Denver Nuggets: The Latest Jamal Murray Update Dramatically Alters the Western Conference Landscape

Thanks to a heroic, MVP-like effort from Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. In spite of key injuries to guard Jamal Murray and forward Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets are a solid 42-28 heading into the final 12 games of the season.

Denver’s spot in the postseason is far from secure. Entering Thursday, the Nuggets are a mere 1.5 games up on the Minnesota Timberwolves for the seven-seed, which if they fall would place them in the dreaded play-in round. That said, Murray has the chance to not only solidify the Nuggets’ playoff standing, but also place them in serious title contention.

When will Jamal Murray return?

It’s been nearly a full year since Murray played for the Nuggets. The 25-year-old is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered on April 12. That kept the young point guard out for the entirety of Denver’s postseason run, which ended with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns.

Murray has been forced to watch his team from the bench all year. But it will be a matter of time before the sixth-year floor general is back in action.

The Nuggets have assigned Murray to the Grand Rapids Gold, Denver’s G League affiliate, per Harrison Wind of DNVR Sports. He practiced on Wednesday with the team and will practice again on Saturday before heading back to Denver. After that, Wind writes that the Nuggets will then determine Murray’s next steps.

The development is obviously good news for Murray and the Nuggets. Just last week, the Denver Post reported that the Canadien had a “50-50” proposition to play at all in 2021-22. Now, assuming his G League practice session goes well, Murray is increasingly likely to return this season.

Whether it’s in the regular season or the playoffs remains to be seen, but Murray’s eventual return will be huge. The 2016-17 All-Rookie selection averaged a career-best 21.2 points on 47.7% shooting last season with 4.8 assists and 1.3 steals. He’s also a proven playoff performer, averaging 26.5 points throughout Denver’s run to the Western Conference Finals in 2020.

Murray’s return would make the Denver Nuggets a title contender

The Nuggets didn’t make any huge trades around last month’s deadline. That’s because, in theory, the return of All-Star caliber players like Murray and Porter would be just as impactful as pulling off a blockbuster deal.

While their returns have still been somewhat in doubt, the Nuggets now have to love their chances to see one or both on their playoff roster.

Without Murray commanding the backcourt, Denver still boasts the seventh-highest offensive rating in the NBA. A big reason is Jokic, the MVP favorite, but it stands to reason that Murray would turn them into a top-five offense.

The Nuggets are 14th in defensive rating, but the addition of a 6-foot-10 Porter helps in that regard as well. This means a healthy Nuggets team boasts the likely MVP and two other All-Star-caliber players on a top-five offense and top-10 defense.

Not too shabby.

Assuming they stay in the sixth seed, the Nuggets would likely match up against the inexperienced Memphis Grizzlies or a Golden State Warriors team that just lost Stephen Curry indefinitely. If Murray and/or Porter are on the court, Denver feels like a favorite in either matchup. Then from there, who knows what else can happen?

Few playoff teams would have as much depth and star power as the Nuggets. They’ll be a threat with only Jokic, but a true contender if he has some help.

The Nuggets’ schedule bodes very well for their playoff chances

While Denver currently sits within the top-six, it’s still possible to fall back into the play-in round. However, the final 12 games are highly encouraging if you’re a Nuggets fan.

Beginning Friday, eight of Denver’s last 12 contests will be at Ball Arena. In addition, after a four-game stretch against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, and first-place Suns, only two of its final eight games will be against teams above .500. One of those, an April Fools Day matchup against the T-Wolves, is exactly the game Denver needs to win in order to lock up a top-six spot.

Whether Murray returns during that stretch remains to be seen. But few teams have as high of a probability to gain some momentum and go on a long playoff run as the Denver Nuggets.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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