25-under-25, Denver Nuggets

25-under-25: Jamal Murray at No. 15

For the first part of this season, Jamal Murray will be an inanimate object for the Denver Nuggets. What happens when he comes back to life?

These injury timetables are like forgettable Wyclef Jean songs. You’re gone until you’re not. Everyone is lucky if it’s only until November. But the Denver NuggetsJamal Murray will be out much longer. The hope here — and it’s an impatient one — is that the return features a fully formed Murray, as if he were Athena springing from Zeus’ head to measure worldly wisdom, or Lauryn Hill defecating on generic microphones.

Murray injured his ACL on April 12, 2021, against the Golden State Warriors, and one could probably think too long about how a Golden State team without Klay Thompson is largely what created the Western Conference power void that the Denver Nuggets with a healthy Murray hoped to fill. Oh, such is life and Kurt Vonnegut refrains.

And yet the healing of the tear in Murray’s knee is a metonym for the Denver Nuggets title hopes. To avoid the frustrations that result in reigning MVPs reverting to karate chops and going chest to chest with the other team’s shooting guards, Jamal Murray’s presence would go a long way.

What will Jamal Murray be when he returns to the Denver Nuggets?

While completely absent from last year’s playoff run, Jamal Murray was a revelation the year before as the Denver Nuggets morphed into the likely best version of themselves behind Murray’s offensive explosions. He lit up Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in the second round of those playoffs before averaging over 25 points per game against LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers. In last year’s regular season, he had a 50-point-game against woeful Cleveland. That was in the middle of February. The Nuggets started the best stretch of their season shortly after that. But they just weren’t the same team in the playoffs. Murray is clearly a difference-maker.

What positions Murray as such a fun or at least intriguing player right now is what makes Denver so interesting as well. With Nikola Jokić acting as the Hoover Dam generating power for an entire offense, the Nuggets are a good basketball team. They will make the playoffs with ease. They will maybe even win a series or two. The tweets will wonder if Jokić is a basketball savant a la Zac Galifianakis doing all the invisible math that makes everyone else’s heads hurt. That is the unreal reality. But, while Jokić has a wolfpack that’s an approximate of good enough, Murray gives him a running mate. Something about bros before bros.

When Denver lost to the Phoenix Suns in the second round, Jokić put up 25 points per game, 13.3 rebounds, and 5.8 assists. Will Barton chipped in with 16.3 points per game, and Michael Porter added 15.3. Meanwhile, Chris Paul and Devin Booker both put up 25 points per game, with Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton, and Jae Crowder all averaging in double-digits for the series. This was the equivalent of Jokić showing up with a knife to a hydra-fight. It didn’t go well. The man needed his flamethrower.

Myths are almost always about things being broken and poor attempts at putting them back together. Oedipus leases an apartment and orders furniture from IKEA, but he can’t read the instructions. Women, livestock, and waterfowl all have something to fear in Zeus, and they are right to fear him. He’s terribly and intentionally reckless. He’s sandwiched by at least two generations that can testify to such. He is a victim and a dispenser of violence. So on and so forth it goes. The Denver Nuggets are currently in a position where they are waiting for Murray’s knee to heal so that they can get back to the moment before it was hurt.

That Don Draper speech about wheels and carousels and spaceships comes to mind:

Teddy told me that in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Watching Murray highlights right now, whether he’s dropping 50 or just scratching 20, is a lot like viewing pictures of a doomed marriage before everyone knew it was doomed. No one really knows how the healing will go. No one really knows how much hurt might be waiting after Murray’s return. The playoffs are assured, but there very well may be playoffs and heartbreak. There very well may be something more. Murray’s labors to date feel like a solid promise.

But, forward or backward, that’s all a long time from now, and while I’m writing this 20 years to the day after 9/11, trending on Twitter is the headline “Chloe Bailey Is a Modern-Day Medusa in Her Anticipated Music Video For ‘Have Mercy’”.

One Classical read on the Medusa myth is that to rush in and be all masculine action is to become a statue. Perseus must shuffle and sidestep into the cave where the battle awaits. He must look for the feminine monster in the mirror. He must see a reflection in the mirror to vanquish the Gorgon sister. And chances are he would also see himself in that same mirror. Something in that encounter is about the Apollonian over the Dionysian and other such things I’m not sure I understand.

Have you seen the Chloe Bailey video? Much like Medusa, she is surrounded by listless statues in it, but they are all whole and polished and outside in the bright sunlight decorating a green lawn. Some of the statues are even wearing varsity jackets, and as hungry as their facial expressions appear, the song’s lyrics suggest they are actually quite unprepared for the future that will transform them into statues and possibly consume them. To a degree, these heroes that are not quite heroes look hypnotized and, at times, prematurely broken by Bailey’s sway, or something like that.

Anyway, in the Classical version of the myth, the statues would all be cracked and broken most likely, and they would all be hidden away in the dampened chambers of the Gorgon’s cave and not out in the brightly lit rose gardens. Having failed to vanquish the feminine power that Medusa so often embodies, those who failed their heroic auditions pretty much vanish from sight and memory. The darkness takes them.

Admittedly, none of this really has anything to do with Jamal Murray in any literal sense. I expect he has seen the Chloe Bailey video, though. In fact, I suspect much of the NBA has seen it. The video is, in large part, a hybrid thing — half art and half clickbait — and something that either Kawhi Leonard or James Harden could surely love. And then there is the fact that both the offseason and rehab from injury can be occupied by such things because something has to occupy all that time in-between games that count. Moreover, rehabbing from injury can be a time when time stands still, when the body becomes brittle from lack of use, when muscle turns to marble.

It remains to be seen whether Murray is damaged goods (a broken statue) or a young player learning about perseverance within the dark caverns of doubt and isolation and waiting. I doubt he’s listening to Chloe Bailey as he rehabs, and if he is, I expect the song is one of many on a rather lengthy playlist. The journey back, after all, is a long one, and Murray most definitely is on an archetypal journey that will either set him back on his path or find him disjointed and displaced, possibly even frozen and fragmented in time’s darkness.

All that is to say, if you do find yourself watching the “Have Mercy” video, then you might see a resemblance between the listless male youths in the video and Murray until, that is, Jamal Murray is back to being Jamal Murray. So it goes. So on and so forth. Until it doesn’t.

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