The Denver Nuggets have progressed to 9-4 after a 5-0 home stand that saw Michael Porter Jr. go down to injury, Bones Hyland take his place as a leader of the bench, and Nikola Jokić stake a claim as the best, most impactful player in the NBA. It was fun. It was dramatic. It was just another weak of Nuggets basketball.

Now, the world has questions about the Nuggets, and I’m here to answer some of them the best I can. Thank you for this week’s mailbag questions. Let’s get to it!

I want to use this question as a means to discuss Michael Porter Jr.’s back injury. It’s very concerning.

The most concerning aspect is the language and ambiguous timeline. Though others have posited their theories on the severity of the injury Porter sustained during (or before) last Monday’s game against the Houston Rockets, the truth is: we don’t know. Michael Malone shared that Porter would be out “for the foreseeable future” and that timeline hasn’t changed, as Malone was asked before yesterday’s pregame media session and offered no additional information.

It’s fair to be concerned about the health of a player who missed two seasons due to a back injury. It’s fair to wonder why no additional updates have been offered as the Nuggets look to get a better handle on the severity of the injury. Even if Porter is cleared to play in Monday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks, it will still be fair to be extremely worried about Porter’s long term health given the way the Nuggets handled his contract negotiation in the offseason.

The fact is, the Nuggets will be at a massive disadvantage going forward if Porter is out for a long period of time. Denver’s team is built so heavily on chemistry around Nikola Jokić that introducing new factors in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. being out, returning, and playing together at various points has the potential to destabilize Denver’s entire year. Now, the long term health and abilities of Murray and Porter supersede Denver’s 2021-22 season goals in my opinion, so it’s worth it to get them up to speed on their own schedule.

If the Nuggets have Murray back but don’t have MPJ, the Nuggets still have an outside chance at winning a title. ping Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, and JaMychal Green gives Denver decent size to make up for MPJ being out, while Will Barton stepping up as a third scoring option gives them a wrinkle they didn’t have in the Bubble either. Still, you generally need all of your strength to win a title, and that applies to the Nuggets too.

The Nuggets can’t trade MPJ at the deadline. Well, technically they can, but as a newly extended contract, it’s obscenely difficult. Extended contracts are laced with a “poison pill” provision that lasts for 12 months. If a player on a poison pill contract is traded, the outgoing salary of $5.3 million is actually worth the following year’s full amount of close to $30 million meaning that the Nuggets would be sending out a small salary and the opposing team would receive a big one. All trades have to be cap legal though, meaning that if the other team, let’s call them the Philadelphia 76ers, is over the cap, then they must send back within 80% of MPJ’s salary amount ($24 million). That number, if sent to the Nuggets, would violate trade rules on Denver’s end of the deal, as they only sent out $5.3 million. That max they can receive back is under $6.5 million.

Think of MPJ’s contract as a bank account full of a lot of money that’s been frozen by the government. Sure, there’s a lot of value in there, but until the injury situation is clarified (and until the 2022 offseason at the earliest) MPJ will absolutely be a Nugget, no questions asked.

For those that are confused, I have a running daily MVP ladder going that I post updates to every single day. Stephen Curry has been the clubhouse leader for the last two weeks, but Jokić has been mostly entrenched in the second spot ahead of Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Ja Morant, Paul George, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It’s clear to me that Jokić has been the best player in the NBA so far. He’s the only All-Star on what is now a top five team in the NBA by record. His combination of production and efficiency is unparalleled. He bends defenses to his will, doesn’t give up too much on the other end, and embodies everything that an MVP should embody.

Unfortunately, all of those same arguments can be used to describe Curry and Durant as well. They are each incredible in their own unique ways, and they play for teams in larger markets and will have an army of support behind them. The two “narrative” choices if you will.

Jokić is going to have to have a few signature moments on national TV, top tier performances against elite big men, and for the Nuggets to probably outpace the Warriors in the standings. It’s an unfair path to walk, but it’s the path he’s been given.

As for my own personal MVP board, one more big Nuggets win and one more Warriors loss or Curry bad game is probably enough to make me flip Jokić and Curry.

Let’s take a look at each of the fields for Sixth Man of the Year and Rookie of the Year as they currently stand:

Here’s Sixth Man candidates:

  • Montrezl Harrell – 347 minutes, 18.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 blocks, 70.9 TS%
  • Tyler Herro – 433 minutes, 21.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 37.4 3P%, 55.7 TS%
  • Carmelo Anthony – 404 minutes, 16.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 47.3 3P%, 62.3 TS%
  • Jalen Brunson – 343 minutes, 14.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 37.8 3P%, 58.0 TS%
  • Alex Caruso – 366 minutes, 8.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.5 steals, 56.7 TS%
  • Derrick Rose – 295 minutes, 12.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 57.7 TS%
  • Ricky Rubio – 394 minutes, 13.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 37.8 3P%, 50.9 TS%
  • Bones Hyland – 148 minutes, 9.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 35.3 3P%, 56.7 TS%

It’s pretty clear that Bones is behind the curve on an award like Sixth Man, and that’s okay. There are plenty of veterans, elite scorers, and high impact players in line for consideration this season. This isn’t close to the full list either, with players like Otto Porter, Nemanja Bjelica, LaMarcus Aldridge, and others also potentially showing up at some point. For Bones to be even considered, his points would probably have to double, and though he’s capable of that, to expect it would be a lot.

As for Rookie of the Year:

  • Evan Mobley – 478 minutes, 15.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 58.8 TS%
  • Scottie Barnes – 422 minutes, 16.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 55.7 TS%
  • Chris Duarte – 450 minutes, 14.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 40.3 3P%, 53.1 TS%
  • Jalen Green – 420 minutes, 13.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 35.2 FG%, 46.5 TS%
  • Cade Cunningham – 205 minutes, 11.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 41.8 TS%
  • Franz Wagner – 416 minutes, 13.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 53.2 TS%
  • Bones Hyland – 148 minutes, 9.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 35.3 3P%, 56.7 TS%

As Bones continues to receive additional opportunities to prove himself, his numbers have the potential to keep going up. More games like last night’s 18-point, 3-assist, 2-steal performance would be a great way to get him into the conversation.

But I have to be realistic here: Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes have been excellent thus far in starting roles as focal points of their team. They’re better, more impactful defenders than Bones is as well, meaning that the only way Bones truly has a shot is if he starts averaging an efficient 18 points and five assists off the bench with regularity. If he does that on a winning team, then he has a chance.

At the current moment:

  1. Jamal Murray
  2. Will Barton
  3. Monte Morris
  4. Bones Hyland
  5. P.J. Dozier
  6. Austin Rivers
  7. Facundo Campazzo
  8. Markus Howard

Nobody is coming close to Murray and what he provides to the team. As great as Barton has played, he would need to be at 20+ points or 5+ assists every night before realistically questioning whether he could pass Murray. Ditto for Monte Morris, who has been a bit less potent and a bit less consistent than Barton but still a tier higher than everyone else.

Despite the gap between the two defensively, Bones has quickly risen past Dozier due to his consistency. When the Nuggets have needed an answer in the backcourt, Bones has been there to offer up playing, production, shooting, and even a bit of defensively energy. Dozier’s three-point shot is back up to 34.2% from three and has the potential to rise higher.

Rivers and Campazzo are in their own separate tier above Howard, but that trio represents the cutoff of what I think will be Denver’s full strength rotation when Murray returns. Rivers offers a bit of defensive versatility while Facu offers some extra punch with his energy and playmaking. A bit of a home run hitter. Both can be helpful in the right situation. Thus far, the Nuggets have needed more of a wing than a guard, hence why Rivers is playing over Campazzo lately.

To be frank? Nobody. Unless Petr Cornelie magically develops as a rim roller, Nik Stauskas and figure out NBA defense, or Lance Stephenson can shoot 40%+ from three-point range, I don’t see a scenario where any of those players can help Denver from a rotation perspective. Cornelie makes the most sense positionally, but it’s a stretch to be clear.

If there’s anyone I’d be curious of for the Grand Rapids Gold, it’s Davon Reed. He’s a 3&D wing who’s clearly capable of more than that based on what he showed in Summer League, preseason, and what he’s shown so far as a playmaker for Grand Rapids. I like his game and think he’d be a helpful wing to have on the team,

Unfortunately, Denver has 15 guaranteed contracts. They’d have to change that to free up room for Reed. Unless I’m mistaken, he isn’t eligible to sign a two-way contract because of his years of service.

I said last week that it’s too early in the season to think about trades, and I stand by that; however, there’s one weakness for Denver that has seemingly emerged and may be exacerbated with MPJ’s absence, three-point shooting.

The Nuggets had a great day at the office on Sunday, making 19-of-40 threes against the Portland Trail Blazers. The vast majority of the season has been watching those shots clank off the rim (or miss the rim entirely) and it’s more likely that the Nuggets faced a bad defense than them having a sustainable shooting performance.

With that in mind, here’s a list of ROLE PLAYER forwards to play five games, attempt at least 30 threes, and hit them at a 38% clip:

  • Doug McDermott
  • Carmelo Anthony
  • Mike Muscala
  • Otto Porter
  • Cody Martin
  • Devin Vassell
  • Jeremy Lamb
  • Cedi Osman
  • Grant Williams
  • Kyle Anderson
  • Georges Niang
  • Svi Mykhailiuk

This is the general price tag that the Nuggets can afford, but not all (and maybe not any) of the above players could be available. The usual way to identify if a player’s available is to make the calls, ask about different players, circle some targets, and either pounce early or wait until the price goes down. Contenders don’t trade their role players for picks often, so remove Anthony, Porter, and Niang from the list. Players that were just recently drafted or recently signed are generally around for longer, so take off McDermott and Vassell from the Spurs (they confuse me).

That leaves Mike Muscala, Cody Martin (not Caleb in Miami, Cody in Charlotte), Jeremy Lamb, Cedi Osman, Grant Williams, Kyle Anderson, and Svi Myhailiuk. Not the sexiest of names, but rebalancing the roster to include a shooter that’s around 6’7” to 6’9” and can defend wings rather than just bigs could be very helpful.

I’ve always been partial to Grant Williams personally. Him or Cody Martin could be solid additions.

If I’m making a checklist of items, here are the top three things:

  1. Michael Porter Jr. returns healthy and effective, fits into the team’s game plan
  2. The three-point shooting bounces back to normal levels
  3. The Nuggets have strong additions against top teams

The first is the most important: talent rules in the NBA, and if the Nuggets can realistically get Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr., Will Barton, and Aaron Gordon all healthy and capable before Murray returns, then I will be far more comfortable with their chances. I want to see Porter back on the court again, or at least get a firm timetable of when to expect him back.

The second, three-point shooting, can be addressed internally and externally. The Nuggets hadn’t been maximizing the spacing of their lineups for awhile, but it feels like they’ve turned a corner in how they’re generating threes consistently at this point. Those shots finally dropped against Portland, and if things continue to trend in the right direction, that would be helpful. Right now, Porter’s shooting 21% from three. Morris is at 30%. Both Greens are at 20%. Getting those three numbers back in line with the norm is important. If not, adding shooting via trade would be another potential avenue.

The third would be for Denver to have strong auditions against title contenders over the next three months. Either winning or playing those games close was a hallmark of the 2019-20 Nuggets that went far in the Bubble because they could rise to the occasion. The Nuggets have already done so against the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat this year, and I’d like to see more games like that. From the Milwaukee Bucks to Los Angeles Lakers to Brooklyn Nets and every contender in between, I hope to see Denver play those teams tough and look like world beaters.

That way, when Murray returns to a team already doing that, the rest of the league begins to worry about the Nuggets in earnest.