‘He’s not close to playing,’ Despite Denver’s need for him, Murray remains out

Jamal Murray on the bench Sunday night in the loss to the Celtics. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing USA TODAY Sports.
Jamal Murray on the bench Sunday night in the loss to the Celtics. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing USA TODAY Sports.

The uncertainty surrounding Jamal Murray’s return to the Denver Nuggets continues to increase by the day.

A month or two ago, every sign pointed towards Murray’s recovery from his ACL tear in his left knee going as well as anyone could have hoped. He progressed all the way up to cutting and exploding off of his previously injured and now surgically reconstructed left leg. Before home games, Murray would even warm up in front of fans who arrived to the arena early with a giant smile on his face as he got closer to playing the game he loves at the highest level possible.

During his workouts, Murray would mix in finishes around the rim while jumping off each leg individually which displayed his returning balance and athleticism as well as the mental strength to trust in his leg. Murray would also work in quite a bit of 3-point shooting. The drills he would run through were 3-point shots off movement and off the catch while also moving to his left and his right so as to use both of his legs equally. Murray would expand into more option-based drills, utilizing player-development coaches as screeners and defenders in order to try and replicate live reads with and without the ball in his hands. As everyone does, Murray would cool down from his workout with free throw shooting and sometimes even a dunk or two.

Overall, it was a very standard warm up for most NBA guards, but for Murray who has been out exactly 11 months since tearing his ACL as of Sunday night, it proved to everyone who watched him get shots up that he was nearing a return; hopefully in time to help the Nuggets make a run in the playoffs.

Now? Murray has seemingly been stuck in a holding pattern. He recently returned from Grand Rapids where he took part in practices with the Gold; the Nuggets G-League team. During his time in Michigan, everything went well, but when he returned to Denver, he was and is still not ready to play live NBA minutes.

Murray did take part in some four-on-four work and live basketball activities with the Gold, which is encouraging, but there was little optimism conveyed by Nuggets head coach Michael Malone when he has been asked about Murray’s time in the G-League.

“I don’t have a definitive plan of what is next for Jamal. He’s not close to playing in any of our games, I can say that,” Malone clearly stated before taking on the Boston Celtics at home on Sunday night. “Will he play in any of the last 11 games? That remains to be seen.”

Malone has stayed consistent in his answers; Murray is not ready to play and is frankly not close to being ready. Denver has no intention of rushing him back onto the floor and, in order to keep the pressure on Murray as low as possible, Malone has preached caution to anyone who asks about the Nuggets starting point guard possibly returning to the court. His message has been the same no matter what: When Murray is ready, he will play. Until then he will not play.

That is why there is not much in terms of a plan to get Murray back on the court. No one truly has a clear indication when that could be so everything is being taken on a day-by-day basis.

“To be honest, not really,” Malone answered when asked if there was a clear plan to get Murray back on the court. “You know, he had the two days in Grand Rapids. There’s a chance he could go back there for another practice block. We’ll see when it kind of approaches.”

It appears that the Nuggets are in the same holding pattern Murray is in. They will continue to monitor Murray’s rehabilitation and, if he is able to play, they will play him. It is really that simple.

So, the next steps for Murray are to possibly head back to Grand Rapids for a second stint with the Gold in order to further test how his knee will react to live basketball activities. If that time in Michigan goes well, Denver will add that data to their decision making process and go from there.

Being that we have no indication when Murray could return, where is the line? What is the date that the Nuggets would decide that it is simply too late in the season to bring Murray back?

“A few games ago, Stan Van Gundy asked me the same question. It’s a valid question, one that I just don’t have an answer to,” Malone said when asked if there was a date that the Nuggets would shut down Michael Porter Jr. and/or Murray. “We understand what’s going on in the West, how tight it is. Teams behind us, teams in front of us. Every game matters. That’s why the Cleveland game was so disappointing to lose. We’ll see if there’s a point of no return in these final 11 games. As of right now, that has not been discussed or determined when that would be.”

Bringing back a competitor of Murray’s caliber after nearly a year without NBA basketball as Denver fights to avoid the play-in tournament is a terrifying proposition for the Nuggets. Slowly working Murray back to full strength suddenly becomes a task that seems virtually impossible. There is no way to ask Murray to slowly work his way back with the stakes so high. He already only knows how to play all-out, but that is only heightened the closer the postseason is.

That means Murray will more-than-likely need to have some regular season run before being thrown into postseason play. Additionally, Denver fell into the seventh seed after losing to the Celtics on Sunday night so the stakes just got even higher. Now, they are slotted in to participate in the play-in tournament with their playoff lives on the line. With only 10 games left now that the Nuggets have lost to the Celtics, time is running out quickly if they want to capitalize on Jokic’s MVP caliber season. His odds are currently +170 according to FanDuel Sportsbook which is second in the league behind Joel Embiid.

“Will he play in any of the last 11 games? That remains to be seen,” Malone asked rhetorically before battling with Boston at Ball Arena. “We will kind of approach it on a day-by-day basis. See where he’s at physically as well as mentally, and we will go from there.”

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