Two weeks ago, I suggested the Nuggets should consider trading Jamal Murray as part of a package for a superstar. Instead, they did the opposite, signing Murray to a five-year max contract extension worth $170 million.
Not exactly what I proposed, but I get their logic.
The Nuggets did the same thing with Nikola Jokic before last season and his five-year, $148 million extension looks like the best contract in the NBA right now. Had they waited on Joker’s deal, he’d be making an extra $20-plus million. Signing Murray now could potentially be even more valuable, but only if he continues to progress toward superstardom.
With the chaos of NBA free agency unfolding around them, Denver’s front office has decided to toss all their eggs into the Murray and Jokic basket. Of course, guys like Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and plenty of others will play a key role for the Nuggets this season, as well. But the NBA is a league of superstars, and Jokic and Murray are the two guys they’re paying as such.
With that in mind, it’s fair to ask how they stack up against the rest of the Western Conference’s dynamic duos. So let’s do just that.
To make it easy, I’ll simply grade each team’s duo as either better or worse. Keep in mind, this isn’t necessarily a reflection on what I think of each team in its entirety.
Starting in the Northwest Division:
Portland – Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (Better)
Lillard and McCollum form arguably the best backcourt tandem in all of basketball. Both can score the ball at will, both thrive in the clutch and both are under the age of 29. Lillard has made four All-NBA teams and played four All-Star Games. McCollum was the league’s 2015-16 Most Improved Player. Compared directly to Jokic and Murray, it’s a close race, but this season’s playoff matchup makes the difference in my mind.
Utah – Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert (Worse)
Just two years into his NBA tenure, Mitchell is already one of the most-dynamic scorers in the NBA. Pair that with Gobert’s back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year honors and you have a solid foundation to work with. The most glaring problem with this duo is their consistency on the offensive end. Mitchell’s advanced efficiency numbers aren’t the best and Gobert is a borderline liability when he’s not putting back Utah misses. Another tough decision, but this one goes the Nuggets way.
Oklahoma City – Russell Westbrook and Paul George (Better)
There shouldn’t be much argument here. Westbrook has a league MVP under his belt and George is coming off his own MVP-caliber year. In combination, they provide an almost unstoppable one-two punch as two incredibly athletic players still in the prime of their respective careers.
Minnesota – Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns (Worse)
Towns is a super intriguing piece, but I’d argue Jokic does all the things he can do with an added level of efficiency. Wiggins isn’t a bad second option, but based on his skillset, he should be much better than he currently is. Whether it’s due to poor development or bad personnel decisions on the part of the Minnesota front office, this tandem hasn’t lived up to expectations.
Four teams in and it’s a 50/50 split. Let’s move on to the Pacific division:
Golden State – Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (Better)
Another choice that wasn’t difficult at all to make. Putting aside Klay’s knee injury, the Splash Brothers have been the best duo in basketball for what seems like the last half-decade. Along with their massive numbers, they have the rings to prove it.
L.A. Clippers – Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley (Worse)
To be honest, the Clippers don’t really have anything close to a dynamic duo. Even if Kawhi gets added to the mix, I still don’t see a second guy that makes them competitive for the sake of this discussion.
Sacramento – De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III (Worse)
Fox and Bagley are a promising duo, but it’s impossible to say they’re better together than Murray and Jokic at this point. Fox has the speed, length and vision to be a top line point guard for the next decade, but still lacks in consistency with his shot. Bagley missed a chunk of his rookie season and actually seemed to be better coming off the bench. For now, I’ll take the Nuggets top two.
L.A. Lakers – LeBron James and Anthony Davis (Better)
James and Davis are two of the best five players in the league. Who knows what the rest of the Lake Show’s roster will look like at the start of the season, but as far as duos go, this is unquestionably the best in the league.
Phoenix – Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton (Worse)
Rumors surfaced early in Ayton’s rookie campaign that there was already tension in the locker room between these two. That’s unfortunate for the Suns, who have one of the league’s premier scorers working alongside a big man whose size and skillset are truly special. If they could work together, I’d say they were probably better than the Nuggets two, but we haven’t seen that yet.
Two divisions down and the combination of Joker and the Blue Arrow are smack dab in the middle. Here’s what the Southwest has to offer:
Houston – Chris Paul and James Harden (Better)
This is the pairing that got me in the most trouble when discussing a potential Jamal Murray deal, and it will probably happen again. The general consensus from Nuggets fans seemed to be that Chris Paul was too old, too injured and too expensive. The injuries and money don’t matter here. Even at 34 years old, CP3 is a top-seven point guard in the game. Harden is a league MVP and arguably the best offensive player in the game. They have the edge over the Nuggets.
San Antonio – DeMar DeRozan and La
DeRozan and Aldridge are no Parker/Ginobili and Duncan, and they’re certainly not Murray and Jokic. In fact, they’re heading in the complete opposite direction. Maybe if they played together five years ago it would be a different story.
Memphis – Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. (Worse)
It’s just too early to even consider these two a dynamic duo since Morant hasn’t even touched an NBA floor. They have a ton of potential and I’m excited to see how they grow together, but for now there’s not much evaluating that can be done.
New Orleans – Jrue Holiday and Zion Williamson (Worse)
Honestly, I could have paired Zion with a few other pieces (Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, specifically), but it wouldn’t have mattered. Similar to Memphis, there’s just nothing to go on here. Plus, I’m not convinced this year’s No. 1 overall pick is going to develop into a superstar.
Dallas – Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (Worse)
I’ll admit, this was the toughest decision I had to make mostly because the Mavericks are my hometown team. With that said, I just don’t know what to expect from Porzingis coming off his knee injury. Doncic had the best rookie season the NBA has seen since LeBron, and Kristaps is truly a unicorn with his combination of ability and size, so they might change my mind by the end of the season. But as of now, I’ll go with the proven commodities.
I have the duo of Jokic and Murray sixth out of the 15 Western Conference teams. Not bad, but not great, either.
The good news? Both are still young and have plenty of room to continue to improve. The bad news? There’s always the chance they don’t reach their potential and more than half of the Nuggets salary is tied up between them.
By hitching their wagon to these two young superstars, Denver is taking a substantial risk. In a year where the landscape of the NBA is more open than its been in a decade, we’ll see if that risk pays out an equal reward.
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