Tomorrow night, the Los Angeles Lakers will look to clinch their 17th NBA championship. It’s certainly not a surprise that they’re in this position. A team led by two top-7 players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis are always going to compete for championships. The surprising parts of the 2020 playoffs involve the teams that the Lakers have faced on their championship path. Or the teams they didn’t face.
Ever since Kawhi Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers, who also acquired Paul George in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the expectation for the Western Conference Finals was a battle between the two Los Angeles-based teams. When the Clippers secured a three-games-to-one lead over the Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals, this outcome seemed even more likely. Instead, the Nuggets shocked the world by winning the next three games in comeback fashion and clinched their first conference finals appearance since 2009.
What happened? How did the Nuggets go from being labeled a “regular season team” to pulling off back-to-back comebacks from down three-games-to-one on route to an improbable Western Conference Finals appearance? I think the biggest reason for the Nuggets’ run is the emergence of Jamal Murray as a potential future superstar.
Murray averaged 18.5 points and 4.8 assists per game in the regular season as the Nuggets picked up 46 wins and the third seed in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, Murray increased his offensive production to averages of 26.5 points and 6.6 assists. His efficiency shot up from a TS% of 55.9% in the regular season to 62.6% in the postseason. Murray’s performances were timely for a Nuggets team facing constant adversity — Murray scored a total of 142 points in a historic three game stretch in the first round series against the Utah Jazz and he closed out the Los Angeles Clippers with a 40 point performance in Game 7 of the second round. Needless to say, the list of players who’ve enjoyed an offensive postseason like Murray’s is short. It gets even shorter when you look at players as young as he is.
Even after adjusting for increasing league average efficiency by plotting relative true shooting percentage (rTS%)1, Murray’s 2020 postseason run stacks up as one of the most impressive scoring performances in the past thirty years among players 22-years-old or younger. Murray is in elite company, surrounded by legends like Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.
Of course, the manner in which Murray is putting up his points is far different than most of those players. Murray’s a point guard shooting a high number of shots from beyond the arc and connecting on those shots at a crazy rate.
Murray made 62 3-pointers in his 19-game postseason run, an all-time record for any player younger than 25-years-old. That’s right, Murray’s only 22-years-old and he already has the record three years in advance. He could very well beat his own mark.
Forget pure volume, though. Notice the distance between the dot representing Murray’s 2020 postseason and the line of best fit. Murray didn’t shoot on below average efficiency like Rozier — he was more efficient than even Klay Thompson. His 45.2% 3PT was unprecedented at his volume. In fact, among players with at least 60 three point attempts, only Donovan Mitchell in 2020 and Trevor Ariza in 2009 boasted higher percentages. Mitchell only played in one round and Ariza was a role player. Murray had 137 attempts from beyond the arc as the number-one scoring option.
If Murray keeps this up, he’ll be a superstar. The question is whether he’ll be able to keep it up. He has mostly been a streaky shooter in the regular season, but this postseason run has shown us a glimpse of his potential as a scorer. Maybe he just got hot inside of the bubble and it’s entirely unsustainable. Or maybe this run was his breakout moment into NBA stardom.
Fortunately, the Nuggets don’t need him to replicate this success on a consistent basis. Nikola Jokic is the Nuggets’ best player, not Murray. But if Murray can become that reliable scoring option and shot creator, the Nuggets’ future is incredibly bright. And if Michael Porter Jr. progresses well alongside Murray and Jokic, the Nuggets could even have their hands on a homegrown Big 3. Sound familiar?
- Relative true shooting percentage is calculated by subtracting league average TS% in a season from the player’s actual true shooting percentage. Jamal Murray’s TS% in the 2020 postseason was 62.6%. The league average TS% in 2020 was 56.5%. Therefore, his relative true shooting percentage (rTS%) is 62.6% – 56.5% = 6.16%.