Over the next two weeks, the Denver Stiffs staff will preview the 2020-21 Denver Nuggets season in an alternative way. Rather than preview every single player on the roster, Denver Stiffs will ask and answer the 10 most pressing Nuggets questions in the two weeks prior to the season opener on December 23rd.

We hope you enjoy!

The Denver Nuggets offseason didn’t exactly go as planned when Jerami Grant sought greener pastures in Detroit. But with his departure and the subsequent departure of Torrey Craig to Milwaukee, in theory it is Michael Porter Jr. who stands to gain the most from the roster changes.  

It’s been a few years in the making but 2020-2021 should finally be the year of MPJ. But will he be the starting small forward when the season begins?

There’s no question that Porter is talented enough to be a starter in the regular season – he was already wildly successful at it in the bubble, averaging 22.0 points and 9.1 rebounds during the seven bubble games, earning All-Bubble Second Team honors along with a starting spot when the playoffs began.

Porter’s time as a starter was short lived, though, as Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz targeted him repeatedly on the defensive end, a piece of the puzzle in Utah’s initial 3-1 series lead. Grant ended up replacing Porter at small forward, and that adjustment—along with supernova performances from Jamal Murray—enabled the Nuggets to come back and win the series.

That isn’t to say Porter was a non-factor in the playoffs. On the offensive side of the floor MPJ showed elite potential. In 23.7 minutes per game he averaged 11.4 points and grabbed 6.7 boards while shooting 38.7% from three. He had some incredible individual moments for a rookie, including some gutsy shots in crunch time against the Los Angeles Clippers and drilling threes right in the face of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. His highlight reel from the postseason should be seen on loop rather than just once.

Porter’s ascension, however, came in due part to Will Barton III re-aggravating a knee injury, causing Barton to miss out on Orlando entirely. There wasn’t much of a choice but for Porter to play big minutes. Barton, who has started 156 games for the Nuggets over the years, is said to be healthy once again and will be vying to keep hold of his starting position, even saying as much in his first media availability of the season.

With the shortened offseason there might be a premium on continuity this year. Taken one step further, it might make the most sense for Malone to roll with the tried-and-true starting lineup of Murray-Harris-Barton-Millsap-Jokic, which in 38 games in 2019-20 had a net rating of +8.6, putting it in the 94th percentile per Cleaning the Glass.

That line of thinking would be shortsighted, though.

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The reality is that things changed for the Nuggets in 2018 when Porter fell to them in the draft. Porter was an elite prospect who, if healthy, had nearly unlimited upside. The Nuggets front office thought that if Porter was able to pan out alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, Denver could be in contention for years to come, regardless of how many Los Angeles teams bought top-tier free agents.

That thought process appears more justified today. As frustrating as it has been to see Porter not get quite the amount of playing time a lottery pick of his caliber probably deserves, his rookie season was all about testing the waters on his health and helping him get up to NBA speed. So far, there haven’t been any significant issues with his back, and a fairly consistent role on a team that went to the Western Conference Finals was more than enough as an introduction to the league.

This season has to be all about figuring out how seamlessly MPJ actually fits with Jokic and Murray. The advanced stats from last season are enough to make any Nuggets fan absolutely giddy. Per Cleaning the Glass, in the regular season with all three on the floor the Nuggets outscored opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions, which is in the 89th percentile. In the playoffs, the point differential jumped to 12.8, good for the 98th percentile. 

Porter’s individual defensive issues aren’t just going to go away overnight, but there is a certain reality of him being too good on offense to not try and maximize his potential alongside Denver’s two other stars. MPJ will get his minutes regardless this season, but he’s such an elite shooter and rebounder that he would legitimately take the starting offense from great to elite. We already saw it in the playoffs; when Porter was on the floor the Nuggets offense opened up, especially in crunch time. Without him things clogged up.

The defense will come with more experience, and it’s not like Porter doesn’t know that he has to improve significantly on that end of the floor. In his media appearance this past Saturday, he said, “I’ve been working really hard in all the areas that I saw I need to get better in the playoffs…I want to be one of the best players. I want to guard the best players and I want the best players on the other team to guard me.”

Assuming Porter does improve, having a 6’10 MPJ on the wing will go a long way on the perimeter, especially in the absence of Grant. Even if such improvement takes longer, the benefits of starting Porter far outweigh the risks.

One of the key moments of the playoffs came in the closing moments of Game 5 in the second round. Two nights earlier after falling down 3-1 to the Clippers and being held scoreless in the second half after scoring 15 points in the first half, MPJ told the media that he didn’t touch the ball enough and that more players needed to get involved if Denver wanted a chance to beat the Clippers.

Instead of benching Porter to send a message, Malone let him play into crunch time. Up by two with just over a minute left, Porter got the ball on the wing and with no hesitation drilled a three to seal the game and keep the Nuggets season alive.

Good things happen when MPJ is on the floor, especially alongside Murray and Jokic. Malone knows that. He trusted Porter then, in the most dire of circumstances for the team. He’s going to trust him again this season and help take the Nuggets to new heights.

Michael Porter Jr. will be the starting small forward.

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