Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, and the trouble of playing two young point guards

Denver got blown out last night, and zero assists from their point guards is a bad look.

Zero assists. 0. Zilch. Nada.

The combined number of assists between the 20-year-old Jamal Murray and the 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay, each trusted with ball handling duties this year. Both went into a big game last night against the Portland Trail Blazers looking to be aggressive, at least Murray was. The end result unfortunately was failure against a sub par defensive back court in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Murray had six turnovers last night in 39 minutes. Mudiay had three turnovers in 21 minutes. It would have been better had Murray been hitting some outside shots to space the floor, but he put up another ugly showing from behind the three-point line with an 0/7 night. Somehow, Mudiay was a minus-29 last night in the plus-minus department, which is hard to do in just 21 minutes on the floor. But in past games, Mudiay wasn’t necessarily to blame for the struggles of the bench when he performed well individually. Tonight? Four points. No assists. 1/4 from the field.

The Denver Nuggets offense starts with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, and while neither of them played extremely well, they each made positive contributions here or there. That’s not good enough for star players though, especially with the youth Denver has everywhere. We forget Jokic is 22 sometimes with what he can do on the basketball court, but in going up against his former teammate Jusuf Nurkic, Jokic has laid an egg twice. Six points and three assists out of him would have been fine his rookie year or if he was in foul trouble. Now? He gets to share the blame in an ugly looking loss.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver NuggetsIsaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Wilson Chandler was a bright spot, as he shouldered the creation duties in the starting lineup, picking up six assists of his own. Combined with 14 efficient points and seven rebounds, this might be Chandler’s best performance of the season, and in a night of dark spots, his work was encouraging.

Gary Harris was out, and that thrust Will Barton into the starting lineup again. I don’t think anyone can question whether Barton is a starting caliber guard in today’s NBA - he is. The problem with him as a starter for the Nuggets is it removes the security blanket from Mudiay in case things go awry. Harris is a security blanket for Murray, as he hits some tough shots from beyond the arc and on straight line drives. Both of the experienced guards have proven their mettle ten times over.

There’s a tough balance for a head coach in removing the security blanket for one or both of those guys. Michael Malone had a tough decision of whether to insert Barton or Malik Beasley for the injured Harris the past two games. Malone went with Barton, not only because Barton is the better player and has been playing well, but also because of the nice string of games Mudiay has had off the bench. He took away that security blanket for Mudiay, and against Orlando, it worked. Against Portland, it didn’t.

There are going to be hit and miss nights on offense with so many young players. That’s why young players take time, and it’s why young teams rarely make the playoffs. The Nuggets really want to make the playoffs this year. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The problem? The Nuggets are trying to walk both lines and be successful at both, and that can create nights like last night.

For Denver to take that proverbial next step, Murray needs to be steady, Mudiay needs to play aggressive. But above all, Jokic needs to be dominant. He can cover for their deficiencies and has for much of the year. When the lights are brightest and the pressure is palpable, he needs to step up. Leaving things up to the point guards will give them needed experience, but it won’t lead to many wins along the way.

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