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Jerami Grant’s departure, Michael Porter Jr.’s arrival, and trial by raging inferno

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It’s time to plan for the future, now.

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets - Game Three Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets were blindsided when Jerami Grant walked away.

Ask anybody involved. The Nuggets thought he was coming back. Other NBA teams thought he was coming back. Hell, even Grant’s own camp believed he’d be returning to the Nuggets on a fresh, new deal to help Denver compete for a championship. Now, he’s a member of the Detroit Pistons, who were on pace to win 25 games last season before COVID-19 set the world on fire.

The news of Grant leaving flummoxed me. The fact that, according to several reports, the Nuggets matched Detroit’s offer of three years, $60 million and he still didn’t return to Denver truly broke my brain. It is Grant’s choice to make as an unrestricted free agent, but it seems that when offered the same amount of money by both franchises, Grant chose a larger personal role rather than a greater chance at winning a championship. Unless someone is lying about the course of events as they have been presented to me, that much seems to be true. I don’t believe Tim Connelly to be a liar though, and if Nuggets reporters are reporting that Grant turned down the same contract to play for a 25-win team instead, then I believe the Nuggets in this case.

It’s not my place to judge anyone’s personal motives. If Grant sees himself as a star in the making, then he should go try and be a star. I saw him (and I believe my perspective to be shared by many) that Grant is a star within his role, supporting the primary stars on the team by doing things they can’t do themselves. There should be pride in that, especially if it earned him a $20 million annual contract. Now, Grant is about to test just how much star potential he has, scoring and playmaking for himself and others at as high a level as his talents will take him. I hope he succeeds at it. I don’t expect success in this case.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After game planning for Grant’s return, the Nuggets passed up several opportunities to trade for or drafting quality wing/forward talent. Robert Covington went to the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday for the cost of Trevor Ariza’s expiring contract and two first round picks. The Golden State Warriors acquired Kelly Oubre for a first round pick on Thursday, the day before Grant left Denver high and dry. Saddiq Bey went to the Detroit Pistons at 19th overall on draft night, a pro-ready player the Nuggets could have easily traded up for on draft night. Jaden McDaniels, Tyler Bey, and Robert Woodard each went in the 16 picks following Denver’s selection of RJ Hampton, a star caliber shooting guard prospect who won’t play power forward for the rest of his life.

Grant’s departure significantly wounds Denver’s chances this upcoming season because he gave them no warning that he was uninterested in the role the Nuggets planned to give him. That warning would have given Denver time to prepare a backup plan. Instead, they were caught scrambling.

Denver had a Plan B in the event of Grant’s unexpected departure, and they executed that plan. First, they signed JaMychal Green to a two-year deal. Green is a versatile, floor spacing big man for the Los Angeles Clippers who they faced in the playoffs and performed well during that series. Second, they re-signed Paul Millsap to a one-year deal. Millsap has a high level of familiarity with Denver’s system and culture, thus making him a great option to keep the ship afloat and plug a few holes.

Green is a more traditional power forward, maybe even a small ball center to stretch the floor in some lineups. He won’t defend small forwards though, especially the ones that give the Nuggets the most trouble in playoff situations. Still, Green is a smart player and should be a strong addition to Denver’s frontcourt rotation. The big man averaged 20.7 regular season minutes per game for a championship contending Clippers squad and 17.1 per game in the playoffs. He shot 56.8% from the field and 43.1% from three-point range in LA’s 13 playoff contests, and every Clippers analyst shares the belief that Green was LA’s most reliable backup big man in the playoffs over Montrezl Harrell.

Millsap — like Green — won’t be defending the perimeter wings but will instead focus on power forwards and centers within Denver’s defensive schemes. With Grant in town, Millsap’s role lessened, though he was unarguably the more impactful regular season contributor of the two. The rebounding, foundational defensive rotations, and smart offensive play next to Jokić helped Millsap flourish in the regular season.

In the playoffs, things were less rosy. Millsap’s inability to keep up on the perimeter hurt Denver’s plus-minus while he was on the floor in the first two playoff matchups. Against the Jazz, Millsap had a positive plus-minus zero times, and Utah’s ability to stretch Denver to their limits nearly lost Denver the series. Had it not been for Grant, the Nuggets would have lost in the first round. In the Western Conference Finals, things improved as Millsap matched up more traditionally with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the large Lakers frontcourt; however, in Denver’s elimination game, Millsap went just 1-of-8 from the field and was a minus-8 overall.

Having two traditional power forward options will help the Nuggets survive the regular season. Millsap shot 43.5% from three-point range, while Green shot 38.7% himself. Both will space the floor enough offensively to make things work while defending their position and properly rotating on defense.

There’s no question that Denver mitigated disaster here, but the playoffs will loom large as a question mark until Denver is tested again.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s Michael Porter Jr. and his star power.

While head coach Michael Malone and the Nuggets decided to bring along last year’s talented rookie at a slow pace, Porter continued to push for more playing time with increasing impressive showcases of scoring, rebounding, and net impact on the rest of the roster. It was nice to see, and Porter’s run in the regular season bubble games will lie in infamy, as the rookie went from scoring 25 points in January as his career high at that point to exceeding 25 points in three consecutive games. 37 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, 30 points against the San Antonio Spurs, and 27 points against the Portland Trail Blazers. The three teams had one common denominator: no forward defender athletic enough to keep up with Porter’s off-ball movement or tall enough to contest a picturesque jumper.

With Gary Harris and Will Barton out due to injury, Malone decided to do the impossible and start Porter in Denver’s first three playoff games. It was a vote of confidence in the rookie who had performed so well in the lead up to the playoffs that it was perfectly justified, but it became clear that Porter wasn’t ready for the spotlight immediately. Against the Utah Jazz, Porter was decimated defensively, repeatedly attacked on the perimeter on isolations and pick and rolls by Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, and Mike Conley. Those four had a field day for three straight games, and that was enough of a sample size for Malone to sub in Grant as the starting small forward with Porter coming off the bench.

The move proved to be effective for Porter specifically. In the 16 games of Denver’s playoff run that followed, Porter had a positive plus-minus in 12 of them. The move to defending mostly bench players, avoiding the brunt force trauma that opposing stars tend to provide, and focusing on what he COULD do was incredibly effective. So much so that Porter still remained a key piece in the closing rotation of Games 5 and 6 against Utah as well as Games 5 and 6 against the LA Clippers. Malone played Porter in at least 14:47 minutes in every single playoff game, so the sample size of positive production from a raw, inexperienced rookie doesn’t seem to be a fluke.

Of course, one of the primary reasons Porter succeeded was due to that removal of pressure. For the first few games of the postseason, Porter was under a microscope for his defensive ineptitudes. He wasn’t the only reason Denver lost, but it didn’t help that the Jazz had what felt like unlimited success attacking the rookie every single possession. It was unfair to put so much pressure on Porter in the first place, but that’s exactly what Grant was there for: his presence alleviated the stress and put Porter in a better position to succeed consistently.

And now, Grant is gone.

For Porter, the Grant departure signals an immediate need to become the best version of himself on both ends of the floor. The primary reason why he’s out there will always be his offensive game, but the best players in the sport, especially those at his position, get it done on both ends of the floor. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Jayson Tatum, etc. Those guys found a way to be positive contributors defensively, whether by being inherently gifted on the defensive end or simply choosing to put in the effort.

Denver’s roster moves for traditional power forwards signal rotation plans loud and clear. If Porter is going to earn a starting lineup spot on opening night and become the star the Nuggets believe he can be, it will have to be while guarding some of the best offensive players in the world. Against the Los Angeles Lakers, if the Nuggets roll out a starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Porter, Millsap, and Jokić, then there’s only one player who will spend significant time guarding LeBron James: Porter. If the same lineup is deployed against the Clippers, Porter will most likely draw the Kawhi Leonard defensive assignment.

If Grant had been retained, the Nuggets would have had some leeway to ease the rookie into things defensively while still starting him every single night. Now, Porter is the only conceivable option. The Nuggets made sure of that with other roster moves as well, rescinding the qualifying offer of Torrey Craig and waiving Keita Bates-Diop. Right now, the only playable wings on Denver’s roster are Porter, Gary Harris, and Will Barton. PJ Dozier is another option but remains more of a guard. RJ Hampton is a rookie. Bol Bol is 7’2” and...I don’t really know how to deal with that yet.

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets - Game Six Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

It has become increasingly clear that the Nuggets are going to introduce Porter to the starting lineup using trial by fire. Training camp supposedly begins in eight days, meaning the fire is actually closer to a raging inferno of fiery death. It’s still possible that Malone could decide to start Barton, but that scenario appears increasingly unlikely as Denver’s other moves come into focus. Porter looks to be the player Tim Connelly and the front office are opening up so much time for.

And when the starting lineup comes into focus, it will soon become clear that Porter will be the third offensive option as well. With Harris and Millsap most likely retaining their starting roles to help with the team defense on the floor, Porter is the player after Jokić and Murray most likely to maintain a heavy offensive load. That factor also contains a boatload of pressure for obvious reasons. Against elite defenses, Porter will often draw the most potent defensive wing/forward assignment.

As the Nuggets look to transition into the next version of who they are, there will be growing pains between Jokić, Murray, and Porter. For the past two seasons, including deep playoff runs, Jokić and Murray have been the show, running their two-man game as the default option for most of their minutes on the floor together. They have been massively successful, and incorporating Porter into that promises to yield some uneven results, including questions about the pecking order at the end of games if Porter turns out to be the star most believe him to be. As long as the Nuggets are winning, there will be few questions. Following a difficult loss or stretch of losses, there might be some problems at the top.

It’s important for the Nuggets to work through those issues as they come and maintain stoic belief in each other. If this trio is to become a long time partnership, then certain concessions will need to be made. Jokić will always be willing to defer as long as the Nuggets are successful. Murray has shown a willingness to be a more traditional point guard rather than just a scorer at various points, but with his breakout in the bubble, there may be no reason for him to defer as a scorer going forward. He looked to give Porter occasional touches throughout the bubble experience, but when it came down to winning time, the two-man game with Jokić was always the answer. And for good reason! The Nuggets went to the Western Conference Finals that way.

But the potential to add to that dynamic is too tantalizing to pass up. If Porter is the star scorer that many believe he can be, then he offers insurance for Denver’s current star tandem. If there’s foul trouble, or an injury, or one of the stars is simply struggling, it’s an incredible luxury to have a 6’10” three-level scoring forward who projects to average 25+ points per game at some point to come in and finish off what Denver’s two current stars began.

The Nuggets are right to take this gamble with Porter. Star talent is what drives winning at the highest level, and without a copious amount of star talent, it will be impossible for the Nuggets to bring home a trophy. It’s why the Nuggets have made Porter untouchable in trade talks, something that other teams have found frustrating in the process of quietly shopping their own star players. Every team wants Porter for a reason, and the Nuggets should feel an obligation to keep him for that very reason.

Patience is going to be key for all involved. Jokić has to know that Porter will make mistakes and be okay with it as long as there’s tangible progress. Murray has to know that Porter might take more shots than him on some nights, and he probably has to be okay with that despite also wanting to be an All-Star himself. Malone has to allow the rookie to work through his mistakes while leaving him on the floor. The best teacher is experience, and the only way for Porter to learn on the fly as quickly as he needs to is to experience as much as he can.

Most importantly, Porter needs to be patient with his situation and take things one day and one game at a time. Executing the game plan to the best of his ability every single night will go a long way in garnering the trust of Jokić, Murray, and Malone specifically. If he continues to show dedication to the team, the team will show dedication to him. That means being okay with not taking a ton of shots as long as his defense is improving, or teaching himself to consistently make the extra pass. The shots will come, he’s too talented not to get the opportunity to shoot.

There is no question that this season will be a trial by raging inferno for Porter, Jokić, Murray, and the rest of the organization. There is no more security blanket now that Grant has departed. It will become that much more difficult to build a playoff caliber defense with Grant gone. Maybe it’s for the best though, as the Nuggets look to take the final steps.

Now, there will be a clear indication of whether Michael Porter Jr. should be in Denver’s final plans as a third star or a trade candidate.