25-under-25: Michael Porter Jr. can swing the Nuggets

25-under-25, Denver Nuggets

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Nikola Jokic alone makes the Denver Nuggets a fringe contender. But a healthy and productive Michael Porter Jr. could make them much more.

Two years ago, Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokić won league MVP after averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds and 8+ assists on a 57/39/87 slash line. Last year he won the award again, putting up 27, 14 and 8 while somehow improving his shooting efficiency. His rebound and assist percentages were both career-highs. Both years he led the league in PER, Win Shares, Offensive Win Shares, Box Plus-Minus and VORP. That’s like Coppola following The Godfather with The Godfather II.

And yet, Denver lost two-thirds of their playoff games those years. Even Jokić can’t do it alone. Luckily for him and them, Jamal Murray is back. So too is Michael Porter Jr.

The last time the Nuggets’ Big 3 were together — 2020-21 — they scored 127.1 points per 100 possessions, over an 800-minute sample; that’s 1,569 possessions resulting in a net rating of +15.6. They may be the league’s most explosive trio. Murray returns from an ACL injury, once an athlete’s death knell but now a manageable setback. It’s Porter’s pain and promise on which Denver’s title hopes may hinge.

His 2021-22 season was cut short after nine games, a nerve issue in his back requiring season-ending lumbar spine surgery, the third operation on the 23-year-old’s back. Porter had the talent to be the top pick in his 2018 draft class, but concerns over his medicals dropped him to 14th. Four years later, he’s 34th in his draft class in minutes played, fewer than Marvin Bagley III, than Kevin Knox, than Svi Mykhailiuk. To call injuries Porter’s only bugaboo is true but fatally understated, like pointing out a bullet is only dangerous when fired from a gun. He missed nearly two years of action after the first two operations. To hear him now, he doesn’t want to miss another game, risks be damned.

How much will Michael Porter Jr. be able to play this year?

“I would prefer to play 82,” he told the Denver press on Media Day. “I don’t think the careful route with players is the way to go . . . you definitely want to be smart. That time comes from the recovery you do off the court. I don’t think skipping games is the way that you should save your body. You gotta respect the game. You should play when you can play and help the team win as many games as possible.”

Entering the first year of a five-year, $180 million deal, it’s understandable Porter may be feeling extra pressure to pick up where he left off. The Nuggets’ schedule may dovetail nicely with his passion to play and whatever load management arrangement he and the team have planned.

The first few months of the season, Denver has few back-to-backs. Starting in January, that begins to change: the first week of 2023 they face two back-to-backs, two more later that month and five more the rest of the year. Porter was, perhaps from the team’s perspective, distressingly frank when discussing what doctors have — or haven’t — told him about his long-term prognosis, telling reporters “I don’t really get my assurance from doctors” and that he’s “heard good things and bad things,” adding they’re “very, very confident with where I’m at” and he feels “like I’m in a good spot.” If he is, that’s terrific news for his team.

A comparison of Porter to premiere peers at his age finds him well-situated.

You may not need numbers to tell you what most already know: Porter can be Superman on the offensive end but gives Clark Kent vibes on the other. Perhaps that reputation is outdated. Coach Mike Malone expressed confidence that what Porter needs more than anything on defense is reps. “I think he understands the growth he needs to continue to make on that end of the floor,” Malone said. “He has pride. He doesn’t want to be a constant target.”

Statistics don’t always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, yet they generally at least point you in its direction. In Porter’s last full season, among all forwards who qualified for the  minutes-per-game leaderboard and had a steal rate of at least 1 percent and a block rate of at least 2.5 percent, he ranked second in Win Shares, trailing only the last non-Jokić MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Most of the names behind him are forwards of some defensive renown — Danny Green, Andrew Wiggins, Robert Covington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Jaden McDaniels, James Johnson. He’s not at the level most of them are, but if he’s not the steadiest defender, at least he’s a playmaker.

Porter’s played so little after four years that it’s hard to cite anything you can comfortably call a trend. One pattern that hopefully reverses: his shot profile has moved further from the basket and he’s taken more and more 3-pointers. That does make a certain amount of sense, given Porter made 44 percent of his shots from deep the two years he was healthy. But one thing to look for as he comes back from the injury is whether he continues to take fewer and fewer looks from in close, where he’s been exceptional early in his career. His rookie season, Porter took almost as many shots from 0-3 feet (34 percent) as beyond the arc (38 percent). A year later, the gap grew, 23 percent to 47 percent; in last year’s abbreviated sample, an even more pronounced 17 percent to 47 percent. He’s too good and too important to relegate himself like that.

One reason the Nuggets have come up short in the playoffs is because of how good Jokić is in the regular season. It’s mesmerizing watching him play, maybe even for teammates. But the more Denver can find other scoring streams, the less they’ll have to ask of their two-time MVP. If Porter’s back holds up and he returns to the path he was on two years ago, Jokić can worry less about games 1 through 82 and more about winning 16 afterward.

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