For two years in a row, superstar center Nikola Jokic willed the Denver Nuggets into the Playoffs and each time, the team fell short. No one man can win a championship in the NBA without the assistance and cohesion of a full-group effort. Though these last two Playoff appearances may not tell the whole story, Denver’s front office has formed a title-contending lineup.
Guard play was an issue for the Nuggets last year, leaning heavily on career backups in Monte Morris and Austin Rivers to lead their efforts from the point guard position. Yet the return of Jokic’s running mate, Jamal Murray, and the ascension of sophomore sharpshooter Bones Hyland mark the beginning of a new era for the Denver Nuggets.
Guard play will be a differentiator for the Denver Nuggets down the stretch.
Although he’s currently sidelined in COVID-19 protocols, we’ve seen Murray begin returning to form in recent weeks. Coming off a torn ACL, Murray was a bit rusty in his first few games, but in the last eight games he’s appeared, Murray is averaging 19 points, 5.5 assists and nearly five rebounds per game. Although his at-rim finishing isn’t all the way back, Murray knocked down his 3-pointers efficiently at a 38.5% clip on a tick under five attempts per game in that span.
The 25-year-old is looking like his old self, cutting to the basket off-ball while creating his own jump shots with an array of dribble moves and step-backs in half-court sets. He’s moving the ball well around the court, competing on defense and hunting mismatches to create advantages for his team. That mentality is what’ll separate him in the long run, and in turn, put the Nuggets right back in the mix for an NBA title.
This backcourt revelation extends beyond Murray, also. We’re seeing the best of Hyland in his last seven games as he posted 21 points, 1.1 steal and four assists in only 26.6 minutes per game in that timeframe. Part of this can be attributed to an uptick in usage with teammates entering COVID-19 protocols, but it’s also a signal of how promising Hyland is as a late-first-round pick coming out of VCU.
One of the premiere sharpshooters in the NBA, Hyland nailed 30 triples in his last seven games at a stunning 49.2% clip. He’s at 45.7% on the season and not for a lack of trying — Hyland gets into his shot through his own creation by stopping on a dime in transition, stepping back, using screens and stepping into deep — and I mean deep — 3-point jumpers. That kind of gravity on the perimeter is a godsend in a Jokic-run offense. Not to mention the fact that he’s a willing and able slasher who uses his pivot foot and timing to create runners and layups near the basket.
Denver stands at fourth in the Western Conference, but not for a lack of trying. As all of their players return to the lineup, including several who are on the mend from long-term injuries, and some of the new role players are worked into the system, the Nuggets are in line for a surge to the top of the standings. They only trail the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz (?!?!) by one game and are in a three-way tie with two more ailing teams, the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns, for the No. 2 seed.
Having dynamic scoring guards on the perimeter will surely give this team a new dimension that puts them in the conversation for the Western Conference favorite, if not a legitimate NBA Finals contender.