When discussing the NBA's best backcourts, a few pairings likely come to mind. From the Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to the Houston Rockets' Chris Paul and James Harden, or from John Wall and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards to the Portland Trail Blazers with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, there's no shortage of All-Star-calibre duos throughout the league.
Gary Harris and Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets are poised to force their way into that conversation, perhaps as early as this coming season
Because Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is a lightning rod for scorching hot takes and inane offseason Twitter debates, Harris and Murray have gotten to develop in relative anonymity since they came into the NBA. Their lack of playoff experience and national TV exposure has largely kept them out of the spotlight, as the likes of Paul, Harden, Curry, Thompson, Lillard and McCollum soak up much of the backcourt attention in the West.
The 2018-19 season may be Harris and Murray's coming-out party.
Heading into last year, Murray's role was up in the air. As a rookie, he averaged only 9.9 points per game on 40.4% shooting, and he started just 10 of the 82 games in which he appeared. While his three-point shooting ability made him a far better fit alongside Jokic than 2015 No. 7 overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay (a career 37.4% shooter overall), head coach Mike Malone made him compete with Mudiay and veteran Jameer Nelson for the starting point guard gig throughout the preseason.
Murray ultimately won the job, but the early returns weren't inspiring. He averaged only 8.0 points on 28.8% shooting over his first five starts, and he shot a horrendous 2-of-21 from deep. The Kentucky product began to turn things around with a 26-point eruption against the Brooklyn Nets in late October, and he followed that up with two more 20-point outings against the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors in Denver's next two games.
He was off to the races from there.
“He’s got to set the pace that we want to play at, he’s got to be aggressive and he’s got to play with confidence," head coach Mike Malone told reporters in mid-November in reference to Murray. "And you’re seeing that a lot more consistently right now. He’s starting to become a consistent starting point guard in the NBA."
Murray wound up starting in 80 of his 81 appearances last season, nearly doubling his scoring average (16.7 points per game) from his rookie campaign. He also drastically boosted his overall shooting efficiency (45.1%) and three-point clip (37.8%). With Paul Millsap sidelined for more than half the season due to a torn ligament in his left wrist, Murray emerged as a dependable No. 3 option behind Jokic and Harris on offense, as he proved capable of catching fire at a moment's notice.
Murray's ability to operate both with and without the ball makes him particularly dangerous alongside Jokic and Millsap, both of whom are adept passers. Among the 127 players who attempted at least 200 catch-and-shoot jumpers last season, Murray ranked 21st in overall efficiency (42.7%) and 22nd in three-point percentage (41.6%). The latter mark outpaced Kyle Lowry (40.7%), Donovan Mitchell (40.6%) and Kyrie Irving (40.2%), while the former was better than McCollum (42.0%), Damian Lillard (40.6%) and Victor Oladipo (40.4%).
Though the Nuggets often run their offence through Jokic and Millsap, Murray is also plenty capable of creating his own shot. After hitting only 33.2% of his pull-up attempts as a rookie - the second-worst mark among the 62 players who took 250 such shots in 2016-17 - he raised his efficiency to 38.7% last season. That had him tied with Lillard and less than a percentage point behind Beal (39.5%) and Harden (39.3%).
Since Denver's offense is so egalitarian, Murray isn't likely to dish out a multitude of assists like Harden, Paul or Wall. He averaged only 52.9 passes per game last season, a far cry from Jokic's 66.3 or Ben Simmons' league-leading 74.1. That relatively low usage rate has a beneficial side effect, though: Murray averages a fraction of the turnovers (2.1 per game) that higher-usage guys such as Wall (3.9), Harden (4.4) or Russell Westbrook (4.8) have. Seeing as Malone once said Mudiay's propensity for coughing up the ball was "killing" the Nuggets, Murray's miniscule turnover rate will keep him in his coach's good graces.
During Murray's 2,500-plus minutes last season, the Nuggets averaged a scorching 113.0 points per 100 possessions - which would have led the league - and outscored opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions. When he was on the bench, opponents outscored Denver by 3.8 points per 100 possessions. That 7.1-point swing was the second-highest mark of any Nuggets player, trailing only Jokic.
Harris wasn't far behind Murray last season, as the Nuggets were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court. Malone went so far as to dub him the team's MVP - yes, ahead of even Jokic - in mid-January.
The Nuggets weren't exactly defensive stalwarts last season - they ranked 26th in terms of points per possession allowed - but Harris was virtually all that separated them from having the NBA's worst defense. With him off the court, they allowed 110.6 points per 100 possessions, tied with the Phoenix Suns for the worst mark in the league. They gave up 3.1 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which was the biggest gap of any Nuggets player last season.
At only 6'4.5" with a 6'6.75" wingspan, Harris is somewhat undersized for a two-guard, but he makes up for his smaller frame with active hands and high basketball IQ. He was tied with Philadelphia's Ben Simmons and Washington's Otto Porter Jr. for the ninth-most deflections per game (3.1) this past season, and he racked up a career-high 122 steals in 67 appearances while committing only 119 fouls.
While Harris's defensive acumen initially helped him earn his place in Denver's rotation, he's becoming far more well-rounded on offense, too. Last season, he averaged a career-high 17.5 points per game on 48.5% shooting, and he flirted with a 40% clip from deep for the second straight year on nearly 400 attempts.
Like Murray, Harris is a potent catch-and-shoot threat - he shot 40.6% on such attempts last season, tied with Lillard and Boston's Terry Rozier - and he benefits from playing alongside so many willing passers. His chemistry with Jokic is particularly notable, as he's a lethal cutter who ranked in the 83rd percentile league-wide in terms of efficiency on such plays. Harris can also create his own shot, as his 40.0% shooting on pull-ups last season outpaced Walker, Beal and Harden, among others.
Since Harris and Murray aren't among the league's scoring leaders and don't play on a team that merits much national media coverage (yet), they've largely flown under the radar thus far. That isn't a reflection of their caliber of talent, though.
“I feel like us, man, as far as best backcourts, we’ll go against anybody,” Harris told Jack Jensen of Slam in March. “I feel like I can speak for Jamal on this: We’re not going to back down from anybody. And we’re ready to go at whoever we play against each and every night.”
The Nuggets have a realistic chance of snapping their five-year playoff drought this coming season, which could put Murray and Harris on the national stage come mid-April. Though they each face an uphill battle to earn an All-Star spot this season - good luck beating out Harden, Curry, Westbrook, Lillard, Thompson, Paul, McCollum and DeMar DeRozan, among others - continued steady growth would put them on that trajectory in the coming years.
In the meantime, they'll keep being the best young backcourt only NBA diehards know about.