There’s an old adage about how if an NBA team gets an injured player back on the court, it’s just as impactful as a trade deadline acquisition. The Denver Nuggets are praying that’s the case.
As the clock struck 3 p.m. EST on Thursday, the Nuggets were one of the few teams to not pull off a single deal by the trade deadline. That leaves the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic to single-handedly guide Denver through a tough Western Conference playoff race.
To be fair, the 30-24 Nuggets are more than just a one-man show. But in order to overthrow heavyweights like the Phoenix Suns or Golden State Warriors this postseason, it’s going to take a bit more than the Joker’s greatness to elevate his Mile High running mates.
Though what if there was help on the way? Based on Denver’s deadline inactivity and eyebrow-raising comments from the front office, both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. could be arriving to save the day.
The Nuggets missed the opportunity to add pieces around Nikola Jokic at the trade deadline
Denver entered the trade deadline with a superstar playing at his highest level. So it’s not as if it needed a dramatic overhaul of all things basketball-related. Nevertheless, there were some areas the Nuggets tried to remedy, only to fall short ahead of the afternoon deadline.
Mike Singer of the Denver Post reported the Nuggets were on the hunt for a wing defender, preferably one under contract for multiple seasons. They were even willing to part with their 2027 first-round pick to land a key role player.
Though even with a future first at their disposal, the Nuggets didn’t have many trade assets. JaMychal Green was almost certainly going to be included in any deal given his $8.2 million contract. However, the eight-year veteran has a no-trade clause he’d almost certainly exercise if Denver struck a deal with a non-contender.
Additionally, Denver had the expiring contracts of Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and Vlatko Cancar to use for salary-matching purposes. Though Rivers, the most-coveted of the three, also has the ability to veto any deal.
For what it’s worth, the Nuggets made a couple of under-the-radar moves ahead of the deadline. Denver dumped injured reserves P.J. Dozier and Bol Bol, along with a 2028 second-round pick, in a three-team deal to acquire veteran guard Bryn Forbes. The 28-year-old, who’s playing on an expiring $4.5 million contract, is averaging 9.9 points and 38.8% three-point shooting through 11 games.
Denver also signed veteran big man DeMarcus Cousins to a 10-day contract. Cousins, who’s expected to receive another 10-day after the deadline, has averaged 6.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in 13.2 minutes through five games.
Denver could be banking on Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to return
The Nuggets are six games above .500. They’ve done so with very little assistance from Porter Jr. and no help whatsoever from Murray.
Porter Jr. appeared in just nine games before undergoing what was believed to be season-ending back surgery. The 23-year-old was averaging 9.9 points, a sharp decline from the 19.0 he averaged a year prior. As for Murray, the 24-year-old guard is still working his way back to action after tearing his ACL last April.
When healthy, the two promising youngsters join Jokic in forming a fearsome trio capable of winning the West. And according to Tim Connelly, Denver’s president of basketball operations, that trio could be reunited soon (h/t: Altitude Sports).
“It’s up to them. We’re going to clear them at some point in the not too distant future and then they have to determine when and if they’re ready.”Tim Connelly
Connelly’s words bring a major sigh of relief to Nuggets fans everywhere. While there is no firm return date for either star, the exec confirmed both of their rehab stints are moving along as planned.
At first, it felt all-but-certain Jokic would be on his own this season. In that instance, perhaps the Nuggets would have been more compelled to not waste his MVP-caliber year by being idle at the deadline. But with Connelly’s confirmation that Murray and MPJ are close, Denver knows all the help it needs is coming back soon.
The combination of Jokic, Murray, and Porter Jr. makes the Nuggets a title contender
At 30-24, the Nuggets can safely start to prepare for the postseason. Though their ceiling once they arrive may be lower than they’d like.
Denver enters Friday with the eighth-highest offensive rating and the 17th-highest defensive rating in the NBA. Despite the Joker’s best efforts, the Nuggets hovered around .500 for much of the season and were just a game above exactly one month ago. But they’ve been able to bounce back in the last few weeks, winning seven of their last 10 contests.
However, this team has the potential to really make some noise in the playoffs assuming Murray and Porter Jr. both return.
Along with an MVP Jokic, Denver had 48 games of Murray and 61 of MPJ in 2020-21. It led to a 47-25 record, the third-best in the West. The year before in the bubble, Denver had all three stars available in the playoffs. The end result was a trip to the Western Conference Finals, only to get bested by the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Even if just one injured star returns, the Nuggets will receive a major boost. Though if both come back, they suddenly have the makings of a team that can win a seven-game series against anyone.