As strange and often depressing as 2020 was, there were some high points; an improved car buying experience, flexible Zoom meetings, more family time and Tiger King. Ok that last one might be more of a low point but you know you were hooked. As a sports fan, the highest point for some was the NBA Bubble inside Walt Disney World. Taking out the travel and making everything super convenient for the players apparently produces some great basketball, offensively that is. The 22 teams that made it to Orlando for the modified season produced and average of 113.17 points per 100 possessions. Before the season was suspended in March, that point average was 111.9, so it’s safe to say the bubble made scoring just a little bit easier. Was it due to no REAL fans? Convenience of not having to get on a plane for the next game? Or simply getting a few months off before the final 8 games and playoffs? Who really knows but in the end, we witnessed some miraculous moments that will be remembered for a very long time.
The Nuggets, for one, did something no other NBA team has ever done; They came back to win two series’ after being down 3-1. Those unlikely comebacks had the NBA talking and not just about the wins, but the fact that the Nuggets seemed to have more than just one superstar. Two time All Star, Nikola Jokic was already becoming a top player in the league but it was Jamal Murray that had NBA fans, reporters and players in awe. With two 50 point games in the first round against the Jazz, the Blue Arrow became an instant celebrity. He was vocal about social justice issues and was often emotional in speaking about the sensitive topic after winning big games against both Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets had two mega stars and they had their eye on the franchises first NBA Championship. Ultimately, Murray and the Mile High Crew came back down to Earth after losing 4-1 to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals but even Denver’s toughest critics had no choice but to admire what the team achieved inside the bubble. NBA.com had the Nuggets as the second best team in the league before the 2020/21 season began. Expectations were sky high for the organization but specifically for the Joker and the Arrow. Fast forward to over a dozen games played in the new season and one star has delivered while the other fades further and further into mediocrity.
The Nuggets are 7-7 with a huge road trip coming up against the Suns, Mavericks, Heat and Spurs. Jokic is averaging a triple double and is in early MVP talks while Murray is one of the most inconsistent “stars” in the league. Like we saw in the bubble, Murray can light it up on occasion and even flashes glimpses of MJ or Kobe: Key word, glimpses. At his best he could rival Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Steph Curry, but at his worst he’s just an average player. The bubble made him famous but if you were paying attention, his inconsistencies in Orlando shouldn’t come as a shock. His highs were magical. With point totals like 36, 50, 42 and 50 not many would argue with you if you said he was the best player in the playoffs. However, there were also the 14, 12, 17 and 18 point nights that were swept under the rug. Currently, he’s averaging 19 points per game but for a guy with his expectations and the fact it’s his fifth year in the league, the Nuggets need more. Unlike Jokic, Murray isn’t adding stats outside of points like assists and boards. A point guard that only averages 4 assists per game needs to be a 25 point guy. The other issue is that we aren’t seeing the highs we saw in the bubble. With only 2 games over 30 points and 6 under 20, I’m not sure many would label him a superstar. It’s early. I still think he has the ability to be a top guard in the NBA but 5 years in, I am doubting his ability to become the consistent star Denver will need to to take the next step. It’s worth noting that his health is a bit of a concern but he’s able to play 34 minutes per game so whatever it is, isn’t bad enough to miss games….yet. Either way, healthy or unhealthy, I have major concerns about his superstar status.
Murray’s instant fame blinded us to the fact that he is still a very inconsistent player and now that life outside the bubble hasn’t treated the Blue Arrow so well, the Nuggets might be forced to look to the young offensive weapon in Michael Porter Jr. as the next emerging star. He’s been out nearly a month due to Covid related issues but is expected to join Denver on their next road trip. Before being sidelined, MPJ averaged 19 points and 7 rebounds per game and adding 30 against the Kings last time out. His defense is bad, really bad. Often times he simply looks lost out there but his quick scoring ability and rebounding skills forces Head Coach Mike Malone to keep him on the floor. IF he can even become and average to slightly below average defender, he could be a lethal baller and here’s the best part; He’s 22! The talk of the offseason by the coaching staff was whether or not MPJ could take his game to the next level. After losing a few key players like Jerami Grant and a relatively quiet offseason, the hopes were that Porter would take the leap and that would essentially be the biggest “move” in the offseason. But for now, we are stuck in limbo. He’s played 4 games so far in this prove it type year. It’s like his season hasn’t even started and because of that, we still have yet to answer any of the big questions surrounding him. However, we’ve seen big moments from the young forward that should give the coaching staff a lot of hope going forward. Murray wasn’t dropping too many 30 point games in his first 2 seasons. In fact, he’s never averaged more than 20 points per game. I’m not saying Murray’s time in Denver should be limited. He will be a big part going forward but more like Will Barton and Gary Harris. But if the Nuggets want to get past the Lakers and win their first title, they must look to Porter as the Robin to Jokic’s Batman. Or is it the Riddler to the Joker? Nicknames are confusing.