After playing rather inconsistently since he entered the NBA, Jamal Murray announced his full presence to the NBA during the bubble restart in Orlando. If there were an all-playoff team, Murray would have been a lock for the first-team guard spot after his play. He averaged 26.5 points, 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. Throw in the extreme efficiency he portrayed with a slash line of .505/.453/.897, he truly elevated this team to another level with that play. With that level of play, how does that affect the team’s future trajectory?
We’ve all been aware of what to expect from Nikola Jokic. He is going to be a superstar every single year, and his play elevates that of everyone around him. In the bubble, Jokic, like Murray, took his play to that signature Jokic level. The difference was that we had never seen Murray play consistently at that level before. He would have a game here or there where he would explode, but it wasn’t ever sustained to this level. If Murray can bring this level back next year, they’ve fully inserted themselves into the conversation among real contenders.
For the last few years, this Denver team was viewed as one that was going to be competitive in a few years, but they’re going to be competitive right now. They knocked off the LA Clippers, who were title favorites all season, in seven games, and they lost a couple of really close games to the Los Angeles Lakers, who were widely regarded as the second-best team in the league all season. Denver is here, and they can punch with anybody.
Jamal’s Contract Was Worth It
Last offseason, Murray signed an extension that made him the second-highest-paid player on the team when that extension kicks in this offseason. He’ll be making just under $27.3 million starting next year. Once that deal was signed, the discussion immediately began about whether he was worth the deal. He had struggled with injuries in the past, and he had never been more than the second banana for Denver. Was he really worthy of this deal if he wasn’t a flawless fit with Jokic? This postseason confirmed that it was worth every penny.
Murray was brought in to be a scorer when he came to Denver from the University of Kentucky. He was a sweet-shooting guard with some handles, but he wasn’t a great distributor. That didn’t matter because Jokic was one of the best passing bigs that the NBA had ever seen. He could hit anyone at any time, and adding a scorer like Murray reduced the workload that Jokic would be responsible for on that end. The fit was completely perfect, but they still complemented each other exceedingly well.
This postseason confirmed that Murray could be a true alpha scorer for Denver. When they needed a bucket late in the game, it was no longer an automatic bet that Jokic was getting the ball. Murray was one of the best players in the NBA in clutch minutes this postseason. His net rating of 16.7 in the clutch was one of the league’s best. Everyone wants their highly-paid players to be great in the clutch, and Murray was just that for Denver.
The team is slated to have eight free agents this offseason, and that includes the likelihood of forward Jerami Grant opting out of his player option for next season. They’re currently projected to be over the cap, even with those free agents, but they have a little over $20 million before they’re in the luxury tax. Grant is likely the only player that they can put money into this offseason. This roster will be largely the same, so internal development will be key.
Murray will not be able to regress if the team does not grow alongside him. In the postseason, when the bench was not contributing, Murray had to carry them to wins. He had multiple 50-point games in the series against the Utah Jazz, and they still barely eeked out a series win. Michael Porter Jr. needs to come out and show that he can be a true starter for this team. On that note, Michael Malone, if by some miracle you’re reading this, please just let him play through his lumps. It’s going to be ok.
The one issue, if you want to call it that, with Murray’s breakout coming now is that it moved their title window up, but he really just opened it sooner than expected. This team was projected to compete in two or three years after the older contenders split up, but he just locked this team into the conversation. No matter who they add this offseason, they’re going to be expected to replicate this type of a season.
This roster has to develop around him. Porter has to realize at least some of that potential that we saw from him last year. We saw instances where he could be the team’s leading scorer, but his defensive lapses saw him get taken off the floor. Jokic would be more than willing to concede the touches to Porter, and that’s important for this team to realize their potential. He is a true star in the making, but he has to become more than a spot-up threat next year.
Bol Bol will have to become a rotation player next year. This one is going to be interesting. Depending on how much money they devote to Grant, they might not have the money to devote to a backup center. If that’s the case, Bol has to be ready to play. He’s not a traditional big, but, similar to Porter, he can further open up this team. Imagine a lineup of Murray, Grant, Porter, Jokic and Bol. The defense might be questionable, but the length and shooting would be impossible for any team to defend.
If those two players are able to be reliable rotation guys next season, this team will be a dangerous force in the Western Conference. Murray gives them a scoring guard that they didn’t have before. In the short-term, this team can contend with Murray and Jokic leading the way. In the long-term, with Murray hitting this level, they have the pieces to develop into an extremely difficult team for opponents to deal with.