What does Jamal Murray‘s ACL tear mean for him, the Denver Nuggets and the Western Conference playoffs?
On Tuesday morning, an MRI confirmed what was feared as soon as Murray went down in pain late in Monday night’s loss to the Golden State Warriors: He suffered an ACL tear when his left knee buckled on the play, ending Murray’s season.
The injury comes just as the Nuggets, who had gone 7-2 since adding Aaron Gordon to their lineup via a deadline trade, were establishing themselves as contenders to win the Western Conference. How will Denver respond to the loss of its high-scoring young guard? And when can we expect to see Murray back on the court? Let’s break it down.
Monday night was Murray’s first game back in the lineup after missing four due to soreness in his opposite knee. During that stretch of home games, we saw that Denver can still be competitive without Murray. The Nuggets won the first three games against the Detroit Pistons followed by the San Antonio Spurs back to back before collapsing in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Boston Celtics.
At times, the Denver offense — ranked fourth in offensive rating over the course of the season — rolled along without Murray. In fact, the Nuggets’ 139.6 offensive rating against the Pistons was their best of the season according to NBA Advanced Stats. But without Murray around to stagger minutes with MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic and provide additional shot creation, Denver’s offense was far less consistent during that stretch, which also included their single lowest offensive rating of the season (92.6 vs. Boston) as well as another bottom-five offensive outing in their first win over San Antonio.
In practice, the Nuggets had struggled to score this season with Murray on the court and Jokic on the bench, posting a 100.3 offensive rating in those situations per NBA Advanced Stats. But playing Murray with reserves at least gave Denver some hope of scoring without Jokic as an offensive anchor, something that’s been an issue all season. During the four games Murray missed recently, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 30 points with Jokic on the court and were outscored by 21 in the 65 minutes that Jokic rested.
When Denver’s starters are on the court, replacing Murray with either Facundo Campazzo or Monte Morris — both of whom got starts in his recent absence — shifts everyone else in the lineup up a spot in the offensive pecking order. Neither Campazzo (13% usage rate) nor Morris (16%) is nearly as capable of creating his own offense as Murray (25%), whose 52.5% effective field goal percentage (eFG%) on self-created shots with more than two seconds of touch time ranked 25th among players with at least 250 such attempts, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
In particular, that’s likely to put more opportunities into the hands of Michael Porter Jr., who has had fewer self-created opportunities (they account for 150 of his 551 shots this season) but has been reasonably effective on them (51% eFG%). The Nuggets are probably better off funneling those chances to Porter than Will Barton, who’s taken more self-created shots (303) but with far weaker efficiency (45% eFG%).
Assuming the Nuggets can avoid additional major injuries, they’re still well positioned to have home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. Denver is currently a game up on the Los Angeles Lakers for the fourth seed in the West. Because the Lakers won’t get stars Anthony Davis and LeBron James back for the next week or two, FiveThirtyEight’s projections had the Nuggets finishing three games ahead in the standings before accounting for Murray’s injury.
Denver will benefit in that race from an easier schedule the rest of the way. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index rates the Nuggets’ remaining schedule 11th-hardest in the league, while the Lakers have the fourth-most-difficult remaining slate. As a result, a May 3 matchup between the teams at the Staples Center looms as something of a must-win for the Lakers to have a chance of closing the gap. That game will also determine the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Still, home-court advantage may not be sufficient if the Lakers and Nuggets end up facing each other in the first round and the Lakers are at full strength. BPI projected a Denver-Lakers series as the single most likely matchup in the opening round before accounting for the Murray injury, forecasting it in nearly half of simulations.
Murray’s absence would be keenly felt in a playoff series against the Lakers after he led the Nuggets in both scoring (25.0 PPG) and assists (7.4 APG) during last year’s Western Conference finals matchup between the teams.
If the Lakers slip out of the fifth seed, Denver’s chances of winning a series without Murray look better against either the Dallas Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. Still, in a year where the top five teams in the West had dramatically separated themselves from the pack in terms of point differential, the loss of Murray makes it unlikely the Nuggets can keep up with those other four teams and repeat last year’s run to the conference finals.
In many ways, the timing of Murray’s injury is reminiscent of Danilo Gallinari‘s ACL tear in April 2013. Back then, Denver was third in the West and eyeing a playoff run. Without Gallinari, the Nuggets were upset in the opening round by the Warriors. Because Gallinari initially attempted to rehab his ACL injury without reconstructive surgery before undergoing the typical ACL repair in January 2014, he missed the entire following season and Denver missed the playoffs.
The situation is unlikely to be so dramatic this time around, as the Nuggets also lost star Andre Iguodala to free agency in the summer of 2014 but have all their current core players under contract this time around. Still, Murray’s injury is likely to affect Denver well into next season.
At this point, the rehab timetable for an ACL injury should be considered a minimum of 11 months. No NBA player has returned from an ACL tear faster than 11 months since J.J. Hickson in November 2014, coincidentally also for the Nuggets. Should the NBA stick to its plan of returning the league’s schedule to its usual timetable in 2021-22, that would mean Murray missing at least the first 5.5 months of the season before potentially returning for the stretch run.
Looking ahead, Denver coach Michael Malone will be asked to build a team without Murray to play the majority of the regular season before reintegrating his star guard on the fly with the playoffs looming. Tricky as that might be, it would certainly be a welcome challenge compared to the prospect of trying to advance in this year’s playoffs without Murray.