Most of the NBA's best teams are defined by their superstar duos—LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The Denver Nuggets, last year's No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, have half of theirs set in stone, with Nikola Jokic having cemented himself as an MVP-caliber big man.
Whether they can make the jump from a very good regular-season team to a true contender could depend on whether Jamal Murray can become the other half.
The 2018-19 season was one of changing expectations for Murray and the upstart Nuggets. They broke a six-year playoff drought with a dominant regular-season showing, finishing 54-28 before losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the playoffs. As disappointing as that ending was, it signaled that this group was one to be feared going forward.
The Nuggets didn't make the flashy offseason additions the other West contenders did. They're banking on internal development, on Jokic continuing to play like one of the top handful of players in the NBA and on the 22-year-old Murray to take the next step in his development.
Going from six a half-decade of lottery finishes to the No. 2 seed in a crowded Western Conference was plenty of reason for the Nuggets to celebrate. But regular-season success won't be enough going forward.
"Teams are coming for us," Murray told Bleacher Report before Denver's Oct. 23 season-opening win in Portland. "We're a competitor now, so we're going to face a lot of challenges. They're preparing for us in different ways."
The Nuggets organization believes Murray can make the jump from rising star to perennial All-Star. It showed that belief with a five-year, $169.7 million max contract extension, which Murray signed in July. If a 54-win season represents higher expectations for the team, giving that much money to a player who's never made an All-Star Game represents a new level of pressure for Murray to produce.
"I've worked for this my whole life," Murray said of his big new contract and the elevated expectations that come with it. "Now it's time to go out there and turn it into something. It's not just me. It's everybody. I need to be more vocal. We've got a lot of young guys on this team. This is a team thing. It doesn't come down to one person."
Since he entered the league as the No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Murray has displayed the talent to become a dominant scorer. He's improved every season in various aspects of his offensive game, but his consistency has been an issue. He can shoot the Nuggets in or out of a game, or sometimes do both in the same game.
Perhaps the defining moment of his career was the second game of Denver's first-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs last season. In Game 1, Murray shot an underwhelming 8-of-23 from the field in a home loss. Game 2 looked to be more of the same, as he shot 0-of-8 through three quarters. But Nuggets coach Michael Malone left him in the game, continuing to trust him down the stretch. Murray responded with a 21-point fourth quarter, which powered a comeback win for Denver—a victory that tied a series it would ultimately win before facing Portland.
Malone showed trust in his young guard in that instance that paid off; now, the Nuggets are displaying that same belief in Murray to be a true cornerstone as they look to contend. He delivered then; in his fourth season, that consistency will be the key to his, and the Nuggets', prospects.
"I'm not worried about the contract or any of that," Malone said last week. "I just want to see him find a way to become a more consistent player. Great players, All-Star-caliber players in this league bring it every night. They don't have the ups and downs. Let's be honest, three Octobers in a row, Jamal's gotten off to slow starts. We need him to help us get off to a great start and play at a high level for as close to 82 games as possible."
To recapture what made him such an intriguing talent, Murray has been going back to his roots, revisiting his greatest strengths from his lone season at the University of Kentucky.
"I think last year, sometimes when I wasn't making shots, I would over-pass or try to ‘make the right play,' when sometimes the right play for me was to take the open shot," Murray said. "I've been watching a lot of Kentucky games and seeing how aggressive I was and how shot-ready I was. I put up a lot of threes every game at Kentucky. I want to get back to that mode a little bit. Not just take more shots. They still have to be good shots. But sometimes I've passed up a good shot to drive the ball and kick it out for a tougher shot. When I was at Kentucky, I would use my shot to create space for others. So I need to do that more."
Murray shot just 4-of-14 from the field in the opening-night victory, with Jokic coming alive in the fourth quarter after early foul trouble to dig the Nuggets out of a hole. Murray has been better since then, scoring 27 points in Friday's win over the Phoenix Suns and putting up 18 and 16 points, respectively, in their next two games. It varies night to night whether his shots are falling, but the looks he's getting are good ones and he's letting the game come to him.
"He's got another year of experience," veteran Nuggets forward Paul Millsap told B/R. "The game's slowing down for him. He's making the right plays. We just want him to play basketball. Don't do anything out of character. Just stay solid."
The Nuggets are riding a 3-1 start into Thursday night's matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans. That game will be broadcast on TNT, one of 14 nationally televised games the Nuggets have this season. The NBA rewarded them for last year's excellent season with a huge promotional push in those marquee television slots. Now, the Nuggets hope to justify all of that hype and prove they're more than just a fun regular-season team.
"I mean, I would hope we're better," Murray said. "Last year we had more motivation, but this year I think we're more well-rounded. We've got [Michael Porter Jr.] coming back, we added Jerami [Grant]. We're a good team. With this much depth, I think we should win a lot of games."
Jokic is a known quantity, and the Nuggets' depth is as good as anyone's. For them to deliver on the title expectations that follow last season's giant step forward, it's on Murray to become their second star.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.