“Adversity” would be a fair word used to describe the Denver Nuggets‘ 2021-22 season.
Not even MVP-caliber efforts from Nikola Jokic can help Denver weather the storm of playing without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., two of the team’s best (and highest-paid) players. As a result of missing stars and issues with COVID-19, the Nuggets sit at just 22-20 just across the halfway point.
Though few would blame the Nuggets for quitting on this season and preparing for a fully-healthy team in 2022-23, that isn’t the current MO. Instead, Denver’s recent acquisition of Bryn Forbes signals that Murray and Porter Jr. may be closer to returning than people expect.
Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.’s absences have prevented the Nuggets from realizing their potential
Two years ago, few teams would have been in as enviable of a position as the Nuggets. Not only did they have a franchise-changing star in Jokic leading the way, but Murray and Porter Jr. were a pair of young players with incredibly high ceilings they had yet to reach. To little surprise, the trio led Denver to the Western Conference Finals in 2020, its first trip since ’09.
Since then, the Nuggets have learned how quickly title windows can close.
On April 12, 2021, Murray tore his ACL. The 24-year-old was in the midst of a career year, averaging 21.2 points on 47.7% shooting. He has yet to play since, missing the entirety of Denver’s most-recent playoff run and sitting out each of the first 42 games this season.
As for Porter Jr., he too had a breakout season in 2020-21, averaging 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds. But the 23-year-old last played on November 6 and underwent back surgery weeks later, presumably ending his third year on the court and fourth in the NBA overall.
Denver knew Murray’s injury would keep him out for much of the season, but the MPJ surgery really threw a wrench into any plans to compete. Even as Jokic nearly matches his MVP numbers from a year ago, Denver is in the middle of the pack in many statistics including offensive and defensive rating. And with Murray and Porter Jr. combining to make over $35 million this year, the Nuggets don’t have a roster built to contend without them.
The Denver Nuggets made a win-now move to acquire Bryn Forbes
As big names engulf the NBA trade deadline rumor mill, the Nuggets made an unheralded move on Tuesday night. According to multiple sources, Denver is acquiring Bryn Forbes in a three-team deal with the San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics. In exchange for Forbes, Denver will send P.J. Dozier and Bol Bol to the Celtics, as well as a 2028 second-round pick to the Spurs.
The 28-year-old Forbes has long been viewed as a high-end 3-point shooter. The sixth-year guard is hitting 41.7% of his threes this year and 41.3% for his career. Additionally, the 6-foot-2 Forbes averaged 19.3 minutes a game for the world champion Milwaukee Bucks last year before coming back to San Antonio, where he spent his first four seasons.
In order to secure Forbes, Denver parted with the 25-year-old Dozier and 22-year-old Bol, both of whom are out long-term with a torn ACL and foot surgery respectively. Forbes, who is a free agent after the season, clearly benefits Denver far more than Dozier or Bol does at this point in time.
Forbes’ acquisition is the very definition of a win-now move, which might seem odd for a team just two games above .500. But it also paints a larger picture into the whereabouts of Murray and Porter Jr.
Could the Forbes trade be a sign the Nuggets are getting Murray and MPJ back?
The 22-20 Nuggets probably aren’t viewing Forbes as the secret weapon capable of turning the team into a title contender. But that doesn’t mean they don’t project him as an important role player if — or when — Murray and Porter Jr. return to action.
Earlier last week, the Denver Post reported that both injured stars took place in private, on-court workouts before Denver’s 140-108 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. Not only that, but author Mark Kiszla expressed sincere optimism in both Murray and Porter Jr. returning by April 1, mere days before the end of the regular season and beginning of the playoffs.
Given when Murray’s torn ACL occurred, an April 1 target date would be just under a year of recovery time, a fairly common timeline. Porter Jr. is a trickier situation to project, as his surgery was believed to be season-ending. Not to mention, he has two prior back surgeries that might complicate the recovery process.
Denver will absolutely want to make sure Murray and Porter Jr. return when they’re ready. If that’s not until next season, so be it. But making a trade for a veteran on an expiring contract in Forbes seems to be a decent indication the Nuggets are cautiously optimistic about the return of their two impactful youngsters.