This one hurts. A lot.

The Denver Nuggets appeared to have found something special over the last month. After trading for Aaron Gordon and pushing their chips in to contend for a championship, the Nuggets once again made the national plea: “Take us seriously! We’re dangerous! We’re for real!”

This wasn’t the first time the Nuggets had craved respect that wasn’t given. Back in 2018-19, the Nuggets won 54 games, earning the second seed behind the Golden State Warriors before earning the actual trust of the NBA community at large. The term “frauds” was thrown out there consistently, and it wasn’t until the Nuggets finally won their first round series over an admittedly average San Antonio Spurs that many NBA observers gave the Nuggets their due. In 2019-20, the Nuggets earned the third seed after messing around for much of the regular season and NBA bubble. They nearly lost to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs before pulling off an incredible 3-1 comeback. It wasn’t until they pulled the exact same comeback against the NBA title favorite Los Angeles Clippers before folks begrudgingly credited them.

To start 2020-21, the Nuggets were floundering once again. It took Michael Porter Jr. half the season to learn how to impact winning, and it took several injuries and absences before the Nuggets discovered their best form. It took Nikola Jokić becoming the MVP frontrunner and for the Nuggets to climb up the standings. It took the Nuggets going all in for Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline, moving their guard depth to size up against the best competition.

This was the first time that, as they the requested a seat at the contenders table, the weren’t laughed out of the room upon arrival.

Then, the play happened on Monday night.

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Jamal Murray’s ascension to stardom has meant a lot to me personally over these last few years. As a freshman at the University of South Carolina, I watched Murray play for Kentucky in his freshman year. He came to Columbia, South Carolina and put on a show, dropping 26 points and a vicious poster dunk in a win. I felt, watching that game and watching the rest of Murray’s season: he had star potential in him. He wasn’t the perfect prospect, but he was real, he was passionate, and holy hell was he fun.

In May of 2016, I was hired to write for Denver Stiffs. My first Stiffs Night Out happened during the 2016 NBA Draft. It’s where I first met Russ Hamilton (an original moderator and commenter), Leo (AKA MichaelJarsOfPorter in the comments), and of course, my good friend Gordon Gross.

The Nuggets went on to draft Murray that night, and I was excited. He had the “it” factor the Nuggets were looking for. Sure, Danilo Gallinari was still around, and the Nuggets had a decent starting center in Nikola Jokić, but Murray was going to be great. I was sure of it.

Then, history began to occur for the Nuggets franchise. It didn’t happen in an ordinary way, mostly centered around the Serbian big man that turned out to be much, much more than anyone asked him to be. That changed the calculus for the Nuggets. They knew they needed surround Jokić with versatile scorers and playmakers because of the big man’s unique skill set. He could pass like crazy, but the Nuggets also needed someone who could set him up too, because Jokić’s scoring wasn’t half bad either.

Murray was thrust into the starting lineup in his second season, and as he continued to improve, so did the Nuggets. The Nuggets won 46 games in 2017-18, 54 in 2018-19, were on pace for roughly 52 wins in the COVID shortened 2019-20, and are currently on an 82-game pace of 53 wins in 2020-21, which included early season rough patches. All the while, Murray was making improvements on both sides of the ball. His offense had grown to star status while his defense made major strides.

Finally, after five years of patience, development, and learning experiences, Murray became the player the Nuggets organization and Nuggets fans hoped he could be.

And at the pinnacle of that difficult summit, at the confluence of Denver’s championship hopes with the star development of Denver’s best players, one play changed everything.

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Murray will be out indefinitely with a torn ACL in his left knee. The impending surgery will hold him out through the end of this season, and it will certainly have an impact on next season as well. Players often take awhile to come back from this surgery, and beyond that, they usually take even more time to reach the level they used to achieve consistently. It’s the nature of taking so much time off, trusting the repaired ligaments, and getting back in the regular swing of things.

And yet, players have come back from ACL tears before and been successful. In recent years, Zach LaVine and Kristaps Porzingis have each remained impactful players after suffering a season-ending injury. LaVine in particular made improvements to his game that helped him become a better player even after the injury.

All is not lost for Murray. If anyone could come back stronger than they left the game, it’s the Blue Arrow. His unrelenting nature will see to that, leaving no stone unturned and no box unchecked in the rehab process. I would honestly be shocked if Murray wasn’t back out there draining threes and dunking on people at some point.

The Nuggets are going to take a major hit here. For obvious reasons, they didn’t expect or prepare for anything like this to happen. Their readymade plans involved Murray helping to lead the charge.

The Aaron Gordon trade was a major sign of that commitment. The Nuggets knew they needed to get bigger on the wing, but they had the luxury of doing so due to their foundational pieces at guard and center. Murray was always going to play 36+ minutes at either guard spot in the playoffs, meaning that Denver didn’t have many other minutes to worry about in the back court. With Will Barton starting at the other guard, Monte Morris backing them up on the bench unit, and both PJ Dozier and Facundo Campazzo filling in the gaps, the Nuggets felt like they could move on from Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton at the trade deadline, two guards that were superfluous with Denver’s guard ensemble.

That calculus changed the moment Murray went down. Suddenly, Barton might be the lead ball handler in the starting unit, while Morris might be asked to fill 35 minutes per game in the playoffs rather than the 21.4 he averaged in The Bubble. Dozier and Campazzo quickly went from filling in the gaps to becoming mainstays. That’s not a comforting thought for a championship contender.

In addition, the roles of Jokić, Porter, and Gordon within the starting lineup may have changed. While Jokić might have been able to share lead scoring duties with Murray before, it’s unlikely he can do so now. Porter will move from third option offensively to second option much quicker than the Nuggets hoped. Gordon may have just shifted from role player starter who doesn’t need a ton of shots to a necessary creator in the offense.

The vision that the Nuggets had of their starting unit in action lasted just over two weeks.

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There are some teams throughout history that have also experienced a heartbreaking injury late in the year. Nuggets fans have experience with it as Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL in April of 2013 during Denver’s 57-win season. Denver went on to lose in the first round. That team wasn’t as talented as this one though, and there needs to be a better comparison.

The best comparison for this moment is the early 2010’s Oklahoma City Thunder, who alternated between losing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook for multiple seasons to drastically lower their championship ceiling, including 2012-13 when they won 60 games without James Harden.

The Thunder are a good comparison for a number of reasons. Jokić and Durant were the first of the Big Three to arrive while Murray and Westbrook were each a more volatile second star. Michael Porter Jr. and James Harden represent the third, incredibly talented piece, and where the Thunder made missteps of not getting Harden into the starting unit, it appears that the Nuggets are doing right by Porter in just his second season and incorporating him more strongly into what the team is doing.

The Thunder are a great example of missteps from a talented Big Three. They were hit by injuries, financial realities, exterior pressure, egos, and failure at the highest level in a way that drew them apart. That trio broke apart too soon, and the Nuggets should take their experiences as a warning for potential pitfalls.

This too shall pass. Murray will be back and possibly better than ever. Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus in his Age 24 season in April of 2013. He won an MVP in the 2016-17 season highlighted by his explosiveness to the rim. There are plenty of examples of players coming back and being excellent. If anyone could do that, it would be Murray.

Windows for contention never last forever. They might last longer in some cases and shorter in others, but they all eventually run out.

This was the first year of my life where I genuinely thought the Nuggets could win an NBA championship. Sure, a healthy Los Angeles Lakers team changes the dynamic, and the Brooklyn Nets putting together a super team doesn’t help, but beyond that, there’s no other team with more talent on their roster than the Nuggets. They had all the makings of a contender and rounded out their roster with the perfect role player (Aaron Gordon) to get them over the hump. It sucks that they probably won’t be able to take advantage of that. Not just this year, but maybe next year also, given the timetable of Murray’s recovery.

More than anything though, you feel for the person that suffered the injury. Murray has given nothing less than his entire heart and soul to this organization and fan base. When the going got tough, the Nuggets turned to Murray on several occasions to be the savior. In the bubble, the Nuggets rallied behind Murray’s resilience and heart, and Murray had the skill level and poise to carry that burden like a champion. To see a player and person like Murray crumple to the hardwood in such pain…it’s a feeling of emptiness I will never forget.

Here’s to a full recovery for Jamal Murray, the heartbeat of the Nuggets organization.