Jamal Murray's star is still rising.
At least that's what the Denver Nuggets were banking on when they handed their then 22-year-old sidekick a brand new five-year max deal prior to the start of the season and on the heels of a head-turning playoff debut during which Murray showed signs of improvement from one series to the next.
ALL OF THE LATEST UPDATES ON THE SEASON RETURNING
First came the season-saving performance in which Murray transformed into a scorching inferno in the 4th quarter to avoid a 2-0 hole in the first round against the Spurs. Then came several standout performances against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in a crucible of a seven-game series in the Conference Semifinals.
The max deal made sense. 22-year-old deadeye shooters who can unload off the bounce in either direction, execute pick and rolls in any number of situations and can thrive with or without the ball don't grow on trees and they certainly don't last until the nether reaches of the draft which is where Denver will be picking for the foreseeable future.
Acting in good faith and trusting the continued development of foundational pieces - not to mention demonstrating to franchise superstar Nikola Jokic a willingness to invest in success - builds good will and represents the behavior expected of any organization on the precipice of legitimate title contention.
And then the regular season happened and that progress on display in the playoffs never fully materialized even if Murray himself is ready to declare the Nuggets ready.
Nuggets star Jamal Murray: "We know we can go win the title."- Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) June 10, 2020
Denver Pres Tim Connelly on Nikola Jokic: "Jokic: "He sent me a picture. No shirt on. He's got abs. I've never seen him have abs before."
How for real are the Nuggets going to be in Orlando? Legit title contenders? pic.twitter.com/Vw2IXf6E2u
Nothing went wrong, per se. Murray delivered a solid season and avoided the regression so many teams fear when handing out those massive deals to young players. Those deals which do backfire, like the one Minnesota handed out to Andrew Wiggins, can set an organization back years.
MORE: What's next for Wiggins?
But even though Murray didn't stall out in the way that Wiggins once did, his star trajectory appeared to plauteau with the Canadian's fourth season looking awfully similar to his third. Aside from slightly more consistent play, absent were any of the markers typically associated with young perimeter stars taking the leap.
There was no uptick in scoring. His shooting profile - both in terms of shot location and efficiency - remained unchanged. He didn't get to the line more often. He didn't reduce his turnovers or increase his assists. There weren't noticeable strides on the defensive end.
In a league in which star clusters have become the norm and almost a pre-requisite for winning a championship, Murray's star simply doesn't emit light on par with the league's other top sidekicks.
That's even the case when given the opportunity to shine free from the bright light originating from Jokic.
In the nearly 300 minutes he played without Jokic this season - a relatively small sample size to make any broad strokes about effectiveness yet large enough to draw some stylistic conclusions - Murray's offensive aggression hardly changes than when compared to the time spent alongside the Serbian centre.
|Jokic On Floor||Jokic Off Floor|
When accounting for the dramatic hike in pace that happens in Denver whenever Murray plays without Jokic, he actually shoots less on a per-possession basis.
Those are the opportunities when Murray should stick out. While there's no question that Murray complements Jokic perfectly, there exists some trepidation about Murray's ability to elevate his game when tasked with a larger load. Great sidekicks not only have complementary responsibility but the game and moxy to dictate the terms of engagement when called upon.
MORE: Where do the Nuggets sit among title contenders?
Murray saw it firsthand when McCollum - not Lillard - took over in Games 6 and 7 of last year's series between Portland and Denver.
When comparing Murray's aggression sans Jokic to that of other noticeable second bananas minus there star teammates, a picture begins to materialize of a player that's not yet comfortable in his role.
Here are a usage rates of players this season when playing without their more accomplished running mate along with how much of an increase there is over playing together. Most shoulder sizably bigger loads with some like McCollum or Khris Middleton soaring to new heights. All of the numbers displayed are for the entire season with the exception of Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum which is since January 1 to account for Tatum's mid-season emergence as Boston's new number one option.
The only two comparable to Murray - Bam Adebayo and Ben Simmons - aren't natural scorers nor players tasked with carrying the scoring burden.
So what does this all mean moving forward?
Although they've already committed to Murray, Denver should view the coming months as somewhat of a litmus test about his role long-term.
MORE: What's at stake for LeBron, Giannis, Jokic and every other star?
Is he still destined to become that second star for a title contender? Or is he better suited as a third or even fourth option, perhaps slotting in behind Michael Porter Jr. whose star potential looms large?
Murray is young enough and good enough that he should figure into Denver's plans regardless of what transpires in Denver. But his play - and overall aggression - should provide clarity about just how far the Nuggets have to go before they're truly ready to join the ruling class.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.