Nobody thought the Denver Nuggets could overcome the loss of Jamal Murray. And by “overcome,” we meant “win the West” or “win an NBA title” this year. Compounding the loss of Murray was the fact that key guards P.J. Dozier and Will Barton were also hurt.
No guards, no title run. It was as simple as that.
Not so fast.
The picture looks significantly different now than it did heading into the postseason. Look no further than the first round, where the Nuggets would face off against one of – if not the – most dynamic guard duos in the entire NBA. How could the Nuggets ever compete without three of their top guards, much less the one they rode all the way to the Western Conference Finals in the Bubble?
Well, the “how” has been addressed: Austin Rivers, Facu Compazzo and Monte Morris.
As good as Jamal Murray is, and was in the Bubble, the dropoff has been far less significant than anyone could imagine. And in some aspects of the game, the Nugget might even be better.
Compazzo, who served as the starting point guard throughout the series against Portland, brings an edge. He gets under the opposition’s skin early, pushes the pace early, makes opposing guards work on both ends of the floor. And perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t need to score, and doesn’t need the minutes. In fact, of the three, and despite the fact Compazzo is the starter, he’s logging fewer minutes that Morris or Rivers. Compazzo’s contributions come in short bursts; he plays a role the Nuggets didn’t have last season.
Morris could start on most teams in the NBA. He’s an extremely polished point guard, backup or not. His 22 points in the decisive Game 6 were efficient and timely; his nine assists cannot be overstated, either. He’s a pro’s pro who – up until now – has provided an excellent backup. Now, he’s just transitioning into a little more.
And then there’s Rivers.
Where did this guy come from? The obvious and correct answer is “the scrap heap.” But how did so many NBA teams miss on guard of Rivers’ caliber? Tactically, Rivers adds physicality and size on defense and clutch shooting on offense. Against Portland, he shot an incredible .478 from the field and an even better .484 from three-point range. But perhaps beyond his defensive prowess and offensive efficiency, Rivers adds something else the Nuggets didn’t have prior to last season – playoff experience.
To point, since 2015, Rivers has now participated in nine postseason series. Since 2015, he’s only missed the playoffs once (2018). Over the course of nine playoff series, Rivers has averaged almost 22 minutes and 8 points. On those teams (the Clippers and the Rockets), Rivers was not a featured player within the gameplan, but when Denver has asked him to play a prominent role, he’s stepped up in a major way, bringing ability, savvy and experience to the position that was seemingly a void on the roster heading into the playoffs.
Like Portland, the Nuggets next round opponent, Phoenix, has a dynamic backcourt. With Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns offer a similar set of challenges – but also challenges the Nuggets trio of backup guards met successfully against the Trailblazers. Sure, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were exceptional, but the Nuggets guards were good enough.
And with the league MVP in Nikola Jokic, and the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets guards only need to be good enough.
Make no mistake, the Nuggets strengths and advantages will always be at the center position, and, to a lesser degree, with whoever has to matchup against Porter Jr. So long as the Nuggets backcourt keeps the train on the tracks, good things can happen.
Besides, the loss of Murray, while bad, looks no worse than some of the other key losses around the playoffs. The Lakers were clearly not the Lakers with a slowed-down LeBron James and an oft-injured Anthony Davis. On the Eastern side of the bracket, the Big Three in Brooklyn appears to have just become the “Big Two,” as James Harden has reaggravated the hamstring that kept him out for much of the season.
A month ago, if someone suggested the Nuggets path to a title would go through Portland, Phoenix, and either the Jazz or Clippers – and maybe a James Harden-less Nets team – wouldn’t you have liked those odds?
The Nuggets guards are better than you think. And because they are, a championship isn’t out of the question.