How the Denver Nuggets can avoid becoming the next Portland

Denver Nuggets guard matchup: CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Denver Nuggets guard matchup: CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The Denver Nuggets are making do with additions like Jeff Green and Austin Rivers in the starting lineup while they hold their popsicle sticks together praying for the return of starting guard Jamal Murray and starting forward Michael Porter Jr.

Things have gone well, all things considered, with the Nuggets hovering around the sixth seed in the Western Conference all while missing two of their most surefire scorers.

The Portland Trail Blazers are moving on from one of their top scorers, and infamous wingman to Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum. McCollum is on his way to New Orleans in a deal that includes Josh Hart and ends a high-scoring era in Portland.

Similarities can be drawn between the Blazers’ former dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum and the duo Nuggets fans are holding out hope for in Murray and MPJ.

All four stars are top-15 NBA draft picks. Lillard went sixth overall in 2012, McCollum would then tenth overall in 2013, and the pair would go on to snap records in Rip City for the next nine years. The Nuggets would follow Portland’s formula in 2016 with the selection of the lethal Murray at seven, and the 14th overall selection in 2018 of Porter Jr.

Each player has carved their own NBA path and added chips on their shoulders as they go. Lillard has seen the most success to date, and all have danced with the injury devil. The ability to stay healthy and put up numbers on the way to a Larry O’Brien trophy will ultimately be what separates their legacies. Murray is coming back from a torn ACL, Porter Jr. is fighting off a back injury, and McCollum is dealing with a bothersome foot.

Murray and MPJ have a lot of catching up to do if they ever hope to reach the heights Lillard and McCollum did when it comes to scoring, but Murray and Porter Jr. have also had a taste of the Western Conference Finals, which should only inspire them to one-up Lillard and McCollum by bringing a championship trophy to Denver. Despite everything Dame Time and McCollum did in Portland during their time together, winning championships remained a mirage.

Portland got the best of Denver in the 2019 playoffs with Lillard and McCollum at full strength, and something about the matchup seems to bring the best out of Portland’s stars, but the Nuggets would get their revenge last season despite another record-breaking performance from Lillard. The Denver Nuggets seem to have gotten over the Blazers hump and heads have turned toward a new era in the rivalry.

Jamal Murray is electric, and showed some things in the bubble and his brief time teamed with Aaron Gordon and MVP Nikola Jokic last season to inspire Denver Nuggets fans moving forward, but what Lillard has been able to do in Portland won’t be replicated.

The only way Murray can top what Dame D.O.L.L.A. has done and will do is stack championships while the competitive window is still open alongside the MVP. The pick-and-roll chemistry Murray was building with Jokic prior to his injury was inspiring, and the sky could be the limit for the Nuggets if Murray returns to an extended period of full health. In order to catch Lillard’s scoring numbers, Murray will need to boost his 16.3 points per game career average to the lofty 24.6 career average Lillard currently sits at, with 366 more games played.

McCollum is currently averaging 19.0 points per game for his career, and that is precisely what Porter Jr. averaged last season when the Nuggets sailed past Portland in the first round of the playoffs and into a Phoenix buzz-saw.

There is hope Porter Jr. can be the trusty sidekick for Murray that McCollum was for Lillard, and possibly better. MPJ was drafted with lofty expectations in Denver but a nagging back injury has robbed fans and Porter Jr. of reaching the heights some had in mind when he was selected. Injuries have also hampered McCollum after winning Most Improved Player in 2016, signing his four-year extension and starting 81 games in 2017-18. McCollum has overcome those injuries, however, to put up more than respectable numbers on the way to a nice individual career despite the success of Lillard.

Denver’s only hope is staying healthy and landing rings if they want to jockey in front of Portland for Western Conference supremacy. A task that has yet to be accomplished in the Mile High City.

Leave it to the combination of Murray and Porter Jr. to do what has never been done and topple the legacy and standard Lillard and McCollum set. The Nuggets are hankering to see Murray and Porter Jr. together in 2022 and recent rumors sound positive that both will return to the court before year’s end, a luxury Portland no longer has after the news of McCollum being traded to New Orleans.

The bar has been set high, but maybe Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. can be historic.

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