In the final minute of the Denver Nuggets’ loss to the Golden State Warriors on Apr. 12, Jamal Murray rushed past Warriors wing Andrew Wiggins, hoping to steal his team two quick points and put some pressure on the scoreboard.
He never truly left the ground because as he saw an opening to the basket, his left knee buckled and we now know that Jamal Murray had torn his ACL, having to be helped off the court before doctors confirmed the gruesome tear.
Say what you will about resting, the COVID-compressed schedule, or the league’s motif to get the 2020-21 NBA season over and done with before returning to normalcy the following season. This is the situation and no amount of talking heads can change that.
ACL tears typically render a player out for about a full calendar year with teams most often opting to be cautious and wait for a bit over a year before putting them back on the court.
What’s extra unfortunate about the Murray injury is its timing. Not only was it with 18 games left on the schedule, but it happens to be this year, the year where the league is hoping to have a shorter offseason and turnaround to get next season back on the regular schedule.
Because of this unfortunate timing, Nuggets fans can’t be too sure as to when he’ll get back on the court. If it’s simply a calendar year, it’ll naturally be later in the season, and assuming Denver is in the playoff race again, it would be a big ask to get Jamal back to playoff shape, let alone regular season shape, when his knee heals.
The silver lining is that Murray might have to play an even slower game. It might be too much to ask him to play at all next season so Denver could play an even longer game, giving Jamal even more time to recover.
Could Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray’s recovery look like Zach LaVine’s?
A similar player who has also torn his ACL is Zach LaVine. I’m using LaVine, who tore his ACL in early February 2017, as an example because they play similar roles and have similar games. LaVine was more explosive an athlete with his Dunk Content Championships, but Jamal has his own moments (see: any highlight reel from the 2020 playoffs).
LaVine, who was traded to Chicago while recovering, made his return to the sport in mid-January 2018 and played 24 games that season before ending it short for various reasons (recovery, getting a better draft pick, etc.). His 24 games were rocky and he didn’t shoot the ball well, not that anybody expected him to.
The following season, his usage jumped up to one of the league’s top numbers, he averaged a then-career-high 23.7 points per contest and was shooting the ball much more effectively, putting in 116.1 points per 100 possessions which placed him in the 81st percentile according to Cleaning the Glass.
His injury also didn’t slow down his aggression, in fact, he took more shots at the rim than he did in any of his past seasons and averaged six free throw attempts per game. Both those statistics are career highs for him now, even compared to this season, his breakout season.
This takes me to my next point, three years removed from his injury and LaVine just made his first All-Star game while putting up some huge counting stats. As he told NBA.com this year:
"“You really don’t know how your body is going to respond. Everybody is different. I just wanted to attack it and regardless at the end of this, I would be happy with the result because I gave it my all… I put the work in and felt I was the guy who could get back to where I was and better. I feel I have a lot more things I can reach; I feel I haven’t reached my ceiling yet, either.”"
Jamal Murray is one year older than LaVine was when he suffered the same injury all those years ago and it’s now an afterthought.
The more notable difference to worry about is how this injury affects Denver’s timeline.
LaVine had the luxury of playing for a team that wasn’t in any position to win games (he still might not be) but Jamal’s injury likely takes Denver out of title contention.
When looking at FiveThirtyEight’s projections, Denver falls from having a roughly 10 percent chance of winning the NBA Finals to four percent after the Jamal injury. For reference, the projection only gives nine teams a greater than one percent chance of winning and it’s incredible Denver is still that high despite losing their best guard.
If Jamal follows the LaVine trajectory: alright returning season, back on track the following, and then a chance to make a “leap” the following year, the Nuggets surrounding core would all be in their prime or on their way.
Two years from now, Nikola Jokic will be 27, Michael Porter Jr. will be 24, Aaron Gordon will be 27, and Bol Bol will be 23 (I’m kidding on the last one… or am I?). That’s right in the middle of their best years for the hopeful starting frontcourt in Jokic and AG and MPJ will have two more developmental years under his belt.
The moral of this story is that things should be fine for the Nuggets. I say “should” because the league can change incredibly fast in the NBA and who knows when a player is going to have a Stephen Curry-level of a breakout, becoming an MVP overnight.
The biggest loss with Jamal’s injury is one whole year of contending next to a likely MVP winner in Jokic. But this Denver team has stuck together through all the adversity it has come across in the past and it has only gotten better with every season. You’d be stupid to bet against it moving forwards.
Get well soon Jamal.