Forty-two years, that’s how long it has been. Longer than Star Wars has been a thing, longer than the time since the NBA and ABA merged and as long of a time as computers have been able to be put in a home. Forty-two years, that’s how long it’s been since the Denver Nuggets played in a championship, that was also the last year of the ABA. Since that six game ABA Finals that saw the Nuggets vanquished by Julius Erving and his New York Nets, Denver has failed to return to a championship series, much less win one. They got close three times with Western Conference Finals appearances in 1978, 1985 and 2009. Outside of that, in terms of the postseason, Denver’s successes are dwarfed by their failures. Today, they sit in the second longest playoff drought in franchise history, missing the postseason for five straight years. Though they are on the cusp of returning (and have been for two seasons) it is fairly universally agreed that the Nuggets are still a long way from being a Finals contender. However that could change, and fast, if just one player on the Nuggets roster can reach his ceiling. It’s not Nikola Jokic.
Jokic is without a doubt the best player on the Nuggets and one of the best players in the NBA. He is a supremely unique and talented individual who raises all boats. He will be vital to Denver’s path to the Finals if they can get there, but he is not what will put them over the top. The Nuggets rely heavily on Nikola, so much so that their entire roster is built around the fast paced, big man initiated, off-ball movement offense in which Jokic excels. It’s why they feel fine playing Jamal Murray, a combo guard, as their primary point guard. It’s why they paid Paul Millsap, a defense first power forward who can space the floor, $30 million a season. It’s why they rewarded Gary Harris, a do-it-all two guard who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be highly effective, with a new contract. In doing this Denver has exposed themselves to a weakness which can be exploited, in particularly in a playoff scenario where focus and game planning reach a new level. The Nuggets have built a roster that has almost no depth when it comes to playmaking.
In a playoff series against Denver the obvious focus is going to be Nikola. To his credit, The Joker is one of the more difficult players to game plan for because of his unique style but to his detriment, we’ve seen how taking the ball out of his hands can render him largely ineffective. Without a doubt the game plan to defend Jokic is to deny him the ball, and with 4, 5, 6 or 7 games to work with, you can bet opposing coaches are going to find a way to do that. If the Nuggets want to be successful in the postseason and if they want to win the ultimate prize, they have to find the counter punch to that strategy. They have to find other playmakers who are capable of creating for themselves and others to take the burden of Nikola when the defense clamps down on him.
Heading into the 2018-2019 season two players who project to be in the rotation from day one, Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas, are the prime candidates for that role, but neither is ideal. We’ve seen what happens when Barton is asked to shoulder the offensive load. His efficiency dips, he begins to force things and goes into being an isolation player with poor shot selection. He’s also undersized at the small forward position, meaning it’ll be even more difficult to produce when a larger player is locked in on him with that playoff focus. In Thomas’ case, while he can be a superb creator, there are several questions regarding his health, whether or not he’s going to be in Denver long term and whether or not a team who already is trying to mask their center on defense can also mask a point guard who can’t stop the attack at the perimeter, at all. No, as much as those guys can help, neither can be the playmaker the Nuggets need to put them over the top. Only one player on the roster can do that: Michael Porter Jr.
Now I know what you’re thinking, maybe we should pump the brakes and see the guy play a game of basketball for the first time in two years before anointing him the player who will bring the Nuggets to the promise land. I agree. It’s important to point out that I’m not saying Porter Jr will take the Nuggets to the Finals, only that he’s the only player on the current roster with the capability to do so. The fact of the matter is in the NBA it’s big wings who can score and defend that get you over the top and that’s been shown over a looooooong period of time. Don’t believe me? This season will mark the 40th year where the NBA awards a Finals MVP, only seven winners have been classified as a center, we’ll call it eight though because no one is confusing Dirk Nowitzki as a wing. Speaking of Dirk, it’s been seven years since he won his Finals MVP awards and who have the seven Finals MVP awards gone to since then? LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant. The five before Dirk? Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Tony Parker and Dwyane Wade. In my lifetime, all thirty-three years of it, there has been a total of five big men to win a Finals MVP award: Dirk, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’neal, Hakeem Olujawon and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. That’s five of the top 10 big men to ever play the game, and four of them you can make an argument that they are the GOAT big man (sorry Dirk).
Those five guys, among the best ever at their positions, were able to combine for just ten of the last thirty-three Finals MVP awards. Three of them (Shaq, Duncan and Kareem) won at least one Finals MVP award while being teammates with a perimeter playmaker who themselves would win a Finals MVP (Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker and Magic Johnson respectively). So while yes, it is possible that Jokic could be the number one guy on a championship team, it’s far more likely that the player the Nuggets will have to rely on in the post season to power them to victory will be a wing player. Whether it’s been Magic or Kobe or Durant or Lebron or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird, the overwhelming theme of a Finals MVP has been a two-way wing. The bigger for their position and the more effortless their scoring, the better.
MPJ is the only player on the Nuggets who fits that description. Actually, he’s the only one who comes even close to that description and make no mistake, he has a long way to go to reach that echelon, really long. However, there is reason to believe he can do it, even with the fact that he’s been unable to play substantive basketball for the better part of two years. There’s a reason that he was rumored to possibly go as high as #2 in the NBA Draft. The reason is: the players who have accomplished what he accomplished in high school are really really really freaking good. Porter Jr accomplished what is known as the holy trinity of high school basketball awards his senior year. He was named the Naismith Prep Player of the Year, the Gatorade Boys Player of the Year and the McDonald’s All American game MVP. Since 2003 that has been accomplished just twice. The two to do it were Dwight Howard and Lebron. They both led their team to the Finals less than six years after graduating high school. In fact, pretty much across the board since 2003 when it comes to the Gatorade Boys Player of the Year award, it was given to either a star player in the NBA today, or a top prospect out of college who’s career was derailed by injuries. The three to win it before Porter were Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons and Karl-Anthony Towns.
On the other hand, Porter’s high school accolades, his incredible size for his position and his ability to effortlessly shoot the basketball make him a prime candidate to be everything the Nuggets need to become a finals contender, but he’s also nowhere close to that yet. Among that same list of award winners you’ll find Jabari Parker, Greg Oden and Brandon Knight. All of them highly touted prospects, all of them derailed by injuries. For Porter that is obviously a very real possibility with his back injuries. Which is why it will be of the utmost importance to not rush him back until he’s ready. The back is a tricky thing, and from the sounds of it, Porter’s back injury could bug him for an entire year before he’s finally back to 100%. The tricky part will be that his injury requires rehab, he has to rebuild what he has lost, which will require work. Overwork him though and you’re likely to have a similar disastrous scenario as he had during the pre-draft workout stage where back spasms rendered him unable to appear. Nobody knows his body better than MPJ so it will be up to him to find the balance between work and rest that gets him ready as soon as possible, a tricky thing for a teenager anxious to make his mark in his profession.
There’s also the other half of the equation: defense. It’s very easy to see that MPJ can shoot the rock, just look at the video below. He has that effortless stroke along with his long and lean frame that lend way for comparisons to Durant, and KD is exactly the type of player he needs to become. Durant entered the league much like Porter in terms of skill set. His combination of length and shooting ability put him in elite company on offense but on defense his was marginal at best. Throughout his career though KD has steadily improved on that end to the point that he’s in the conversation for best two-way player in the league. Because of his overwhelming height and wing span advantage, Durant can both contain dribble penetration at the perimeter and recover to deny an easy basket at the rim. That’s exactly what the Nuggets need as well for as much as they have a hole in terms of play creation on the wings, they have an even bigger one at stopping play creation at the wings. MPJ has better size than anyone who can play the small forward on the Nuggets, the only one who comes close is Juancho Hernangomez (and Vlatko Cancar but that’s another article).
That’s why he’s the guy to lead Denver to the finals next to Jokic, and its why he is the key to the Finals as well. Even if the Joker develops into a two way player, rim protection from your big has not been a factor in deciding championships recently. Hell, the Golden State Warriors have trotted out whichever corpse of a 2000s era center they can find for the past four years and they had no problem winning multiple titles. Same goes for Lebron’s Cavaliers teams and his Heat teams. In the 2010s, it just hasn’t been a priority of championship teams. Proactive defense has replaced reactive defense. No one needs a rim protector to clean up their mistakes if they have the players to contain the perimeter and movement off ball in the first place. The days of bigs banging down low and Dikembe Mutombo swatting away ill attempted post shots from centers are long gone. Jokic will be a vital piece of the Nuggets championship run, but because of the difference in format between regular season and post season, and because of the way Denver has built the team around him, it’ll have to be Michael Porter Jr as the catalyst to get them over the top.