The Denver Nuggets closed out the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland Thursday night, and Michael Porter Jr. remained on the bench down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Had he done something to anger his coach? That would be hard to believe after making six three-pointers in the first quarter to single-handedly keep Denver in the game. It turns out, Porter was showing again what a great teammate he’s become in Denver: he wanted the win more than the glory.
Asked Michael Porter Jr about Monte Morris and JaMychal Green tonight.— Katy Winge (@katywinge) June 4, 2021
Here’s where he shares he told coach to stick with JaMychal late in the game because of how hard he was playing and what he doing.
“Let him rock.” pic.twitter.com/wVu4oLwsqJ
“JaMychal... the way he brought us home, getting those rebounds, you know, being aggressive. Like I told coach, I think I came out with 5, 6 minutes left, and I saw what he was doing and I was like man, let J-Myke, let him rock cuz I saw how hard he was playing and what he was doing,” Porter told media postgame after Denver’s series-clinching victory.
The 2018 draft was packed full of storylines. Would the first overall pick actually be a center for only the second time since Greg Oden went awry in 2007? What was the evaluation early teams had on Luka Doncic, the most polished Euro teen ever? Which team would choose to build around a 6 foot guard with unlimited range in Trae Young? After that drama played out in the first few picks, however, the question that lingered for the whole lottery was this: how far would Michael Porter Jr. fall?
The medicals were concerning to many teams. Porter was the can’t-miss 6’10 prospect with the unlimited ceiling, until a herniated disk caused him to need multiple surgeries - one even after the draft - to correct the issue, costing him most of his college career. He still often wears a sort of stirrup on his left foot, a lingering tribute to the back surgery that finally alleviated the nerve pain into his left leg but might not have completely fixed the enervation issue which caused his foot drop. Porter kicks his right leg out on shots in a way that causes him to get called for offensive fouls, but which is now a natural part of his motion and landing footwork. He’s adapted to the injury and hasn’t missed time for back problems. The medical staffs of several teams are probably kicking themselves every times he puts up an effortless 20 points.
But 12 teams didn’t pass him over - including the Los Angeles Clippers twice! - simply for medicals. There was a narrative before the draft that MPJ was a selfish player and that narrative has followed him into his NBA career. Porter sat his whole first year. Was that because he wanted to win Rookie of the Year? Porter talked about needing the ball more in the bubble playoffs. Damian Lillard then called him out for selfishness and disrespect. When Lillard jacks up a 30 foot three-pointer with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, it’s Dame Time. When Porter does it, it must just be selfishness.
Except that Porter is a better three-point shooter than Dame - by a lot. Lillard’s career average is 37.5% from beyond the arc. MPJ? 43.9%. The number of players who shot over 43% on more than 4 shots per game in the history of the NBA? Two brothers named Curry, and Joe Harris who has already led the NBA in three-point percentage twice. That’s it.
But Dame can get hot in volume, you say. Fine, let’s talk about MPJ tying the record for made playoff three pointers in a quarter last night with six. The record he tied? Damian Lillard’s.
MPJ is on fire early in the 1Q— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) June 4, 2021
He's 4/4 from 3PT pic.twitter.com/atqSy3sjln
Porter was not wrong that he needed to be used more, though he shouldn’t have said it to the media first. He also had to work on the rest of his game: his defense, his off-ball movement, his basketball awareness all needed improving. All the things he might have learned in college but was unable to get on the court for, he was forced to pick up against the best players in the world. Even as he did that, though, he had to fight the perception that he was out for himself instead of the team. He hustled for rebounds, but was it so he could score more? Every missed rotation was a referendum on a me-first mentality. His coach, Michael Malone, is a defense-first hothead who gets into the action so much he has to restrain himself on the sidelines. Could the two co-exist?
Michael Malone is playing defense against Steph from the sideline pic.twitter.com/wZ7SAiWbGL— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) January 15, 2021
One game after his comments in the bubble playoffs last year, MPJ put up a double-double and hustled all over the court contesting shots, causing Malone to say this after the game:
MPJ had a team-high 10 rebounds. He also had a team-high 12 contested shots, per Malone.— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) February 24, 2021
"Tonight, I thought it was an all-around game from him," Malone said.
"I just like the place he's in. I congratulated him. He said, 'Coach, I just want to help this team win.'"
“I just want to help this team win,” Porter said then. His moments of apparent selfishness are often just his attempt to help his team. Porter has been on the bench celebrating his teams successes. He’s been fitting in to lineups and working to make himself the third option behind Jokic and Murray. When Murray went down he had to change his approach again and become a viable second option, then handle the game-planning from Portland that comes in the playoffs as the second option.
Porter’s character was as maligned as his medicals, and in just his second season playing NBA basketball it looks like the character scouts were even more wrong than the medical staffs of those lottery teams in the 2018 draft. MPJ could have altered the course of the Clippers, as well as the Knicks, the Magic and a host of other teams. He’s blossoming into a taller Klay Thompson in just his second season and there really is no ceiling on his game. But his willingness to be a great teammate really stands out as he grows into his NBA career.
“We got a real deep team, and we all believe in each other,” he said after last night’s series victory. With Jamal Murray, Will Barton and PJ Dozier all out for the first round matchup, trust and belief are huge parts of building a coherent attack. Coach Michael Malone has a gift for creating unity on his squads in the face of adversity, and this was another sign of that. But selfish players don’t buy into the team concept. Jusuf Nurkic talked his way out of Denver when Nikola Jokic showed he was the better player, and he’s talking his way out of Portland the same way. The Nuggets are familiar with selfishness interrupting the growth of a team. Porter does not fit that bill.
The Nuggets have struggled with outside perceptions for years. Jokic’s reputation as soft has been proven so incorrect that he should be a near-unanimous MVP this year. Murray’s pigeonholing as a shooting guard has morphed into respect as a team leader and point guard on the court. And now MPJ’s selfish narrative is being revealed as the illusion it always was. Denver is well-positioned with players that not only want to win, but are willing to win together and to put the good of the team first. Malone might be a defensive-minded coach, but he’s also a team-first guy and in that respect he has every coach’s dream: players able to be greater than the sum of their individual parts.
Those are the sorts of teams that can win titles, and this Denver Nuggets squad still has that as its goal. No selfishness here, just another step toward that ultimate destination.