In recent weeks, Nikola Jokic has rightfully been all the rage, as he seems to raise his ceiling – and along with it, Nuggets fans’ hopes for the future – higher and higher every single time he sets foot on the court.
But it wasn’t too long ago that a different player had claimed the mantle as Denver’s most exciting player. After early season injuries temporarily sidelined both Gary Harris and Will Barton, Jamal Murray was thrust sooner than expected into a larger role, and erupted for a series of electrifying performances, in the process earning the NBA’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors for November, and quickly building a convincing case for legitimate star potential.
But the return of Harris and Barton spelled relegation to a deeper bench role for Murray, who despite being the only one of Denver’s three rookies to consistently crack the regular rotation, has seen his minutes drop from 24.1 per game in November to 18.9 in December, and 15.5 in January.
The question of how much playing time Murray should be getting is in many ways a microcosm of the broader debate over whether it would be best this season for the Nuggets to shoot for making the playoffs – where the realistic best case scenario is a likely four-and-out loss to the Warriors – or to remain in quasi-rebuilding mode for one more season, and prioritize youth development and obtaining a higher draft pick by trading or benching veterans over striving to be competitive in the short term.
I believe there are a lot of extremely valid arguments to be made on both sides of this dispute, and at any rate it is not my intention to relitigate it here. But suffice it to say that from Kroenke to Connelly to Malone and most of the players, the messaging out of the Pepsi Center has been consistent and clear: Whether or not it’s their ideal course of action, the Nuggets want to win games, and they want to meet their goal, oft-repeated since well before the start of the season, of making the playoffs.
In that context, Malone’s decision to scale back Murray’s minutes – which I’ve seen described on Twitter as insane, inexplicable, idiotic, and a host of other not-too-flattering adjective – can at the very least be said to have an objective logical justification:
Purely in terms of winning or losing games, the Nuggets have had more success when Murray has played fewer minutes.
In the 21 games in which Jamal Murray has played 18 or more minutes, the Nuggets have gone 7-14 (.333), compared to 10-9 (.526) when he played less than 18 minutes.
Now before you break out the tar and feathers, let me make it explicitly clear that I do not think Murry is the primary (or even secondary or tertiary) cause for this phenomenon, and I highly doubt Malone does, either. It has a lot, first and foremost, to do with Murray playing bigger minutes during the failed “Jurkic” Bosnian buddy ball experiment on the negative side, and on the positive how much Mudiay has benefited from his chemistry alongside Harris and Jokic in the starting lineup. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but the point is that much of it Murray should receive neither the blame or credit for.
What it really comes down to is the fact that over the last month, as Malone has finally unlocked the Nuggets offense by running it through Jokic as the sole center and primary facilitator, Murray has simply not been an integral part of the equation.
Should he be? Hell yes.
But as important as Murray’s development is, and as frustrating as it’s been for fans (and I count myself among them) who understandably want to see Murray be given more of a chance to shine, it is difficult, at least short term, to fault Malone for rolling with the approach that basically saved the entire season from skidding off the cliff.
Which is definitely not to say that Malone is beyond criticism, or that he hasn’t made mistakes, including some major ones. But I can empathize with the fact that he wants to win games, and he’s going with what has been working best so far.
But “so far” is only up to this point, and there is a lot of season left.
And going forward, while it may be understandable that developing Murray had to take a back seat to salvaging the season, one of Malone’s top priorities needs to be finding effective ways to create a larger role for Murray within the context of this newfound offense, and incorporate him more deeply into the fold.
One of the most compelling reasons for increasing Murray’s playing time is that, in contrast to the overall team performance which has been worse when Murray has played more, Jamal himself has played considerably better when given more burn:
As you can see, his scoring efficiency, outright scoring production, and on-court plus-minus all decline dramatically when he has played fewer minutes. Again, just as above it was important to caution that he not be blamed for the Nuggets losing more when he plays more minutes, the correlation between minutes and performance in the chart above does not necessarily point to a causal relationship. Murray could have just hit his freshman wall. Or he could thrive better in a more iso-oriented offensive mode which is inconsistent with the ball-sharing, ball-movement direction things have gone in with Jokic at the helm.
In other words, Murray may well have a hard time returning to his November magic even if the same kind of playing time comes his way.
But there are at least two reasons to be hopeful about all of this.
One is that Jamal Murray is a smart, adaptable player, and a student of the game. If Malone starts boosting his playing time and integrating him more thoroughly, I am confident he will be able to find ways be more effective and develop better chemistry in that context.
And the other is that Malone does appear to be genuinely concerned and excited about developing his young players, as evidenced by working to get Jokic on track, a process which included a very public admission of making a mistake in underestimating how adversely “Jurkic” would affect Jokic, and taking responsibility for it.
And so I think – and hope – what we will see as the season progresses, is now that the new offense is established, Malone will be looking for ways to increase opportunities for Murray, and to make his development a higher priority again even while keeping the focus on staying competitive.