Continuing from my piece on the Nuggets’ bench for the upcoming season, today will be an exhaustive look at the Nuggets’ big three and trying to predict their upcoming seasons. The big three consists of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, and two stars who were injured last season in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. The last time the three of them shared the court was April 12th, 2021. Since that game — the Denver Broncos traded for Russell Wilson, over 520 days have passed, Chainsaw Man has returned, Nikola Jokic has won the MVP twice and two NBA drafts have happened.
It has been quite a long time since the big three played together, and both Nuggets fans and the Nuggets organization themselves have awaited the day that they can reunite on the court. All of the big three fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic have the best two-man game in the entire association and were known for bludgeoning teams to death in the clutch. Michael Porter Jr. fills in by being one of the best shooters in the NBA, an elite cutter and rebounder, and his ability to impact the game by merely existing.
When sharing the court together in the 2020-21 season, the trio played 1569 possessions together. In those possessions, per cleaningtheglass.com, they had a net rating of +15.6. Those lineups also produced an offensive rating of 126.6 — good for 99th percentile in the league in that season. If a court has the three of them on the floor, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Nuggets will be scoring in droves.
Dealing with injuries is never fun. Jamal Murray’s specifically came at arguably the worst time it could’ve possibly happened. Before he tore his ACL, he was one of the most electric scorers in the NBA. He blossomed in the bubble, but for those who paid attention the next season — after a slow start, he really picked up steam in the couple of months before his injury. This came to be a driving force for the Nuggets looking like the title favorite between the Aaron Gordon trade and the Jamal Murray injury.
From January 22nd to April 4th, the last 34 games he played before getting injured against the Golden State Warriors on April 12th — he recorded 22.1 points per game on 61.3% TS%. Jamal Murray became an uber-efficient scorer from everywhere on the floor and started looking similar to his play from the bubble. For reference, during his bubble run, he averaged 26.5 points per game on 62.6% TS%. He earned the title of being an elite shooter, shooting a blistering 43.6% from beyond the arc on 6.7 three point attempts per game.
On the entire season, he was a threat out of the pick and roll like he hadn’t been before. He had always been good in pick and roll situations, but he started playing with a veteran-esque composure. He’d shoot off the bounce with more confidence than he ever had before, take it to the rim with more aggressiveness than before, and played with a pace that was among the best in the league.
That’s who the Nuggets are getting back now — a pick and roll partner to pair with the best offensive player in the league; the best pick and roll pairing in the entire association. Nikola Jokic has carried a huge load ever since Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. got hurt, but now he’s getting back his partner in crime. The two of them bludgeoned teams with their two man game in the clutch. It was the basketball equivalent of bringing a level 20 character to a level 3 campaign in Dungeons and Dragons. It was just unfair to the opposition. Even if teams could successfully stop the two man game once — just reset and rescreen.
With Nikola Jokic improving over the past couple of seasons, Jamal Murray will be coming back to having a 2 time MVP as his partner in the dance of basketball. Watching the duo is like seeing two musicians who have a connection on a fundamental level. They know what each other is thinking, what move they’re going to make next, and where to be to help the other.
Modern sports medicine has made ACL tears far easier to come back from than they used to be. Zach Lavine, Klay Thompson, Spencer Dinwiddie, Danillo Gallinari, Kyle Lowry, and many more have found success after coming back from ACL tears. Jamal Murray should be much of the same. He’s still young, only 25 years old and he has a killer work ethic. Nuggets’ fans should give him grace if he starts out slow — he has a habit of doing that when healthy, let alone when coming off of 18 months of game action.
However, Jamal Murray can maybe make a legitimate bid for an all-star game appearance this season. Two of the all-stars from last season, Dejounte Murray and Donovan Mitchell, were traded to the Eastern Conference. There’s an opening for some new players in the Western Conference, and if he can put up similar production to what he did before the injury — Jamal Murray would be a no-brainer pick.
There will be rust as he comes back, but if he can shake that off and have a stat line of around 21 points per game, 4 rebounds per game, and 5 assists per game on good efficiency and good defense — why not? He’s been a very good defender in the past, and that might take a step back because of the ACL, but jump shots don’t typically go away. In all the clips that have come out this offseason, he’s shot the skin off of the ball. Take those clips with a grain of salt, but we’ve seen it before and there’s no reason we won’t continue to see Jamal Murray shoot lights out.
With that, he may be able to get in as a reserve in the all-star game. He will have the narrative push of him being back after a long time and probably the production to be considered. If the Nuggets are as good as people think they can be, then they’ll also be good enough to earn 2 all-stars.
That is the highest end outcome though and shouldn’t be the expectation. It’s likely that Jamal Murray starts the season with a decent amount of rust and that the Nuggets will probably rest him. His stat line will probably look like the one he had in the 2020-21 season by the end of this season, but he might not get off to a hot enough start to earn an all-star bid. So, give him some grace and patience as he gets back into form.
Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. had a rough season in the 2021-22 season. He played nine games and looked the worst he had in his career up until that point. However, this was due to a back injury that became too bad to play through and he had surgery. The surgery was a lumbar spine surgery and lead to him missing the rest of that season. It was his third back surgery, the other two being during his freshman season at Missouri and before his first season in the NBA.
Fans have rightfully been worried about Michael Porter Jr. and his injuries. Having three back surgeries before you turn 24 years old is pretty fair grounds for having concerns. The Nuggets organization is likely to rest him for a decent chunk of games — just like Jamal Murray. It would be surprising if either of them played more than 70 games. With MPJ specifically, though, it has been a repeated issue. The team probably will be more cautious with him than Jamal.
If healthy though, he provides a great release valve for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. He is a top three or so off-ball scorer in the league. He’s an elite shooter — contests don’t matter with his height, and his jumper is one of the most aesthetically pleasing in the association. In the 2020-21 season, Michael Porter Jr. shot 45.1% on catch and shoot threes; making him nearly automatic from the outside. Injuries don’t typically affect jump shots too negatively, so fans can expect him to still be the silky shooter that he has been.
One thing that might be affected is his scoring within the arc. During the 2020-21 season, MPJ shot 70.5% on cuts, per Synergy Sports. He was still fairly athletic in that season and could get up for dunks.
His cutting instincts will still be sharp, but he might struggle to be as quick as he was in previous seasons. It will probably work out in the long run, but in the early stages of the season, it is something to look for.
If he is healthy, which is a notably sized if, then he is the perfect complimentary piece to the duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on offense. A highly efficient, low usage, high volume off-ball scorer is the perfect third option in the Denver Nuggets’ offense. He and Nikola Jokic have great chemistry; one that ensures he’ll get easy looks.
In the nine games he played of the 2021-22 season, he did look improved as a passer and defender. If that carries over, then it makes it easier for MPJ to make an impact by doing things besides just scoring the ball. That’ll be the next step for him to take in his career, and be the key to him being a high impact playoff performer.
Coming off of back-to-back MVPs, Nikola Jokic has improved each season he has played in the league. Early in the season, he might have to do that yet again. The hope is that by the end of the season having Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back will be able to alleviate some of the pressure and usage that Nikola Jokic has been asked to carry for the team the past two seasons. However, with the two of them presumably having rust to take care of at first, Nikola Jokic might have to put up some 40 pieces early in the season to see success for the team.
It’s a lot to ask of him, but he’s more than capable of it. He had an electric Eurobasket run with Serbia and will look to carry over his success to the NBA season. He will still be the main engine for the Nuggets for the whole season and is likely to make them one of the best offenses of all time. As the best playmaker in the league, the Nuggets have done well to give him many tools. With his selection of not only Jamal Murray and MPJ, but also Aaron Gordon, Bruce Brown, KCP, Jeff Green, and Bones Hyland — he has a litany of ways to distribute the ball.
Not to mention his improvements as a scorer in the past two calendar years. He’s a threat from anywhere within the arc, and while he has struggled to shoot from the outside recently, he has shown to be a good three point shooter in the past. He is the best offensive player in the league.
There are some defensive concerns with his pick and roll coverage, but with the front office’s efforts to get better defensively this offseason, the perimeter defense should be able to help him on that front. He was often put in very bad positions due to the lack of perimeter containment last season. That lack of containment won’t be as prevalent this season.
Expectations should be for him to be in the conversation for a third MVP trophy, and another elite season from Joker. He may take a step back statistically — as the season rolls on, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will probably take some of the scoring load. However, fans can expect him to come back even better on the court than last season.