The pandemic may have warped time, but it seems like only yesterday that Denver snapped an eight-game winning streak after acquiring Aaron Gordon last March. At the time, the Nuggets were shaping up to be a dark horse championship contender.
Nikola Jokic was putting together a historic MVP-caliber season at center back. Jamal Murray was becoming a more efficient scorer and distributor. With the addition of Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets could now be paired with dynamic wings and iso-heavy offense. Lastly, young Michael Porter Jr. was coming out on top and it looked like he could be a legitimate third musketeer for a “Big 3” out of Denver.
But sadly, that wasn’t the case then, and it’s unclear when Denver will be back at full strength. Denver’s title hopes last year were dashed by Jamal Murray’s torn ACL against the Warriors on April 12. Similarly, this season’s title hopes are in tatters after a season-ending back injury to Michael Porter Jr..
While Jamal Murray hopes to return this season, this core feels like ships passing in the night. Although 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 do with MPJ?
Before last year’s playoffs, Michael Porter Jr. displayed the edge that once made him the best 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 aim and shooting ability that invokes the thoughts of Kevin Durant. While it was clear that Porter Jr. still needed to improve as a shotmaker and passer, the basic tools to be an offensive supernova were there.
Following Jamal Murray’s injury, Porter Jr. averaged more than 20 points per game from March through the playoffs. Even despite Murray’s injury, there was a sense that Denver could make something happen with Jokic and Porter Jr. as the driving force. At that moment, I thought that a star was about to come out. Although 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 tiebreaker. 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 when he struggled to create his shot, and his inexperience was apparent. Against the Phoenix Suns, many of these flaws surfaced. 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 plan laid out by Portland in the previous series. While Porter Jr. had good games against Portland, he also exposed his offensive flaws. Although he makes tough shots, Portland showed that if you get attached to Porter Jr. off the ball and harass him with the ball, it’s hard for him to generate a good look for himself. Porter Jr. had trouble breaking away from defenders like Robert Covington, Mikail Bridges and Norman Powell.
Also, in what now seems like an ominous precursor to this season, MPJ got a “pinch” on his back in Game 1 of the Phoenix series. As a result, Porter Jr. looked stiff and less mobile for the rest of that series. Although he played in every game of the Suns’ sweep of the Nuggets, he looked uncomfortable. Whether it was pressure from the defense, injuries or a combination of both, Porter Jr. didn’t look like himself. However, it didn’t seem like a cause for concern; Porter Jr. would have the entire offseason to recover.
While MPJ’s playoff struggles didn’t translate into wins for the Nuggets, the lessons he learned were important. Going into the offseason, MPJ focused on expanding his repertoire. Much of Porter Jr’s offseason was spent expanding his handling 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 finish
Even before Michael Porter Jr’s injury ended his season, he didn’t seem like the same guy. In the nine games 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 3. The problems that plagued him in the playoffs seemed magnified and he didn’t move as smoothly as he did last season.
Finally, Denver’s nightmare came true, and Porter Jr. left a November game against the Rockets with a back injury. The play that led to his exit was a pin attempt on a counterattack where it became clear that something had gone wrong.
Shortly after the game, the Nuggets announced that Porter Jr. would undergo season-ending back surgery due to a pinched nerve. With Michael Porter Jr. in the lineup this season, the Nuggets were 5-4. While they may have been just over .500 with MPJ in the lineup, Denver never seemed to get the best of him this season. Without Porter Jr., the Nuggets are 13-12. With Nikola Jokic taking his game to another level, the Nuggets have been able to stay afloat despite their injuries.
When will Denver be able to compete?
For Denver, it’s hard to tell when they’ll be able to make a real run for a title. The duo of Jokic and Murray is the foundation of the Denver team. If both are healthy, Denver is almost certain 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), they’ll have the juice to compete with other Western powerhouses.
Michael Porter Jr.’s injury has robbed Denver of a chance at a “Big 3” for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, Denver should return its entire roster for next season. The Nuggets have locked up 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 seemed like the sky was the limit. Now, the injury bug has surfaced, and it doesn’t seem realistic that the Nuggets have a chance until Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return. Let’s hope for a speedy recovery for injured Denver. The Nuggets have done everything they can to try to open a title window, and it would be a shame if injuries slammed it shut.