The injury bug is feasting on the Denver Nuggets like a swarm of locusts.
Denver is down to just two members of the starting five it had to begin the season. Paul Millsap suffered a broken toe on Friday, Gary Harris will miss nearly a month after sustaining a hip injury on Monday, and Will Barton has been out since the first week of the season due to a strained groin.
The Nuggets can't ask for much more out of Nikola Jokic, who's already producing at All-Star levels and keeping his team near the top of the Western Conference. Jokic's endurance will be tested when Nuggets head coach Mike Malone likely asks for 40-plus minutes from him. The 23-year-old could focus more on individual scoring, but his playmaking is vital to the success of role players like Juancho Hernangomez and Torrey Craig.
Malone's other recourse is to lean more heavily on Jamal Murray, who has been somewhat of a disappointment. In the 2018-19 general manager survey, Murray was voted most likely to break out, and he's regressed to start the year. He's logging a career-high 34.3 minutes per game, but his shooting percentages are down across the board.
Murray is due for some positive regression on that front. He's only hitting 32 percent on wide-open threes without a defender within six feet, and he's shooting 53 percent within the restricted area after hovering around 63 percent over his first two seasons. He can average better than 20 points per game if he gets back to career norms.
However, defenses will load up more than ever on the Murray-Jokic combo now that Harris and Millsap are out. Atlanta chased Murray off the 3-point line and packed the paint on his drives, and that simple strategy allowed a bottom-five defense to keep Denver under 100 points.
Murray finished with just four points in the loss, although that was partly due to suffering a bruised shin when Justin Anderson kicked him.
The Nuggets need someone to pick up the scoring load, and Murray is the most viable option beyond Jokic.
Trey Lyles averaged 13 points per game on 50 percent shooting in 44 starts during Millsap's absence in 2017-18, but he's taken a step back on both ends of the floor this season. Malik Beasley is a streaky bench gunner with 15-plus points in four of his last six games, but he's finished in single digits (15 games) more often than not (10). The same is true for backup guard Monte Morris.
Those scoring issues are partly due to a flaw in roster construction. The Nuggets used their lottery pick in 2018 to redshirt Michael Porter Jr., and then doubled down when they signed a broken Isaiah Thomas to the veteran's minimum. The front office gambled on upside, and now Denver is paying the price for not having dependable depth.
The upcoming schedule will not save them. The Nuggets' only gimme before the new year is against Phoenix on Dec. 29, but they'll first have to grapple with the league's best defense in Oklahoma City, the hottest team in the league in Dallas, and the team with the best record in Toronto, sandwiched between meetings with San Antonio, Memphis, and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Even if Murray turns his season around, Denver will still be hard pressed to go .500 over that stretch.