The Denver Nuggets hold a solid four-game lead on the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 6-seed in the West, which is the final guaranteed playoff position to avoid having to enter the NBA’s play-in tournament. They have managed to make it to 21 games remaining in the season at 36-25 despite being without star guard Jamal Murray for the entire season and star forward Michael Porter Jr. playing just nine games before needing back surgery.
Leading the way is Nikola Jokic, who is backing up his MVP campaign from last year with arguably an even more impressive performance that has him as a co-favorite alongside Joel Embiid for this year’s MVP honors. Jokic is averaging 25.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game on 56.7/36.4/80.6 shooting splits, serving as the engine for a Nuggets team that has rather hilarious splits based on whether Jokic is on the floor or not. Around him, Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, and Will Barton have all stepped into bigger roles to help carry some of the weight placed on Jokic’s shoulders, and the team has reeled off six straight wins dating back before the All-Star break to cement their position in the West playoff chase.
Still, there’s few that would call them a real contender without Murray and Porter Jr., no matter how great Jokic is playing, but there is apparently significant optimism that those reinforcements are coming sooner than later. According to The Athletic’s Sam Amick, Murray and Porter Jr. are expected back in time for the playoffs, which would make Denver a very dangerous mid-seed in the West.
And after all this time without them — Murray tore his left ACL last April, and Porter Jr. underwent his third back surgery in late November — sources say there is a strong sense within Denver’s locker room that they’ll both be back in time for the playoffs. If not sooner.
Amick notes that, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday, Porter Jr. is likely to return first, with the expectation that he’ll be doing contact work in the next week with the hopes of being on the court for the Nuggets again some time in March.
Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., is progressing to be cleared for on-court contact within the next week, freeing a path for him to return to the lineup sometime in March, his agent Mark Bartelstein of @PrioritySports tells ESPN. Story: https://t.co/kGgAmFvgZs
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) February 27, 2022
As for Murray, Denver is being cautious with their star guard, but there is still strong belief that he can be back come April for the playoffs, as pregame workouts show him ramping up his work to try and be up to speed by the time he returns.
The return of one or both of those players, Murray in particular, would be huge for Denver’s hopes of making some noise in the playoffs, but it remains to be seen what level they will both be at once they get back on the court. It’s hard enough to get back to game speed for a regular season return, but if Murray were to be making his comeback as the playoffs begin, that’s an entirely different level to try and quickly jump back into. In any case, the chief concern for the Nuggets is that they don’t rush either player back and impact their long-term vision, as they are heavily invested in their core of Jokic, Murray, Porter Jr., and Gordon for the next few years. If they can come back and be close to the impact players they have been in the past, though, with the way Jokic is playing you’d be hard-pressed to find teams atop the West standings that would be excited to face Denver in a playoff series.