On Tuesday, the announcement of Nikola Jokić winning Most Valuable Player during the 2020-21 NBA season was impactful on many levels.
For Denver Nuggets players, it’s an emotional lift, a reminder that the most impactful player in the NBA plays for their team, and a confidence builder that no matter what, the Nuggets have a chance in every game because the Joker is on their side.
For Nuggets coaches and front office, it’s a sigh of relief, the highest level of affirmation that could possibly received for one individual player. It signifies a job well done, vindication for those that were perceived crazy for putting so much time and effort into helping Jokić become the player he could be.
For Nuggets fans, it’s a celebration. The 41st overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, a center from Sombor, Serbia. Jokić is by far the most improbable MVP in NBA history based on his draft position. It’s a validation for Nuggets fans that they aren’t crazy when pleading with their peers around the NBA to pay attention to this player. It turns out, he’s pretty good!
As the Nuggets continue to fight for their playoff lives, it’s important to step back and appreciate just how far the team has come since Jokić and Michael Malone arrived together. In the 2014-15 season, the year before the Nuggets hired Malone, the team won 30 games. Expectations were higher than that, but internal turmoil, a roster that wasn’t built for the long haul, and a coaching staff that struggled to connect anything and anyone led to head coach Brian Shaw being fired and a complete roster makeover.
Malone entered the fray as the head coach next year, as did Jokić. Both immediately left their mark on the organization upon arrival. Malone’s ability to instill good habits, from motivating the players to work hard and play the right way to never giving up, have stuck with the Nuggets as tenets of their organization. Jokić’s ability to play the right way but also with creativity, constantly pushing the Nuggets to be smarter, thinking the game more, and raising their level to his, have also helped guide the organization toward possible greatness. Those two have been around since the beginning, and the Nuggets have yet to skip any steps along the pathway to completely turn around the organization.
Fast forward six seasons, and the Nuggets are in the thick of the playoff race, even without their second best player healthy. Jamal Murray going down was extremely painful this year, given how the Western Conference looks at this current moment in time. Still, the Nuggets future remains brighter for the Nuggets than even now, just hours after Jokić was handed the most prestigious individual trophy in the sport.
Let’s talk about why:
The experience of Michael Porter Jr.
Perhaps no player in the NBA has learned more about being a star in the NBA in the last 12 months than Michael Porter Jr. has between the Bubble and his second NBA season.
Often asked to be a role player within Denver’s system while Murray was healthy, Porter has assumed a larger role within the offense and is discovering just how difficult it is. As of June 8th, Porter had the second highest number of his playoff three-point shots contested at 87.8%, trailing only Kevin Durant. Nikola Jokić ranks 3rd on the same list.
Percent of playoffs 3PAs that have been contested (defender within 6 feet)— Owen Phillips (@owenlhjphillips) June 8, 2021
Durant is making 50 percent of his threes, even though 90 percent of them are contested. Not really sure what the Bucks are supposed to do about that pic.twitter.com/hkF8OaYjcP
Porter is facing perhaps the most focused defensive coverage he has seen in his life. Both the Portland Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns have made a concerted effort to bother him with physicality, reducing the amount of air space he’s allowed to attempt his normal shots. Porter has attempted over 15 shots just two times during the seven playoff games so far, and the Blazers/Suns prefer it that way because it means more shots for Denver’s role players.
In addition, both the Blazers and Suns have and will continue to put him through the mill defensively. Isolations on switches against Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Devin Booker, and Chris Paul have been a good experience for Porter overall, as has executing pick and roll coverages against elite offenses. Those teams are offering a crash course on defense that Porter will retain for a long time, giving him firsthand experience that will prove invaluable in all future playoff runs.
Porter is learning the toll it takes to be a star in the NBA, and learning it at 22 years old puts him in good position to take a significant leap at some point over the next two years. There’s all the reason to believe that it will happen in a Nuggets uniform as well. The Nuggets will have an opportunity to agree to a rookie extension with Porter over the summer, and I would be shocked if both sides didn’t agree to a max contract, estimated at a five-year, $178 million contract beginning in the 2022-23 season. If the Nuggets truly believe they have an MVP player in Jokić as well as two All-Star caliber players in Murray and Porter, signing Porter to a max is simply the price of doing business.
Aaron Gordon is receiving a crash course in Nuggets basketball
After accounting for Game 2 of Nuggets-Suns, Aaron Gordon will have played 33 total games in a Nuggets uniform this season. After coming over to the Nuggets in a mid-season trade just prior to the trade deadline, Gordon has adjusted his game several times over to fill in the gaps around what Jokić and the Nuggets need on any given night. From operating in the short corner as an athletic dunker, to guarding big wings, to posting up mismatches, to shooting 60% from three in the first round against the Blazers, Gordon has shown a litany of skills throughout his 33 games in a Nuggets uniform to keep Nuggets fans excited about how helpful he can be going forward.
The discussion will always center around Jokić, and both Murray and Porter will be given the lion’s share of the credit in lifting up the Nuggets as complementary stars. Every team needs a star role player though, and Gordon has been that player for Denver. Gordon often matches up with the opposing team’s best perimeter star on the defensive end, and when he isn’t defending that player, he’s helping protect the back line of the pick and roll scheme Denver deploys with Jokić higher up the floor than most other centers.
Gordon spent almost an equal amount of time defending four separate players during the first round series against the Blazers: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington. The Nuggets deployed Gordon in a unique way all series, and that versatility will allow the Nuggets to craft new and improved defensive schemes going forward around Jokić and Porter, two players that need a bit of help defensively.
Jamal Murray will be ready to go some time next season
It was heartbreaking to see Murray go down so late in this year. Things were coming together for the Nuggets with the improvements of Porter and the addition of Gordon, but it was Murray raising his game and showing the Bubble wasn’t a fluke that made the Nuggets a true contender. His two-man game with Jokić is perhaps the most dangerous late game action in basketball today, and the Nuggets have sorely missed his perimeter playmaking, despite advancing past the Blazers last round.
Murray’s progression during the regular season in his five years has been a steady improvement line, but the playoffs are where he has seen numbers skyrocket. His ability to play off of what Jokić does and capitalize on the small amount of space he receives has been very impressive. Throughout NBA history, only five players have had a playoff run (at least 250 minutes) and averaged over 26 points and 6 assists per game while maintaining 60% true shooting:
- LeBron James five times
- Michael Jordan
- Stephen Curry two times
- James Harden two times
- Jamal Murray last year in the Bubble
To say the Nuggets are missing Murray in these playoffs is an understatement, despite their collective success.
There’s no doubt that Murray will put himself in the best possible position to be back healthy and ready to go at some point during next season. Murray is constantly on the court getting shots up on one leg, and there’s all the reason to believe that he will attack his rehab in a way that gets him back to full strength as quickly as possible. Murray’s competitive nature just won’t let him stay away. There’s also no reason to believe Murray can’t return to full strength as well, though he may have to alter his game in some ways to ensure he stays on the floor.
As the Nuggets continue to fight in these playoffs, it’s important to not overreact if Denver is eliminated by another good team. Injuries hit them hard, and trying to do anything in a playoff series without someone who put up numbers comparable to LeBron, MJ, Curry, and Harden in the playoffs last year is asking a lot.
When Murray does return, he will be joining a team that has developed an even tougher mentality in order to survive without him. What the Nuggets are doing right now is extremely impressive. Very few teams could survive an injury to their second best player and still advance. Ask the Los Angeles Lakers.
Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Facundo Campazzo, JaMychal Green, and even young players like Zeke Nnaji, Markus Howard, and Vlatko Čančar are among the Nuggets players under contract heading into next season. Will Barton has a player option, while Austin Rivers and Paul Millsap are free agents. Surrounding Denver’s top players with the right supporting cast will go a long way toward positioning the Nuggets for playoff success for years to come.
Even if it doesn’t happen this year, the future remains extremely bright.
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