Nuggets' Jamal Murray is shaping up to be biggest X-factor in loaded Western Conference

Nuggets' Jamal Murray is shaping up to be biggest X-factor in loaded Western Conference

Don’t look now, but the Nuggets stand atop the Western Conference and are looking like a contender once again.

The majority of the credit goes to reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who has not taken his foot off the gas. Nearly averaging a triple-double of 24.7 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.2 rebounds per game, the 27-year-old simply refuses to leave the MVP conversation regardless of the lack of attention he receives from the media at times.

Only three players in NBA history have won three-straight MVP awards: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird. Jokic is starting to present the opportunity of becoming the fourth, a feat that would immediately place him among the greatest players to ever play the game, even if he’s already well on his way.

But as we saw in each of the past two postseasons, no matter how dominant Jokic is, he won’t be able to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship without a little bit of help.

Enter Jamal Murray, the 25-year-old rising star who has fallen into the background after missing all of last year as he recovered from a torn left ACL suffered during the homestretch of the 2020-21 season.

MORE: Ranking the 30 best players in the NBA this season: Where did Jokic land?

Jamal Murray 12222022

(NBA Getty Images)

Calling Murray a vital piece of the Nuggets’ run to the Western Conference Finals in 2020 feels like an understatement. Denver simply would not have reached that level for the first time in over a decade if Murray didn’t catch fire the way that he did.

For those who need a reminder, Murray put together one of the greatest individual playoff-scoring runs in NBA history in the bubble. Take a look at a handful of his notable achievements, courtesy of The Sporting News’ Scott Rafferty’s story on Murray’s playoff hot streak back in 2020:

  • Murray joined Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Donovan Mitchell as the only players in NBA history with multiple 50-point games in the same series. (And remember, Mitchell did it as Murray’s opponent in the same series.)
  • Murray joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only two players in NBA history (!) to score 50 points in an elimination game, going for 50 in Game 6 against the Jazz with the Nuggets trailing 3-2.
  • Murray became the first player since Michael Jordan in 1993 to have three straight 40-point games in the playoffs.
  • Murray became the second-youngest player in NBA history (23 years, 205 days old) to score 40 points in a Game 7. Only LeBron James (23 years, 140 days old) has reached the 40-point threshold in a Game 7 at a younger age, going for 45 against the Celtics in the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
  • Murray became the first player ever (!) to score 40 points in three elimination games in the same playoffs.

The Nuggets’ run came up short, falling to the eventual champion Lakers in five games in the Conference Finals, but you could tell the pieces were in place for this team to contend for years to come — until, of course, injuries hit.

Without Murray in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, Jokic was able to carry Denver through the first round but it suffered a four-game sweep in the Conference Semifinals. Without Murray once again and Michael Porter Jr. in the 2022 NBA Playoffs, the Nuggets were “gentlemen’s swept” out of the first round by the eventual champion Warriors.

Jokic’s numbers were out of this world in each of those two postseasons, but without another go-to scorer with Murray’s killer instinct, Denver hasn’t had the juice to make another deep playoff run.

With a full season to shake off the rust and get himself right before the real fun begins, can Murray return to the player we saw back in 2020?

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How has Jamal Murray played this season?

Murray’s ACL rehabilitation process lasted over 500 days before he was able to take the court again. The floor general finally made his return on Denver’s opening night for the 2022-23 season and, 25 games in, we’re slowly starting to see him get comfortable on the floor again.

Murray is only averaging 17.5 points, but his 5.4 assists per game are a career-high. His .437/.338/.765 shooting splits and 52.8 true shooting percentage are the worst of his career since his rookie season, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise as he tries to regain confidence in his knee and gets back into a rhythm as a shooter.

As you would expect for a player who relies so much on his burst and acrobatic athleticism to finish at the rim, Murray’s efficiency is down in the restricted area compared to before his knee injury. His pull-up jumper, which is his most lethal weapon, is falling at a similar rate, but his catch-and-shoot numbers are way down compared to pre-injury.

Comparing Jamal Murray’s numbers pre- and post-injury
2020-21FG%2022-23
71.8Restricted Area64.7
42.9Pull-up 2s44.2
39.1Pull-up 3s39.5
43.9Catch-and-shoot 3s26.8

In regards to scoring in the restricted area, part of it is likely readjusting to how his knee feels, while the other part is simply regaining his elite touch around the rim.

Drives like this that are ending in misses so far this season:

Used to always end in a “how did he finish that?”-type make:

When it comes to his catch-and-shoot numbers, Nuggets fans shouldn’t be too worried. As Murray gains more game-speed reps, it’s hard to imagine a shooter of his caliber won’t start knocking them down at a much higher clip than we’ve seen so far.

He’s had a few misses in big spots:

That we had seen him make time and time again before his injury:

With an MVP in Jokic leading the way, the Nuggets will be a playoff team regardless of how Murray performs. That should take a lot of pressure off of the 25-year-old, allowing him to treat the regular season as a seven-month tune-up to get himself primed for these big moments in the playoffs.

Jokic did have this to say about Murray before his season debut after all: “I love to play with him, of course. I know he’s gonna be really bad for the next 20 games, but we’re gonna survive,” Jokic said.

If Murray can get back to his 2020 form this postseason, he instantly becomes the biggest X-factor in the Western Conference Playoffs as the Nuggets look to win their first NBA championship in franchise history.