With the All-Star break over, the Nuggets and their fans have turned their heads towards the future. With the rest of the season consisting of the easiest schedule in the NBA, the Nuggets do seem to be in quite the alright place; especially considering they have missed their second and third best players for all of and most of the season respectively. While glancing, many fans have stolen looks at what a healthy Nuggets team could look like in the playoffs. With many saying that a healthy Nuggets team could be in title contention in what is widely considered a relatively open window. However, I think fans need to reel in their expectations a slight bit when it comes to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
Now, both are absolutely fantastic players. Jamal Murray has played above All-Star caliber for prolonged stretches of his career; mainly the bubble, and the last few months before he tore his ACL last April. Michael Porter Jr has proven himself to be a nuclear shooter, and among the leagues best off-ball scorers especially after Murray went out last season. His cutting and shooting is a perfect compliment to the Murray and Jokic two man game that has become the Nuggets’ ace over the past few seasons. However, both are coming off serious injuries that will take them a long time to get fully back from.
Michael Porter Jr was never known as the most fluid of athletes in the NBA. He had already had two back operations done before he touched the floor, and is now coming off of a third. I would not expect him to move quite as well as he did last season, but I think his skill set will mean his production will mostly remain intact. When he was healthy earlier this season, he showed real improvements on the defensive end and with his passing. While I anticipate the passing to stick around, I think fans should expect a regression on defense to what we saw last season most likely. The instincts that he’s gained will still be there, but his already below average lateral movement on that end will only be more exploitable. That is at first at least. He may return earlier than Murray, and given he returns early enough I’d feel more than comfortable with him getting back to about 70% of what his movement on that end was earlier in this season. Now, if he returns in late March or at the worst early April, I don’t see him being anything close to a neutral on that end. He was never really known as a defensive stalwart, and a third back operation isn’t a good starting point for that to happen now.
On the offensive end, fans should expect things to be relatively similar to last season, if a bit reduced in role. He struggled from three earlier in this season, but he was dealing with back pain. That’s what he addressed with this operation, and his shot has looked just as pretty in his recent workouts. He isn’t throwing down windmills in his pregame workouts, but he is showing an improvement in hang time on his jump shot, and it looks more or less identical to what his form was when he was healthy. He also just has good instincts on cutting, and if the doctors think he’s healthy enough to return to NBA action; he will be more than able to make the same cuts he was able to make. I do think his role may be reduced a little bit, and that the Nuggets will ease him into action rather than throwing him to the wolves. So expect an average of maybe an efficient 17 points per game and 6 rebounds per game.
Jamal Murray is a harder case to pin down. While Michael Porter Jr had a surgery done, it was mainly just taking care of pain. There was no structural damage. However, Jamal did have structural damage that needed to be addressed in his surgery. He had the more serious injury between the two, and while medical technology has come such a far way from where it used to be — it will still take a decent amount of time for him to be fully back.
Malone has continuously stated that Murray will be back when he’s ready. There is no set time table for his return, and I doubt that the Nuggets organization will give us one. He’ll likely pop up as questionable on the injury report on some random Thursday afternoon knowing how these things go. It is expected that he will return this season, but many reporters have floated late March to early April as his potential return date. That doesn’t give much time to ramp up for the playoffs, and at that point I’d question whether it’s even worth bringing him back this season, but I doubt that he doesn’t return to the court at some point this season.
Given his shooting ability and his chemistry with Nikola Jokic, it is likely that he still remains efficient and he definitely won’t be a negative player by any means. Those stepbacks that he’s known for though? Those will likely be less featured than before his surgery. That puts a lot of pressure on knees, and he’ll probably want to go to those slightly less. I’d expect a solid 16 to 18 points per game and 6 assists per game if he’s given the proper time to ramp up.