The Woj bombs were coming fast and furious. Even before the NBA’s free-agency period officially got underway on Sunday afternoon, ESPN basketball reporter Adrian Wojnarowski was dropping big news on his Twitter feed.
Kevin Durant was signing with the Nets, joining Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan in Brooklyn. Kemba Walker was going to the Celtics, Jimmy Butler was taking his talents to South Beach and Al Horford was heading to the Sixers.
And it continued throughout the evening.
D’Angelo Russell was heading to the Warriors, J.J. Redick was moving to New Orleans and Bojan Bogdanovich was signing with the Jazz. Teams were transforming in real time, losing and adding pieces in a dizzying barrage of transactions that was changing the NBA landscape for this season and years to come.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets stood by and watched. Tim Connelly and Company were little more than observers as teams within their division made moves, the Western Conference power brokers swung for the fences and teams below them in the standings last season attempted to improve.
Rather than tweaking a roster than won 54 games in 2018-19 and earned the No. 2 seed in the postseason, Denver decided to keep the band together.
First, they exercised the team option on power forward Paul Millsap, bringing him back for one more season at $30 million. This was somewhat of a no-brainer, as Denver didn’t have a lot of options had they let the veteran hit the open market.
Horford got $109 million to sign with Philly, while Tobias Harris inked a five-year, $180 million deal with the Sixers; the Nuggets weren’t going to be fishing in those waters. Nor should they have been.
But then, Denver made the move that truly showed their hand. Late last night, it was reported that the team was offering a five-year, $170 million max contract to Jamal Murray. Clearly, the Nuggets were going all-in with their current core.
Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and now Murray are all under contract through the at least the next three seasons. All three were offered big contracts by Denver based on their potential, as the team tried to get ahead of the curve and secure their services before the price tag rose.
The strategy worked with Jokic, as the center received a five-year, $148 million max contract last offseason. He then went out and had his best year to date, earning first-team All-NBA honors.
The Nuggets are hoping the same thing happens with Murray, a player with plenty of upside and potential, but not a résumé that is worthy of an average salary of $34 million. That’s a lot of money for a player who’s never made an All-Star team.
Clearly, Denver is betting on Murray’s trajectory to continue. Last season, he averaged career highs in points (18.2), assists (4.8) and rebounds (4.2). And he was even better in the playoffs, upping his scoring to 21.3 points per game against the Spurs and Trail Blazers.
So there are plenty of reasons to believe it’s a good gamble on the Nuggets part. Murray has the potential to be an elite guard, a player who averages 20-plus points per night.
The numbers suggest that fact, as does the eye test. Anyone who has watched Denver during the past three seasons has seen the glimpses of greatness from the young guard. Whether it’s a jaw-dropping drive to the hoop, a how-did-that-go-in jump shot or a near 50-point night against one of the league’s best point guards, there have been moments where Murray has shown his off-the-charts talent.
Now, the Nuggets just need to see it more consistently. A 30-point effort can’t be followed by a game where he completely disappears. He needs to be a reliable scoring option on a nightly basis.
That will go a long way toward keeping Denver in contention in the Western Conference. But it won’t be the only thing the point guard can do to make that happen.
Perhaps the biggest thing Murray brings to the table is a characteristic that is tough to measure. It’s an intangible that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet or in the box score, but it’s a trait that will prove invaluable to the Nuggets.
Murray has swagger.
This is different that confidence, although the guard certainly possesses plenty of that, as well. And it’s not cockiness, which can often be misplaced and divisive.
Rather, it’s a matter of how he carries himself. It’s a vibe he gives off, one that is infectious and gets passed along to his teammates.
Murray acts as though he belongs. No matter the situation, he’s not meek, timid, weak or overwhelmed. Instead, he carries himself with demeanor that suggests he’s perfectly comfortable in that moment, at that time.
This is of enormous importance for a franchise trying to make the leap from perennial also-ran to legit contender. That’s not done on talent alone. It also requires a belief on the part of the players that they can compete at a high level, that they deserve a seat at the head table.
Murray brings that to the Nuggets. He’s not awed by the league’s best teams or premier players. He’s not wowed by the big stage or marquee match-ups. He strolls into those situations like it’s exactly where he and his teammates belong, which is the first step in actually making that belief a reality.
In order for Denver to become one of the NBA’s best teams, they first have to act like they belong in that class. They need a leader who can stroll into that situation and be perfectly comfortable with all that comes along with being in that group.
Jamal Murray is that player. And it’s the No. 1 reason why offering him a max contract was a wise move by the Nuggets.
He has the moxie to lead Denver to places they’ve never been before. For a franchise that rarely gets a glimpse at the NBA’s biggest party, there’s no price tag too high for a player willing to kick down the door and demand an invite.
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