CLEVELAND — Just like every hopeful Nuggets fan, Will Barton has allowed his mind to wander.
As good as the Nuggets are (25-12 since Jan. 1), Barton knows what the potential returns of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray could mean for the Nuggets during the playoffs.
Six months into the season, depending on their returns, his workload could get significantly lighter. And in turn, the Nuggets could level up from a dangerous postseason matchup to a deep, multifaceted offense.
“Of course,” he told The Denver Post. “You can’t shy away from that.
“Obviously, we’re missing two great players. We’ll welcome them back, but we gotta focus on what’s going on in the present. … When we get the word that they’re coming back, we’ll take it from there.”
Porter, it appears, is trending closer to a return than Murray following back surgery on Dec. 1. His eagerness to play has been a poorly kept secret in NBA circles.
Murray, on the mend from ACL surgery last April, is a different story. Having never been seriously injured, there’s a mental hurdle Murray will need to overcome if he’s to return this season. There’s only about three weeks left in the regular season, and Murray’s still working toward a return.
“Nobody likes competing more than Jamal,” Barton said. “I know he wants to be back. It’s all about his body.”
In a sign of progress, Murray traveled to Grand Rapids this past week and practiced with the Nuggets’ G League affiliate. His first day, on Wednesday, was more physically taxing than the next day’s lighter practice. That he even went in the first place should be seen as a sign of encouragement.
Perhaps nobody on the Nuggets has a better perspective on their plight than Barton, whose various injuries have robbed him of postseason success. During the 2018-19 season, he returned to the court following core surgery and admitted he was playing catchup all year long. In 2019-20, he left the “Bubble” at the start of the playoffs due to a lingering right knee issue. Last season, he returned in Game 2 of the second round vs. Phoenix, having been hampered by a hamstring injury for weeks.
“You’re a competitor, you always want to play, but if your body can’t let you, what can you do?” said Barton, speaking in general terms. “You want to go out there and help the team, but you gotta be feeling up to it.”
Now imagine Murray weighing the pros and cons of a late-season return. The expectations of who he is as a scorer and dynamic playmaker next to MVP Nikola Jokic and the chance of elevating the Nuggets from a playoff threat to a team with legitimate championship aspirations. What if Murray’s return throws off the rhythm Monte Morris has established as the team’s starting point guard? Would Murray be blamed for doing his best to return? Even worse, what if he’s uneasy about all of the above and there’s a physical setback?
It’s not hard to consider the twists a return could take.
In the wake of Murray’s injury, the Nuggets did an informal study on the average recovery time of players who had suffered ACL tears over the past seven seasons. What they found was that a “typical recovery” takes 12 months before a player returns to games. After that, it usually takes three more months before a player returns to his pre-injury form. The study helped set the parameters for Murray’s timeframe.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has been careful not to add any extra pressure to the situation, and the team has consistently told Murray to return when he’s comfortable. If not this year, then Murray will have a clear runway for next season with a full summer, followed by a full training camp.
“I understand from a point of view that I’ve been injured as a player, but we all gotta make our own decisions,” Barton said. “We all got different bodies. Just gotta let those guys make their own decisions.”
As badly as he wants his teammates back, Barton said he hasn’t put any pressure on them, either. Finally healthy himself, he said he can’t wait for the postseason.
“That’s really all my focus is on is just staying healthy, trying to play good basketball and getting ready for the playoffs – something I’ve been looking forward to my whole career,” he said. “And I haven’t been able to be in there healthy. Now I have the chance if everything keeps going well.”
The question is: who will be there with him?