Dreams of the underdog Denver Nuggets winning the franchise's first-ever NBA championship this season were dashed in the instance of rising star Jamal Murray's torn left ACL late Monday night. They must hope now the window did not close forever in the final minute of a game the Golden State Warriors had in hand.
Murray's knee carried not just the promise of superstardom, but the weight of a mid-market team's title hopes. It was all heartbreakingly on display as he writhed in pain under the visitors' basket at Chase Center.
This is the tragic nature of basketball in a non-destination NBA city. Everything is fleeting.
Winning is hard, especially in Denver, where the Nuggets have never reached the mountaintop. They have done everything right in the decade since Carmelo Anthony took with him their last long-shot title hopes to New York, even miraculously discovering Nikola Jokic, a bona fide MVP favorite, with the 41st pick in 2014. Around Jokic, the front office carefully constructed Denver's most talented and complementary roster yet.
Key to that was Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Tim Connelly's faith in Murray as a worthy Goose to Jokic's Maverick. Murray has been held from trade talks for a slew of superstars, most recently James Harden, and the 24-year-old has rewarded Denver with growth sustained by unmatched work ethic and self-assurance. Both he and the Nuggets were knocking on the doorstep of true greatness as a result.
Anyone who saw Murray eclipse 40 points three times in a pair of 3-1 playoff series comebacks en route to the Western Conference finals last season could see clearly Denver's potential is intertwined with his. A win-now trade for the Orlando Magic's Aaron Gordon at the March deadline reflected an organizational belief in their championship ceiling. Denver's expected playoff starting lineup, featuring Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton alongside Jokic, Murray and Gordon, had outscored opponents by 43 points in 110 minutes together when Murray's left knee buckled underneath him at the tail end of their first loss as a unit.
That Murray was, at the time of his knee injury, embodying the perseverance that has defined his rise — careening through a crowd of Warriors, trying to will an unlikely victory — is all the more heart-wrenching.
Never had Denver's path to a title seemed so clear. The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, contenders built overnight in major media markets on the whims of superstars, have been made vulnerable by injuries. All other challengers are less proven than Jokic and Murray, whose five seasons together are marked most by incremental improvement. The conference finals was meant to be the latest stepping-stone, not a peak.
Shortened seasons reveal a history of unlikely playoff results, and the Nuggets as champions would have fit that bill. Except, the same reasons this season might yield an anomalous champion may also be the cause of Denver's downfall. Murray's knees cost him a game for the first time in his young career when he was ruled out with soreness on his left side on Feb. 6. He played the next 27 games without interruption, until soreness in his right knee kept him from the four games prior to Monday. He lasted just 33 minutes more.
The Nuggets' championship odds this season nearly doubled to one in 30 following news of Murray's injury, per BetMGM, landing between disappointing Eastern Conference also-rans in Boston and Miami. It is a testament to how vital he was to Denver's playoff aspirations. Backups Facundo Campazzo and Monte Morris may mirror Murray's competitiveness and savviness, but neither comes close to matching his talent.
There is hope this is a momentary setback. ACL tears are not necessarily the career-altering injuries they once were, although Derrick Rose might disagree. Jokic and Murray seem like the sort of stars who could repay Denver's loyalty with commitments beyond their current max contracts (respectively expiring in 2023 and 2025), and if that's the case, the Nuggets should contend for years to come, especially if Porter reaches his considerable potential. Connelly has shown the ability to consistently supply them with quality depth.
But ask any homegrown superstar how hard it is to win when his city does not afford free agents the same luxuries as its coastal counterparts. You may just get the one shot, and lost opportunities are felt multifold.
Barton and Paul Millsap can be free agents at season's end. Losing either would be a blow to Denver's depth. Next season is expected to begin in October, when Murray will still be months from full strength. Whether or not he and the Nuggets return to peak form by the 2022 playoffs could impact Gordon's desire to stay when his deal expires after that season. He cost the front office a 2025 first-round pick and R.J. Hampton, who they spent a 2023 first-rounder to acquire in last year's draft, limiting the future asset cache.
All of a sudden, Denver could be staring down the final year of Jokic's deal in 2022-23 with diminished returns, and the half-life of everything the Nuggets built will be encapsulated by the brace on Murray's left knee. This is the wretched pain that reverberates throughout the basketball world when a rising star falls.
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