Maybe the pandemic has distorted time, but it feels like only yesterday that Denver ripped off an eight-game win streak after acquiring Aaron Gordon last March. At that time, the Nuggets were shaping up to be a dark horse championship contender.
Nikola Jokic was putting together a historic MVP caliber season as point center. Jamal Murray was blossoming into a more efficient scorer and distributor. With the addition of Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets could now match up with dynamic wings and iso-heavy offenses. Lastly, young Michael Porter Jr. was coming into his own, looking like he could be a legitimate third musketeer for a Denver “Big 3”.
But sadly, it wasn’t to be then, and it’s unclear when Denver will be at full strength again. Denver’s title hopes last year were dashed by a Jamal Murray ACL tear against the Warriors on April 12. Similarly, this season’s title hopes are on the rocks after a Michael Porter Jr. season-ending back injury.
While Jamal Murray hopes to return this season, this core feels like ships passing in the night. Though the talent is there, the team has struggled to stay healthy at the same time. It’s starting to feel like injuries could be threatening Denver’s title window.
What to make of MPJ?
Before the playoffs last year, Michael Porter Jr. flashed the upside that once made him the top high school recruit in the nation. In 61 games last season, Porter Jr. averaged 19 points and 7.2 rebounds on 54% from the field and 44% from deep. At 6’10”, Porter Jr. has the dead-eye marksmanship and shot-making ability that invoke thoughts of Kevin Durant. While it was apparent that Porter Jr. still needed to improve as a shot creator and passer, the baseline tools to be a supernova on offense were there.
After Jamal Murray’s injury, Porter Jr. averaged over 20 points per game from March until the playoffs. Even despite the Murray injury, there was a sense that Denver could make something happen with Jokic and Porter Jr. as a driving force. At the time, I thought a star was about to rise. Though the title push was unrealistic, the playoffs would give Porter Jr. the high-stakes reps he needed to evolve as a player.
Porter Jr. had a mixed playoff. While he finished the 2021 postseason averaging 17 points on 47% from the field and 39% from deep, he never looked entirely comfortable. There were times where he struggled to create his shot, and his inexperience was evident. Against the Phoenix Suns, many of these flaws came to bear. Porter Jr. saw his shooting percentages fall off a cliff after a tough Suns defense. Against Phoenix, MPJ averaged 15.3 points on 38% shooting from the field and 37% from three.
Postseason growing pains
Phoenix followed a blueprint laid by Portland in the series prior. While Porter Jr. did have good games against Portland, he also exposed his offensive flaws. Though he does make tough shots, Portland showed that if you stick to Porter Jr. off-ball and hound him on-ball, he has a hard time generating good looks for himself. Porter Jr. struggled to separate from defenders like Robert Covington, Mikail Bridges, and Norman Powell.
In addition, what now seems like an ominous precursor to this season, MPJ “tweaked” his back in Game 1 of the Phoenix series. As a result, Porter Jr. looked stiff and less mobile for the remainder of that series. Though he played in every game of the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets, he seemed uncomfortable. Whether it was the pressure from the defense, injury, or a combination of the two, Porter Jr. wasn’t looking like himself. However, it didn’t seem like a reason for concern; Porter Jr. would have all offseason to recover.
While MPJ’s playoff struggles didn’t translate to wins for the Nuggets, the lessons he took away were important. Going into the off-season, MPJ was focused on expanding his repertoire. Much of Porter Jr’s off-season was dedicated to expanding his handle and post moves. With seemingly limitless potential and more experience, Denver rewarded Porter Jr. with a 5-year contract extension worth $173 million. Porter Jr. and Denver signed the contract just before the season, and disaster struck.
A rocky start and a crushing end
Even before Michael Porter Jr’s injury ended his season, he did not look like the same guy. In the nine games that Porter Jr. played for the Nuggets this season, he averaged 9.9 points on a putrid 35% from the field and a measly 20% from three. The issues that plagued him in the playoffs seemed magnified, and he wasn’t moving with the fluidity he had last season.
Finally, Denver’s nightmare became a reality, and Porter Jr. exited a November game against the Rockets with a back injury. The play that led to his exit was a dunk attempt on a fast break where it was clear that something had gone wrong.
Shortly after the game, the Nuggets announced that Porter Jr. would undergo season-ending back surgery on a pinched nerve. With Michael Porter Jr. in the lineup this season, the Nuggets were 5-4. While they may have been just above .500 with MPJ in the lineup, it never seemed like Denver got the best version of him this season. Without Porter Jr., the Nuggets are 13-12. With Nikola Jokic taking his game up another level, the Nuggets have been able to tread water despite their injuries.
When will Denver be able to compete?
For Denver, it’s hard to tell when they will be able to make a real run at a title. The duo of Jokic and Murray is the foundation of Denver’s team. If both of them are healthy, Denver is almost guaranteed to be an elite offense. However, it’s hard to imagine that without Porter Jr. and Denver’s full complement of players (like PJ Dozier), that they will have the juice to compete with other Western powerhouses.
The injury to Michael Porter Jr. has robbed Denver of the opportunity for a “Big 3” for the foreseeable future. With luck, Denver should return their entire roster for next season. The Nuggets have locked down their star players, but the question will be whether they can remain injury-free.
As a Nuggets fan, the future may be bright, but it seems impossible to predict. In March of last year, it appeared that the sky was the limit. Now, the injury bug has struck, and it doesn’t seem realistic for the Nuggets to have a chance until Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return. Let’s hope for a speedy recovery for Denver’s injured. The Nuggets have gone all in to try and open a title window, and it would be a shame for the injuries to slam it shut.