DENVER — In a regular season where Michael Malone has had to use 26 different starting lineups due to injury and youth, he’s not looking to make any more significant changes to Denver’s rotation for the time being.
While rookie Jamal Murray has shown flashes of greatness throughout his rookie year and tell-tale signs and visions of Denver’s future at the position, it’s been veteran Jameer Nelson who’s steadied the Nuggets’ ship at point guard over the second half of the season.
Since Emmanuel Mudiay went down with a back injury in a Jan. 21 win over the Clippers, Nelson has averaged 10.1 points and 5.7 assists. The 35-year-old is shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three and only turning the ball over 1.5 times per game during that span. Nelson is also top-1o in the league on the season in three-point percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per NBA.com.
Nelson has had his fair share of ugly moments this year, like a poor end-of-game possession in his first start at point guard on Jan. 22 against the Timberwolves, but in reality, Nelson’s playing his best ball since the 12-year vet left Orlando following the 2013-14 season.
“What can you say about the guy?” Malone asked following a January road win in Phoenix. “Going into the season, who knows how much he’s going to play. We have all of these young guys, and because of injuries to Will (Barton) and Gary (Harris), he plays a lot…Jameer took advantage of the opportunity and I have to play him. He’s played that well.”
However, it’s hard to ignore Murray’s impact seemingly every time he steps on the court.
Murray injects life and energy into the game quicker than anyone else up and down Denver’s roster. The rookie plays the game at a different pace than most.
Murray is averaging a healthy 11.3 points on 43.3 percent shooting from the field and 35.5 percent from three in 21.1 minutes per game since he took over at backup point guard. He isn’t afraid to get up into opponents on defense and isn’t shy when looking for his shot on offense. Murray’s lifted Denver’s second unit up all year long.
But the extenuating circumstances of this regular season have delayed Murray’s ascent to the status of Denver’s starting point guard.
If this were a typical year, and the Western Conference’s eighth seed was set to come in at around 42 or 43 wins, the Nuggets would have been labeled as “sellers” well before the Feb. 23 trade deadline. There could have been more of an urgency to move Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler and Nelson might be in Cleveland, a team that was rumored to have interest in the point guard leading up to the deadline, trying to help LeBron James to a fourth NBA title.
The truth is that the low hanging fruit that was this year’s eighth seed pushed Denver into the playoff race quicker than anyone could have guessed. And right now, the Nuggets are on pace. Denver has a 60 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, a 20 percent spike after two impressive wins; at home Friday against Boston and in Sacremtno on the second night of a back-to-back Saturday in an arena and against a team that has given Malone and the Nuggets nightmares in the past.
The Nuggets are full speed ahead, for now, with their rotation as is.
“I have not gotten to that point yet,” Malone answered to a recent question of if he’s thought about starting Murray. “Obviously, with 18 games to go, we’ll see what happens in those 18 games. I think Jameer has earned the right to be our starter for the time being. He’s played well for us and that allows Jamal to come in the game with a guy like Will Barton, where the primary ballhandling responsibilities are not always on Jamal. I think it helps him having a guy like Will Barton, you can put the ball in Will’s hands at times as well as Jamal’s hands and Jamal doesn’t feel the full brunt of bringing the ball up the court getting us into the offense and also finding his shot.”
Presently speaking, there’s no need to shift Nelson’s role from starter to backup. He’s a valued rotation piece that’s going to have to come up big down the stretch in order for the Nuggets to hang onto the eighth seed. Nelson is also more consistent than Murray on a night-in-night-out basis. Murray may have higher peaks than Nelson, but he also comes with greater valleys.
Nelson is also a dominating and vital voice in Denver’s the locker room.
After Friday’s win over the Celtics, a chipper Nelson chimed in when Gary Harris was asked how he was able to limit Most Valuable Player candidate Isaiah Thomas to 21 points on 7-14 shooting, more than eight points lower than his season average.
“I guarded him for two possessions too!” Nelson joked.
It’s moments like that where Nelson proves his worth off the floor. He’s likely had to hold Denver’s locker room together at times this season as the Nuggets navigated through their fair share of distractions including Jusuf Nurkic and Kenneth Faried‘s displeasure with their respective backup roles and Wilson Chandler’s dissatisfaction with his ever-changing spot in the rotation.
It’s not worth knocking Denver’s locker room off its access and swapping Murray for Nelson. Not right now.
Yet, Murray’s glow has clearly captivated Malone, and who can blame him? The No. 7 overall pick in last summer’s draft will likely stay in his backup role, as long as Denver’s in the hunt for the eighth seed. Although Malone didn’t close the door on a change Saturday before the Nuggets topped Boston.
“I love that role for Jamal right now,” Malone said. “But 18 games to go, that can definitely change.”
It’s a difficult balance that Malone has had to teeter with all season, but Murray’s prowess on both ends of the floor is hard to ignore.
This season, Denver’s current starting lineup, featuring Nelson, Harris, Gallinari, Chandler and Nikola Jokic, has outscored opponents by eight points in 126 minutes. Swap Murray for Nelson and that five-man combination is a +29 in just 34 minutes across only four games.