You shouldn’t try to understand Jamal Murray. That’s inviting a headache. Time seems to operate differently on him, its accumulation revealing not clean trend lines that point you in a particular direction, but a tangle of moments, averages that don’t really describe anything, like sun-bleached postcards of shale gorge waterfalls, junk-strewn front lawns, record-setting inflatable structures that might not even exist anymore. With Jamal, it gets so much better, or so much worse, when you see him with your own eyes. He is sensational. That is: he happens to you, like the chemical compounds in a drug or the smell of a campfire.
The player himself often looks like he’s guessing at what kind of night he’s going to have. Intention and outcome doesn’t line up perfectly for anybody, you can’t go 21-for-21, but with him the variance pitches past the axes of the chart. It is like he’s inventing new dimensions to career into. He could hit five threes in a row or glitch through the hardwood. If you had to pick a player who will retire in the middle of a game, it would be Jamal, though you couldn’t say whether it will be for reasons of embarrassment or achieved perfection. Philp Roth used to say he started writing every book as an amateur. Murray seems to start every quarter that way, continually discovering what basketball is, bracing methods of excelling and sucking at it.
Do you recall his 2019 playoff adventure? There was, as per usual, little logic to it. He took too many shots, and got away with it, up to a point. The Nuggets beat the Spurs in the opening round and pushed the Blazers to seven. It was a madcap run, unconvincing in its madness. Nikola Jokic was flat out great; Jamal was getting by roughly half the time. Mike Malone trusted him insistently, and that trust became the moral of a story that was always going to end in failure. There was Game 2 of the Spurs series, when Murray was terrible for three quarters, then rescued the ballclub with 21 points in the fourth.
Malone, in the ensuing presser: “I knew in my heart he needed to get these minutes. He needed to be out there. I needed to show him that I believed in him... I had to stay with Jamal make or miss because he’s our guy, and I care about him.” It was a moving testimonial, illustrative of a deep connection between coach and player, the kind of thing that makes Malone good at his job. But, but: Murray’s erratic play continued. He was a liability in the Portland series, which he capped with a dismal 4-for-18 performance in Game 7. As admirable (and probably helpful) as Malone’s faith in Jamal was, it made him look silly sometimes. You can believe in the weather, or a slot machine. It’s still going to do whatever it wants.
You could spend a career in academia analyzing what happened in the world between the 2019 and 2020 playoffs. One of the things, quite far down the list, was that Jamal got paid, signing a five-year, $158 million extension. It was remarked upon at the time: that’s a massive commitment to a talent as flighty as Murray. But if you’re running a basketball franchise based in Denver, you don’t think twice about it, knowing he might not earn that money completely, but you’re not going to be able to replace him with a superior player. You’re not the Lakers; you have to roll with what you’ve got on hand.
And maybe it works out better than you could have expected. Murray was awesome in Orlando. It was a touch uneven, because the nature of his game and perhaps some unique instability in his biology makes the odd 5-for-17 performance inevitable, but most nights were pure blacked out genius: pulling up from Dame Lillard’s neighborhood, laying the ball in at seemingly the same moment he was crashing into the basket stanchion, distributing assists with surprising generosity given that you couldn’t blame him if he shot the ball every single time he dribbled up the court. Murray packed as much legendary stuff as you can into a postseason that ends before the Finals: those breathless games where he and Donovan Mitchell traded buckets for hours, closing the Clippers out with a 40-point performance, Games 3 and 4 against the Lakers, when he made it clear that it was going to take LeBron and Anthony Davis operating at the peak of their powers to beat the Nuggets down. The whole Disneyfied playoffs were strange, and it made a certain amount of sense that the strangeness of the event struck Jamal like sunshine on a solar panel. He was MVP of the Phantom Zone.
Again: trying to understand this is holding a picture frame up to the ocean. A great way to look like a jackass is to declare that Jamal Murray has proven himself, that he can come through when it matters or whatever. More prudently and accurately: the range of possibilities, for an already wildly volatile player, has expanded further. We knew Murray was a blast, that he could heat up. We didn’t exactly know this—26.5 PPG on 50.2 percent shooting, with 6.6 APG against 2.8 TOPG over 19 games—was within his grasp. Though we should have. Only Jamal Murray can articulate himself, and even then, he’s not sure he’s telling the truth either.
More 2020 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards