DENVER • Here’s what usually happens when I give the Nuggets front office free advice: They’re all nice people, so they nod, smile, feign interest in…then go out and do something else.
Hey, at least they spoil us little people.
But Wednesday was different. Nugget decision-makers were distracted for other reasons, and good ones. When I gave Assistant General Manager Tommy Balcetis a (free!) list of players to draft next year’s Nuggets, a beautiful sight of basketball unfolded right in front of him.
Jamal Murray flew through an exhausting workout at full speed, shirt soaked in sweat. Yes, that Jamal Murray. yes fly Yes, he looked as great as one could hope. three-point bombs. Turnaround jumper. Dives both knees, even the surgically repaired left one.
“He’ll be better than ever,” promised Balcetis.
A day earlier, Murray played “probably the most serious 5-on-5 he’s played since he tore his ACL at the Golden State all those (15) months ago,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said afterwards.
You never know what you might find in the ball arena these days. One day it will be the Stanley Cup. Next up are Nikola Jokic’s nuggets, mercifully happily coming whole again.
Fingers crossed because a playoff wins two MVP Joker seasons won’t cut it anymore.
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Murray is about 95% healthy, a team source estimates. Michael Porter Jr. and his butt are about 80% healthy and have three months to close the gap. One of MPJ’s brothers, Jontay, is on the Denver Summer League team.
“He and I played 1v1 and 3v3 every day,” Jontay promised.
That’s a lot of promises, and the NBA offseasons are full of promises, some of which are actually coming true.
But here’s a promise for Nuggets fans who want what Avalanche fans have: I really like what GM Calvin Booth, Balcetis, and the Nuggets front office have been up to this offseason. OK, signing DeAndre Jordan is weird. But everything else: two thumbs up.
They started by giving Joker the richest deal in NBA history, $264 million. Recognizing their weakness, they called on defense attorneys Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a film student, so he and Murray should hit it off) and Bruce Brown (“our boys will love him,” Balcetis promised). They drafted a sure thing (Kansas competitor Christian Braun) and a project (UCLA wing Peyton Watson). Braun won three high school state championships and one national championship in Kansas, and Malone will play him a lot.
“Did you often watch him?” asked Balcetis.
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Yes, that’s why I always give you free advice. The entire Big 12 hated Braun, and this offseason was all about finding nuggets that the entire NBA can also hate against.
“He has a chance to play for us next year,” Malone said, a rarity for rookies.
What this Nuggets off-season has also shown is that friendships don’t get in the way of business. Will Barton’s name is still number 1 on the Most 3 Pointers plaque in the practice hall. The thrill is gone. Monte Morris was a consistent leader and another of Malone’s favorites. He’s gone too. Loyalty was a hallmark of Nuggets, but sentimentality was stale. With Tim Connelly getting a well-deserved raise in Minnesota, Booth is No. 1 and Balcetis is No. 2 on the Nuggets’ totem pole.
Her summer mission, Balcetis said, “We’ve gotten tougher, meaner and more defensive. And that was the emphasis. We want to surround Nikola and our core with as many hard-nosed, defensive-minded players as possible.”
These supplementary parts, the role players, are upgrades. They also distract from the elephant in the gym: the Nuggets don’t have a chance to run with the Warriors, Clippers or Suns when Murray and Porter hobble around.
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Porter is the most important player in the NBA and you can’t convince me otherwise. If the 24-year-old is healthy enough to hit 19 points a game like he did two seasons ago, the Nuggets are good enough to play around in the Conference Finals. When MPJ’s working around with a bad back, they’re not. Quite easy.
The Nuggets have 145 million reasons to pray he’s a healthy MPJ and not a limping MPJ. It’s hard for me to see how multiple back surgeries can end well, but there’s a first time for everything.
As Malone said on Wednesday, “We hung a couple of divisional banners. Now we want to hang a much bigger and more important banner.”