It’s been a busy couple of weeks for the Denver Nuggets. Reports of Michael Porter Jr’s second back surgery (which seems exploratory in nature) have emerged, Isaiah Thomas signed with Denver for about 18 million dollars less in 2018-19 than Jabari Parker, and the Nuggets are getting some early playoff buzz even in the blindfolded chainsaw-juggling competition that is the Western Conference. Let’s talk about all of it!
On a scale of “it’s fine” to “curled up in the fetal position” how do you feel about the latest back surgery reports on Michael Porter Jr?
Adam Mares: I first heard rumors about this on draft night so I wasn’t horribly surprised. We will have to wait and see what details emerge about the procedure and the status of his back injury before we get a sense for what this all means but my initial reaction is that it’s hard to see this as encouraging. Maybe there really was a “breakthrough” but my hunch is that the long-term health of Porter Jr. is as much a question mark as it was on draft night.
Jeremy Poley (@JeremyPoley): The whole situation to begin with reeks of an amazon.com “refurbished” steal-of-the-day. You figure it passed some tests, it’s back on the market, why not give it a shot when it’s such a killer deal? But when it shows up and right out of the gate it’s doing something wonky, there’s serious concern. MPJ could have a long, legendary career. But even if he makes it eight years without an injury, I’m still going to be worried any time I see him hit the floor. Like a metal detector, I’m gonna beep every time his hand comes within an inch of his back.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): The latest news doesn’t really move the needle for me. Exploratory surgeries, small cleanups and whatever are standard procedure. If he couldn’t move without pain that would be one thing but he’s out on the court shooting from a standing position and laughing with teammates. Could his back be a lingering, long-term thing? Of course - but a) the Nuggets knew that on draft night when they took the chance, and b) they should invest whatever it takes in medical staff and facilities to put the best odds that they can in his favor. The plan remains unchanged - now we’ll just wait and see how quickly and fully he can heal up.
Brendan Vogt (@Bvogt422): This possibility was presented to me on draft night and I was more or less expecting it to happen. Given the lack of surprise and the lack of information on the procedure itself, my real takeaway from Steve Aschburner’s tweet was the part that said MPJ’s camp has no intention of having him redshirt his rookie season. Denver hasn’t committed one way or another to their year one approach with Porter Jr., but it’s hard to believe that the team would feel inclined to rush him back after this. I hope the two sides are on the same page here.
Follow up: what’s the over/under on NBA games played in 2018/19 for Porter, considering the same NBA.com article that mentioned his surgery also mentioned his camp’s expectation that he will be playing this year?
Mares: Personally I’d place the number at zero since I don’t think he will play this season. If he does play, I’d expect him to play 20 games or fewer and in a reserve role. It’s hard enough for a healthy rookie to break into the rotation and as good as Porter Jr. projects to be, if he misses training camp and is eased into practices and workouts throughout the season, it’d be almost impossible to slot him into the rotation when the games matter. Think about how hard it was to slot Juancho into the rotation after missing camp and practice time with mono.
Poley: I’m putting on my “President of Basketball Operations” hat and I want to make a statement and show the NBA that he’s “healthy” at some point this season. But I don’t want to play him enough that if he under-performs he tarnishes his value. So I’m guessing about 150 minutes across 20 games on the back-half of the season. I’d say under 20. If I’m going into the next offseason hoping to make my big free agency splash that I’ve positioned myself for, then I want players thinking we’re healthy and powerful, and I want managers thinking he has real value in case a trade too good to pass up comes my way.
Gross: Porter has 7 months until the All-Star break - that’s plenty of time to work through a full rehab and core strengthening routine assuming they have properly identified and treated his back issue. I expect him to be practicing with the team during the season and for his outlook (plus Denver’s habit of having a lot of in-season injuries) to allow the team to be comfortable getting him bench rotation minutes in the second half of the year. I’ll go 30 games.
Vogt: I still have a hard time believing that he plays at all this season. It’s possible that MPJ experiences a full recovery and is able to get back on the court, but even then Denver might be far more concerned with making the playoffs than getting him minutes. I would be shocked if he appeared in more than 20 games.
Denver has a lot of minutes for guards and swingmen who aren’t the biggest at their positions. Between Isaiah Thomas, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray (and even Monte Morris, who Malone says will get minutes) how much can Denver’s offensive execution outweigh its defensive limitations?
Mares: 100%. There are a lot of different ways to succeed in the NBA, especially during the regular season. Denver has the talent to be a top 3 offense next season and should be a threat to score 120 points on any given night. The 2010 Phoenix Suns won 54 games and made it to the western conference finals despite having the league’s 8th worst defense. Denver can have similar success this year so long as their defense is merely bad like it was last year and not a complete and total dumpster fire.
Poley: First of all, I don’t think replacing Chandler with Barton means that we’re completely punting defense. Honestly, we’re two years removed from Barton being the 15th best iso defender in the league. His defense may be a negative overall, and he’s undersized against plenty of other 3’s, but that’s not to say that he can’t bring some defensive functionality if used to his advantages. It’s a step down the staircase, not a step off the ledge. And, when Jokic and Millsap started the year out together, Jokic was one of the highest rated defensive RPM centers in the league. Millsap has a huge impact on the defensive upside of the whole unit. Both Jokic and Murray (a 6’4” point guard) have a healthy and open-scheduled offseason to increase their athleticism and take it a step further.
Gross: Denver should annihilate teams that come to the Pepsi Center. Their offense travels just fine as well. Adam brought up the 2010 Suns as having the 8th-worst defense and making the WCF, but D’Antoni’s Suns finished middle-of-the-pack in his seasons and won 60+ games a couple of times. The rules and playstyle have only gotten more favorable for offense since then. Denver’s offense should be top-5 elite, and that should more than compensate for their defensive mediocrity - at least in-season.
Vogt: Well it has to outweigh them significantly or this team is in trouble. By signing Will Barton to start at the three and adding IT for pop off the bench, they’ve essentially committed to an all out offensive approach. I fully endorse this. There was no one signing that could have transformed this team defensively, and it is time to embrace their identity as one of the league’s most explosive offenses with little to no regard for defense. It was enough for 46 wins without Paul Millsap last year. I think it will be enough to get them into the playoffs this season.
Follow-up #2: Forget the first round of the playoffs, should Denver get to the second round this year? It’s the summer and we haven’t seen one minute of this team together, but live in a world of pure imagination for a minute.
Mares: This is such a July question. Crawl. Walk. Run. The goal should be to make the playoffs this season and sort the rest out once you get there. Outside of the Warriors, anybody out west is beatable but the goal is playoffs and an overall improvement in the win column.
Poley: Denver should’ve made it to the second round last year, so yeah. The field is full of teams that Denver matches up shoulder-to-shoulder with. Houston looks to have slipped a step this offseason as well. In two games against Houston, Trevor Ariza went off for a combined 39 points on 74% FG, and in 3 games Luc Richard Mbah a Moute averaged 11 points on 72% FG and 2 steals a game in only 24 minutes off the bench. It’s hard to expect the same unified front with James Ennis and MCW filling in for that production. The second round in the west is wide open to anybody seeded second-through-seventh.
Gross: It doesn’t really matter - they need the playoff experience more than anything, in any form it comes in. If they’re healthy and mesh out of the gate, they can get home court. If they don’t and wind up pulling a top-2 seed as an opponent that will obviously be harder. This team is capable of a second-round berth - or an Eastern Conference Finals charge if they somehow switch Conferences in an alternate universe - but getting to the playoffs has to be one of their main requirements this year. Last year both Tim Connelly and Michael Malone wouldn’t get on the “Playoffs or Bust” wagon; this year a playoff berth should be the very least of their mandatory goals.
Vogt: The word “should” is what gets me here. There’s no telling what the seeding will look like out West. The Nuggets could have an excellent season and still be stuck with the Warriors or the Rockets in the first round. The only thing they “should” do is make the playoffs. One step at a time.
Bonus question: What’s your favorite move of the offseason thus far?
Mares: I think Jarred Vanderbilt is a player. His foot injury is concerning but if he gets back on the court, I think Denver has another real piece of their puzzle who can fit in alongside Nikola Jokic and make up for some of his defensive shortcomings. Porter Jr. has a higher upside, but Vanderbilt at 41 is a heck of a deal.
Poley: My brain just broke. I’m going to combine several moves into one: getting under the luxury tax without selling the farm. The road Tim Connelly has paved up until now is leading to a two year window to snag an all-star and be a championship contender. As great of steals as MPJ and IT were, our path was already set and looking good. But free agency would’ve been impossible to maneuver if we started our run into the luxury tax this season. The exponential repeater penalty is no joke.
Gross: Adam stole mine - I jumped off my couch when they actually picked Jarred Vanderbilt. For a team long on commited young core pieces and short on versatile defenders, Vanderbilt is a dream piece to fit in. The Nuggets going big rather than playing it safe on draft night really was my favorite thing. I’m so used to Denver hunting for just the right deal, or being afraid of the wrong move. Maybe some of the mistakes of last summer paid off this year when Denver’s bold moves could help define the franchise for years to come. A healthy Porter and Vanderbilt take this team from the periphery of the playoff and title talk to serious contenders in a couple of years. If they don’t work out, Denver didn’t lose much capital to take the risk. Sometimes you gotta shoot your shot, and the Nuggets did.
Vogt: Bringing Will Barton back when other teams were pursuing him so aggressively. I firmly believe that not only is Barton one of the more important players on the court, he might actually be the single most important player in that locker room. He may be older than Murray/Harris/Jokic but he is undoubtedly a part of this core and Denver is better off with him around.