DENVER (AP) — Late-season footage was a source of confusion: Jamal Murray taking the court before games and diving into a surgically repaired knee. Nearby, Michael Porter Jr. launches his smooth long-range jump shot after spinal surgery.
They painted a picture of the talented Denver Nuggets tandem about to return to action. But the stark reality was that they were nowhere near meeting MVP Nikola Jokic on the court.
Not physically. Not mentally. Not contending on the playoff stage as the Nuggets were eliminated by Golden State in five games.
Now, they have a whole summer to fully heal (Murray from the ACL tear he suffered last April and Porter from another back surgery) and get this team back to where they envisioned it.
“We can be the best team in the NBA,” Porter said Friday, “when we have everyone healthy.”
It was painful for Murray and Porter to watch from the bench down the stretch and into the postseason.
Murray estimated that he was 85% back to his best. Sure, he could spike, shoot and drive. But it was the other basketball situations that worried him, like guarding, say, Stephen Curry, rebounding, going through screens or diving for fumbles.
For Porter, he said maybe he could have played: “On one leg and standing in the corner and shooting 3s,” he joked. “Would he have been at my best? I definitely would not have been at my best. At that point, it’s just thinking long term versus short term.”
The Nuggets understood. They floated the idea of a comeback down the stretch or in the playoffs simply to give them the option when they felt ready.
“When there’s an injury, the player has to have the loudest voice,” Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly explained.
Murray listened to his knee and how it felt, even if he was cleared to return. He also heard it from angry fans about being left out. They wondered why he couldn’t speak. He even took to social media to defend himself.
“They hear the word ‘sure,’ and say, ‘Why aren’t you playing?’” said Murray, who came to prominence as the Nuggets advanced to the 2020 Western Conference finals inside the Orlando bubble. “I have some really good days, or no pain, and I feel like I can go. Then you have the day right after that, where it’s like… it’s not here yet.
“Those good days I am on my high horse and I really look forward to the future. But after those slow days, it’s hard to see the future after that. It’s hard to plan and tell you how good I am. Uncertainty is tough when you’re not sure how your body is going to react.”
The same thing happened with Porter, who had surgery at the University of Missouri and returned later in the season for the 2018 NCAA Tournament with “40 or 50% of myself,” he recounted.
“I don’t think that was the smartest thing to do looking back,” Porter added. “So I try to learn from that experience and play the game for the long haul.”
Porter played in nine games this season. He had a setback in March, trying to rush his rehab too quickly, and decided to go back to the drawing board. He revamped his biomechanics and the way he moves on the court to address what may be causing his back problems.
“We can be the best team in the NBA … when we have everyone healthy.”
—Michael Porter Jr.
“I’m trying to be very careful and very mindful of how I approach this rehab process because, for me, it’s just about being healthy,” Porter said. “I think I can take off from there and string together a long time of being healthy together.”
Porter had a confidant while he healed: Murray.
And vice versa.
They became close as they went through rehab, a bond they said could carry over to court next season.
By staying out, Porter and Murray were also able to see what is needed of them when they return.
“When you’re in it, you’re so focused on what you can do,” Murray said. “But when you sit back and watch the whole season, and they have to play a different way, it’s like, ‘OK, well, I see where I can step in and really make it easier for everybody.’”
Murray knows the ideal acquisition to take the Nuggets to another level next season.
“A health button,” Murray joked. “A big red button.”