to him as early as they did. He almost has to reach the level of a Damian Lillard or Kyrie Irving (or even Kemba Walker or Mike Conley) in the next two seasons to justify such a large investment.
I don’t know if he’s ever going to reach that level. He might. He has a clear path toward improvement by generating more shots for himself and others at a more efficient clip. It’s easy to see Murray averaging over 20 points per game next year as the Nuggets continue to build on the Murray-Jokic two-man game with higher volume. It’s more difficult to envision where the consistency comes from though. Hopefully for the Nuggets it simply comes with time.
I’m skeptical, but I’m also not skeptical of Murray making a leap in the near future. He has all of the talent in the world, and some of the shots he makes are ridiculous. He has carried the Nuggets in moments when Jokic either could not or did not, and he wants to be great. Players that have the competitive fire of Murray generally succeed, and Murray wants to be the best player of all-time. That’s why the Nuggets laid all their chips on the table for him. They believe he can be their other superstar.
Let’s see if it pans out.