Paul Klee: Nuggets dilemma with Emmanuel Mudiay is elephant in the room
DENVER — Have you caught Nurkic Fever?
It's an epidemic in Portland. Symptoms can include late surges into the postseason, catchy slogans and, here at altitude, motion sickness.
Don't look now, but since acquiring center Jusuf Nurkic from the Nuggets, the Trail Blazers are 6-4. They've won five of six. With Nurkic helping to revitalize the Portland program, the Blazers entered Monday only 1.5 games back of the Nuggets for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. Trading a player to a divisional rival that immediately catches fire and threatens to steal your playoff spot?
Without context the whole situation is so Nuggets it hurts.
But this should be shouted from the hills, so in five years when Nurkic is still making life difficult for the Nuggets in the Northwest Division we'll have a firm answer to "why did the Nuggets ever trade Jusuf Nurkic?": They had to. It wasn't going to work, not with Nikola Jokic and Nurkic in the same frontcourt. The situation was becoming toxic, their hands were tied. If they convince Mason Plumlee to re-sign in Denver, it's a win for everybody.
What they must do now is avoid a similar outcome with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay, a pair of point guards drafted by Denver in back-to-back years — just as Nurkic and Jokic are a pair of centers expertly drafted by Denver in the same year, 2014.
With the Nuggets in a playoff chase for the first time in what seems like forever, the elephant in the room is wagging its trunk: Denver's Mudiay dilemma won't go away by itself. The key to the Nuggets going from "yeah, they might be OK down the road" to Western Conference contender is Mudiay. He was on the game program sold to fans Monday with the Lakers in town. He's been on billboards around the city since the month he was drafted.
And since the All-Star break Mudiay was stuck on the bench in five of eight games.
"It's not easy to handle. It's one of the tougher decisions I've made in my very short career," coach Michael Malone said Monday before the Nuggets beat the Lakers 129-10 for their third straight win. "But I give him all the credit. He is handling it like a veteran. People have to realize he's only 20 years old."
It would be a crying shame if the same thing that happened with Nurkic — shipping off a bright prospect in his early 20s before he realizes his potential — happens with Mudiay, too.
It should be clear by now Murray is the point guard of the future at Pepsi Center. He's 19 with a life that revolves around the game and a jumper that's sweeter than an airport candy shop. His confidence and comfort level as a teenager is to the point he leaves a piece of chocolate for Malone before each game, both as a tease and perhaps so the coach doesn't forget about him.
"That's it; you're not starting tonight!" Malone joked. Oh, Murray is starting — to heat up.
Whither Mudiay? On Monday, in mop-up duty. A college coach who recruited Mudiay mentioned another factor in his development: Mudiay has never really been coached before the NBA. While it's on him to put in the hours with old-fashioned hard work, it's also on the Nuggets to show him the way.
"I thought Jameer (Nelson) had a great line to him, great words: 'In your career every player is going to go through adversity. And like in life it's a matter of how you handle that adversity," Malone said. "Do you feel sorry for yourself and stop working? Or, like Emmanuel's doing, do you work harder, stay ready and know that whether it's in the next 16 games and in the playoffs or next season, he'll be a better player for it."
The Nuggets know what they have in Jokic and Murray, a pair of crazy talents as promising as any to roll through here. If they missed on Mudiay, it won't be the end of the world. But if they hit on Mudiay as well? Woo, boy.
Nurkic Fever wears off over time. Take two reels of Jokic highlights and get some rest. But the Mudiay dilemma so far has no obvious cure.