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Paul Klee: Denver Nuggets should make Jamal Murray a cornerstone of franchise, not trade bait

By: Paul Klee
June 27, 2017 Updated: June 28, 2017 at 8:18 am

DENVER — Don’t trade Jamal Murray.

That’s the first step, Nuggets. Don’t let a disaster of a draft night determine you must do something dumb. Once Denver hitched its horse to 22-year-old Nikola Jokic, this was always going to be the long game. The long haul must include Murray — a 20-year-old talented and tough enough to perform in all 82 games while playing through not one, but two, sports hernias.

Murray, voted second-team all-rookie? “LOL,” he tweeted. LMAO, I’m typing. Murray deserved first team — and deserves to be the Nuggets' first point guard, starting next season.

So don’t even think about it. Aside from a return that includes a superstar from the Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook category — and those aren't on the block — Murray should be quarantined behind the same yellow tape the franchise has wrapped around Jokic. Murray should be the point guard here.

After a draft night where A) their immediate rivals in the West jumped the Nuggets B) they looked way too much like the Nuggets who routinely whiffed on draft nights in the '90s, Denver is getting anxious to land the big fish. Oh, I’m not worried about the brain trust of Tim Connelly, the president of basketball operations, and Arturas Karnisovas, the general manager, making a rash decision that ends up with Murray elsewhere. They know the Nuggets will only become year-in, year-out contenders in the Western Conference through the long game. I’m more worried that only bad things happen when ownership gets involved. Attendance is lagging. Headlines are yucky. Those are times when ownership gets involved. 

Happy feet make for sad endings.

In a world where Wayne Gretzky gets traded and Peyton Manning is asked to take a pay cut, no athlete is untouchable. But the Murray-Jokic duo should be as off-limits as a duo can be. I asked Connelly: Who are your untouchables?

“We were a 40-42 team. It would be disingenuous to say we have untouchables,” he said. “But we have certainly very high price points depending on the player.”

Fair enough. But don’t trade Jamal Murray.

“We think the world of Jamal,” Connelly said. “There are maybe two or three guys in the world who are un-tradeable. Hopefully a couple of our guys become that. But we think Jamal is going to be special. … We think his future is unlimited.”

There’s no warm-and-fuzzy way around it: During one of the most important drafts here in years, the Nuggets behaved like a front office with too many ants on the hill. Then they got ants in their pants. When a proposed three-team trade to acquire a splashy name — reportedly Cavs forward Kevin Love, a favorite son of the advanced analytics era — fell through at the 11th hour, the Nuggets freaked out like a kid who forgot his wallet on a first date. They panicked. 

The Nuggets have said they want to arrange their roster with a clearly defined pecking order. Winning locker rooms have one. But the draft-night downer made me wonder if all these new job titles being tossed around Pepsi Center has left the front office without a pecking order of its own. They failed the trade deadline in February, shipping Jusuf Nurkic to Portland in a trade that ultimately knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs. Then they failed the draft deadline while admitting there was “a divide” over which prospect to take at No. 13. So they traded down, and their mood was down and out.

Forget about who takes the last shot on the court. Who’s calling the shots from above?

Congrats to point guard Monte Morris, a second-round pick from Iowa State, who will have the longest professional career of the newest Nuggets; forward Tyler Lydon, a first-rounder from Syracuse; and Trey Lyles, a 21-year-old who struggled through his first two seasons with the Utah Jazz.

But the Nuggets on Tuesday introduced three players they don’t need. The underlying mood felt like a press conference for winning a consolation prize. When everyone gets a ribbon, everyone loses.

While I think Juancho Hernangomez someday will be a top-10 shooter in the NBA and Gary Harris has unlocked the cheat code that is Jokic’s passing, everyone not named Jamal or Nikola should be available. In a perfect Nuggets world, they will find a way to score Rockets pest Patrick Beverley, a first-team all-defense selection who reportedly is on the trade block, and break the bank in free agency on one of two forwards, Blake Griffin or Paul Millsap.

“We’re going to be selectively aggressive,” Connelly said.

At the risk of sounding like yet another hysterical media member, how the Nuggets structure their roster over the next month will impact the next decade of basketball around these hills. In the short term, a solid month in free agency would propel them back into the playoff conversation after their disappointing draft night kicked them out. In the long term, it could impact how Jokic and Murray view the team's commitment to winning when it’s time to make the decision whether to stay or go.

These are heavy stakes. The Nuggets must get their act together. But don’t touch the future All-Star with the sweet shooting touch. If someone asks for Jamal Murray, reply like he did: LOL.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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