The Denver Nuggets’ 2020-21 season took a turn for the worst April 12.
That was the day Jamal Murray, the team’s star point guard, tore his ACL in a game against the Golden State Warriors. Murray had surgery shortly after and was ruled out indefinitely. The typical timeline for ACL tears is between nine months to a year, depending on how the rehabilitation process goes. There’s a good chance Murray misses the early part of next season.
The Nuggets still had the league MVP in Nikola Jokic and made the playoffs as the West’s No. 3 seed, going 13-5 in Murray’s absence. After taking out the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, the Nuggets were thoroughly beaten by the Phoenix Suns in four games.
Game 4 was a particularly ugly exit for Denver. The team lost at home after Jokic got ejected for a questionable Flagrant 2 foul call. A once promising season unraveled in four short games with the MVP and team getting tossed out of their own building.
Murray shined in last season’s Orlando bubble, averaging 26.5 points and 6.6 assists in a run to the conference finals. He came .3 percent away from achieving a 50-40-90 shooting split in the bubble and was unquestionably Denver’s second star. He was having a career season in terms of points and efficiency before the injury.
The Nuggets have Jokic and Murray locked in on long-term extensions. Those two aren’t going anywhere. Michael Porter Jr. was a finalist for Most Improved Player and is showing signs of becoming a star. Monte Morris and Aaron Gordon remain on the roster. Rookie Zeke Nnaji didn’t play much, but had some promising moments. That’s a good group for the Nuggets to retool around during the offseason.
There’s really only two ways Denver can approach its current roster situation heading into the summer.
Scenario 1: Murray is enough, bring the group back together for another run
In this scenario, the Nuggets have determined Murray’s return would be enough to contend in the Western conference. Will Barton and JaMychal Green have player options, but the Nuggets will likely try to bring both players back. Paul Millsap has tapered off significantly in the last two seasons, but could also come back on a cheap deal. The Nuggets will exercise PJ Dozier’s team option.
Murray will likely be back by December, assuming everything goes well with the rehabilitation. The Nuggets will be able to see what improvements Porter, Dozier, Nnaji and Morris have made in the first few months of the season. They’ll also get two months before the trade deadline to look at Murray with the rest of the roster before making any moves.
The Nuggets are essentially banking on Porter turning into the third star in this case. Gordon and Morris can round out whatever production Porter isn’t able to provide, but the Missouri product would be projected to be an All-Star level player.
Scenario 2: Murray is not enough, swing a trade for a third star
The Nuggets are actually making two assumptions in this scenario. They’ll be saying Murray, even at 100 percent, won’t move the needle with the current roster. They’ll also likely be saying Porter Jr. is not going to be the third star. That doesn’t mean he’s being dealt, but it means the Nuggets question his ceiling.
Denver can deal this year’s first-round pick before getting creative with trading any future first-rounders. They can put up Porter Jr. as a trade piece, although the Nuggets are much more likely to move Gordon first. Morris will also be a trade piece in this scenario.
Bradley Beal is the obvious target with CJ McCollum as a possible fallback option. The Nuggets don’t have a trump card in the event of a bidding war over Beal and the Trail Blazers might not want to see McCollum stay in the conference.
If Denver strikes out on both guards, Kevin Love could be a reasonably cheap option. He’s got a big salary cap number, but the Nuggets can keep more of their roster intact in a trade for him. He’s not a third star, but he can aggregate with Porter Jr. to form “third star” production.
Buddy Hield is another option if the Sacramento Kings decide to go a different way. Hield is also not a star, but he’s a good two-way guard and fits Denver’s roster timeline better than Love. He’s take more pressure off Murray and Jokic as a lights-out shooter.
Denver will make a call on Beal, as will many other teams around the league. If the Wizards ask for Porter, the Nuggets will hang up. They’ll make similar inquiries on McCollum and likely get nowhere.
Ultimately, the Nuggets are unlikely to be big players in the coming offseason. They’re probably going to run it back with the majority of same group and bank on the young players making steps forward.
However, Murray’s timeline and return will eventually force them to make a decision. Porter will enter restricted free agency next summer. The Nuggets will likely be in the playoff hunt if Jokic is healthy and Murray returns by December. Next season’s trade deadline could be a wild one in Denver depending on how players perform.