As part of Denver Stiffs’ transition from Denver Nuggets postseason coverage to offseason coverage, staff members will be conducting End of Season Reviews for all 17 players on the roster. There will continue to be news, NBA draft, free agency, and trade articles, but over the next three weeks, an accompanying End of Season review (or two) will also post every week day.
Today’s review: Michael Porter Jr
Without a doubt, Michael Porter Jr. was the most anticipated rookie for the Denver Nuggets since Carmelo Anthony. After waiting an entire season while he worked to return from a back injury, MPJ finally saw the court in the NBA this season. It wasn’t always pretty, as he often struggled to defend NBA level talent, but there were moments of sheer brilliance as well which culminated in a superb run during the seeding games after the season restarted in Orlando.
Without that run perhaps the organization’s outlook on Porter would be quite different, but when he showed undeniable star talent during those two weeks it led to him initially being a starter in the playoffs and Michael Malone referring to MPJ as a cornerstone of the franchise. Now it seems a foregone conclusion that the Nuggets have the beginnings of a homegrown Big 3 that is primed to compete for years to come. Really only two questions remain, how much development should be expected from Porter, and is it enough to get Denver past the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors of the world.
Michael Porter Jr. Regular Season/Playoff stats
The theme for Porter’s rookie season was earn it. Despite all the hype, despite his incredible accomplishments in high school that have only been duplicated in the past two decades by LeBron James and Dwight Howard, nothing was going to be handed to Mike. The fact of the matter was the Nuggets were coming off a season where they were one win away from the Western Conference Finals and they had talented wings in Gary Harris and Will Barton in the starting lineup while Jerami Grant, someone they just traded a first round pick in order to acquire, was the sixth man off the bench. With Monte Morris and Mason Plumlee filling the bench point guard and center positions, two spots MPJ really isn’t suited to play, the Nuggets rotation was 8 deep before they even got to a slot where Porter could play. Even then, he would have to compete with the likes of Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez and Torrey Craig to get minutes.
Porter’s year began very much as someone on the fringes of the rotation and that was pretty consistent throughout, at least up until the season was paused due to COVID-19. Beasley got the lion’s share of the ninth man in the rotation minutes and Craig and Juancho were the first to fill in due to injury or matchup. Over the first quarter of the season Porter eclipsed the ten minute mark in just three games while being issued a DNP-CD nine times in the same time period. In late December he started to find some momentum though and carried that into January when he averaged over twelve points and just shy of seven rebounds in a little over twenty-one minutes a game. Finally the season seemed to be on track for Denver’s rookie but it would quickly come screeching to a halt.
Porter twisted an ankle at the very beginning of February and had to sit for six games. In that time Beasley and Juancho were traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, clearing the way for MPJ to get playing time, but he wasn’t 100% when he returned and had a rather pedestrian end to February and beginning of March. The season pause allowed him to recover fully from any ailments and once he made it to the bubble in Orlando circumstances early on made it so coach Malone had little choice but to play anyone who was able to suit up for the game. With most of the Nuggets normal rotation dealing with injuries or travel issues, Porter flourished in a spotlight role. During the seeding games he averaged twenty-two points to go with over eight rebounds and nearly a block and a steal a game. There were still some noticeable growing pains on defense, but they were less important given the production Denver got on the other end.
That run led to MPJ being named to the NBA’s Second All-Seeding team and a spot in the starting rotation once the playoffs began. It did not go as well from there. The Utah Jazz, Denver’s first round opponent, quickly figured out that Porter’s defensive deficiencies were an advantage they could exploit and exploit it they did. He was constantly the target of a Donovan Mitchell pick and roll in order to get him to have to switch on Mitchell and from there the Jazz’s star guard went to work. Ultimately coach Malone had to make a switch and inserted Grant in the starting lineup by Game 4 while sending Mike to the bench. Porter would never get back into the starting lineup and had an up and down run in the postseason in general. Handicapped by the fact that teams targeted him on a huge number of possessions and perhaps drinking a little too much from the firehose that is a player’s first NBA postseason, MPJ’s playoffs never really took off the way his seeding games did. Still, he had moments that showed his undeniable talent and ability to be a matchup nightmare for even the most elite teams (and players) in the NBA.
Season Grade: B+
Porter’s season certainly wasn’t all roses, but it was much more good than bad when he got his chance to play. That’s what keeps this from an A+ season though: when he got his chance. You can’t deny that there were many moments during the season and the playoffs where it was clear that Mike was a rookie. The number of blow bys he gave up on defense would be damning for most anyone in the league that didn’t have his incredible ceiling. Because of that he lost minutes due to the fact that coach Malone had other players he could trust more. No one thinks Torrey Craig is a better player than Michael Porter Jr, probably not even Craig himself, but his ability to not hurt the Nuggets on the defensive end kept him in games that MPJ often found himself warming the bench in.
Despite the struggles defensively, it was still a very good year for Mike. He established himself as a clear piece of Denver’s future and certainly had the look of a potential NBA superstar. At his size and with the skill he showed the Nuggets went from an annual playoff contender to a fringe championship contender and there’s plenty of reason to believe that the development of Porter can push the Nuggets over the top. Perhaps even more important than the star flashes was the fact that he was healthy. Yes, he missed some games and underperformed in others due to a twisted ankle, but 6’10” dudes who drive hard to the basket and get up for every rebound are going to occasionally have that happen, just the way it goes. Save for one game where the Nuggets were extra cautious, there were zero back related issues for MPJ this season, nor did it look like there was any loss of explosion in his game. The fact that he was healthy confirmed that the Nuggets were right to take the gamble on him in the 2018 draft.
Season highlight: Ending Montrezl Harrell
There are a ton of moments to choose from when it comes to MPJ’s signature moment of his rookie season. I thought about the ridiculous step back in the Indiana Pacers game, or any of the handful of seeding games where he went on a run that seemed as unstoppable as it was effortless. However, there’s clearly one moment that sticks out more than any other and that’s when Porter put Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell on a poster in the second round of the playoffs.
Also...can we give a quick shout out to this seeding game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What’s next for Michael Porter Jr
Porter should be a starter going into next season, but he’ll likely have to prove that he’s spent his limited offseason time working on his defense and improving on that end before he is given the job outright. Still, it would be a surprise to not see him in the starting group to begin next year. Improving on defense to get as much opportunity as possible will be the theme for his sophomore season. There’s little doubt that he’s a net positive for the Nuggets but they need him to be able to hold his own on both ends of the court. On top of that he’ll have to prove he can be the player the Nuggets saw in the seeding games throughout an entire season and then be more effective in the postseason.
I expect he will accomplish those things over the next year which means the Nuggets will need to be prepared to come with a large extension offer following the conclusion of next season. In many ways it could be similar to the Jamal Murray extension where the Nuggets have to bet a little bit on promise rather than production and that means the price tag will be large indeed. If Porter really cleans up the defense, is a consistent scoring threat near the twenty point mark and continues to be a dominant rebounder next season then expect the Nuggets to offer him the maximum amount they can next fall.