Is Denver Done without MPJ?

Updated: November 23, 2021

Last season, the Denver Nuggets were the what-if team going into the playoffs with Jamal Murray’s ACL season-ending injury. With their MVP floor general at the 5, a shifty shot-creator in Murray, and the up and coming 6’10 scorer in Michael Porter Jr., there was an abundance of optimism around their postseason aspirations. So much so, that even though Murray was scheduled to miss the majority of the 2021-22 season, most analysts still considered the Nuggets a true contender for the title if he returned 90% of what he was.

Well…today’s news changes everything. A report has indicated that the recently max extended wing, Michael Porter Jr. is now out for the season with nerve issues in his back that will most likely require surgery. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the news doesn’t come with much surprise. MPJ famously was passed by 13 other teams in the 2017 draft despite arguably being the most talented prospect because (as said by a scout who passed on him) “Porter Jr. has the worst medicals I’ve ever seen.”

The report states that he “might” have surgery and “may” miss the rest of the season, but with 145 million guaranteed dollars owed to him over the next 5 years, and currently untradable, it is impossible for Denver to risk bringing him back this season. Porter Jr. already has had two major back surgeries before even being drafted and was red-shirted his first year in the NBA.

Up until this point, the 14th pick had been the steal of the draft. Often compared to Kevin Durant because of his size and handle, however, unlike KD who has been infatuated with his middy pull-up, MPJ has been thirsty for off-ball corner 3’s. At least on the offensive end of the floor, this attribute, with his high release and near 7-foot frame made him the perfect running mate with Nikola Jokic. MPJ has the special thing that all great scorers have, the desire to take big shots when it matters and the balls to hit them. But after a missed layup on November 6th, he hasn’t taken the floor, and today the news of his needed surgery has put the entire Nuggets franchise into question. 

With how good the Joker is with his ability to dissect defensives when they crash doubles on him in the post, he is capable of beating anyone on any given night. It also wouldn’t be an overwhelming shock if Denver were upset a top seed in the first round of the playoffs especially with how well Jokic has played on the defensive end this year. However, the idea that they are going to be a title contender when their lead guard returns is a sentiment that I doubt many will have even if Murray comes back 100% of what he was.

Devil’s Advocate

 There is a glass-half-full narrative…not long term because of the 145 million dollar guaranteed max extension but for this year. The Nuggets are currently 9-8, much of that has to do with how poor Porter Jr. has struggled this year, scoring 9.9 points per game and an abysmal 36% from the floor, 20% from 3, and 55% from the free-throw line. With Jamal Murray scheduled to be out the majority of the regular season, the thought was that it would open space up for more shots and shot creation for MPJ to blossom as a scorer. He certainly has not been shy the last few years about expressing to the media that he wants more touches and plays that call his number down the stretch of games. It was a small sample size, but of all the newly maxed projected stars in their early 20’s, he has been the greatest disappointment.

If they lean into featuring the Joker as their primary scorer as he has shown to be, averaging north of 26 per game, and Murray comes back as an elite scoring guard, they do have nice complementary pieces that fit much better on the defensive end than MPJ who has been a liability, especially off-ball. With Aaron Gordan as a plus defender at the 4, they also have the versatile pair of forwards in JaMychal & Jeff Green, along with the two-way guard and now healthy Will Barton.

It is a question no one will be able to answer with certainty till Murray’s return but, the entire team concept might actually mold better without MPJ in the lineup. Obviously, the projection of what he was supposed to be this year had a lot to do with Denver’s perceived ceiling, yet with his actual production this year, Coach Malone has always wanted to empower his Siberian center to carry his team. And if Jokic truly is an MVP caliber player, he has enough versatile pieces around him that at the very least they should be dangerous in the postseason.

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