Michael Malone doesn’t trust Michael Porter Jr. Anyone who watches Nuggets games can attest to this fact.
If the second-year forward is playing great, the head coach will keep him in the game. But as soon as he stumbles or struggles, MPJ is yanked to the bench, sometimes to hardly be seen again.
Such was the game on Sunday night. Porter started the game hot, scoring 10 points in the first quarter on four-for-four shooting. But after missing all three of his shots in the third quarter, the forward was relegated to the bench, not seeing any action in the fourth quarter.
In part, this was because the Nuggets trailed by 17 heading into the final stanza. So Malone was going with reserves, trying to avoid burning out his starters in what was headed to a blowout loss.
But he played Jamal Murray 11:29 in the quarter. And when things got close, he put Nikola Jokic back in for another six-minute stretch.
He didn’t give Porter Jr. a shot, however. Instead, Malone tried to finish off a rally – which ultimately failed – with the likes of R.J. Hampton, Isaiah Hartenstein and Zeke Nnaji.
Those three combined for zero points in more than 16 combined minutes. Meanwhile, a player who has been positioned as a “superstar in waiting” sat on the bench.
That label might be overly optimistic, but there is some merit to it. Had he entered the NBA straight out of high school, Porter Jr. might’ve been the No. 1 overall pick. After hardly playing during his freshman year at Missouri, however, he tumbled all the way to the bottom of the lottery, where the Nuggets grabbed him at No. 14.
He then missed an entire season, essentially his second-straight year without playing meaningful basketball, before returning for his rookie campaign in 2019-20. In his season second, at the age of 22, this was supposed to be the season in which Porter Jr. blossomed.
That hasn’t happened, however. In part, this is due to the player; at times, MPJ disappears on offense and has lapses on defense. It’s also been the result of bad luck; he missed 10 games due to COVID-related protocols. But it’s mostly been because his head coach doesn’t trust him; Malone is quick to yank his rising star.
Sunday night was just the latest example. Last week, the same thing happened in Boston.
Granted, Porter Jr. was having a tough night shooting. He was 0-for-8 from the field in 24 minutes before getting benched for the fourth quarter.
That might seem to make sense, but the same rule didn’t apply to everyone. JaMychal Green finished the night 1-for-7, but he was on the floor down the stretch. And as was proven in the next game, when Green committed two boneheaded fouls in the waning moments to cost the Nuggets a win over the Wizards, it’s not as though it was for defensive purposes.
There’s a double standard. Rules that apply to Porter Jr. don’t seem to carry over to Green. Or Nnaji. Or anyone else on the roster.
It’s bewildering. It’s bizarre. It’s bird-brained.
The fact of the matter is that the Nuggets best chance of ever being a true contender is if Jokic, Murray and Porter Jr. blossom into stars. One is already there. Another is on the cusp. The remaining has a ways to go.
But the only way MPJ is going to turn into that player is to be on the court. The only path to improvement is on the floor; it’s not on the bench.
The Nuggets aren’t going to win a title because of Green. Or Will Barton. Or any other veteran than Malone “trusts” because they’re a veteran, not because they’re a better player.
The head coach doesn’t see things this way, however. He doesn’t take a long-term view. He’s only worried about short-term success.
He did the same thing in 2016-17 when he insisted on playing Jameer Nelson over a promising rookie out of Kentucky – Murray. He thought it gave the Nuggets a better chance of making the playoffs.
It didn’t. Nelson missed six of the final seven games of the season. Denver went 5-1 down the stretch with Murray in the lineup, averaging 14.0 points per night.
Anyone who watched earlier in the season could see it coming. The rookie showed flashes of greatness. But the head coach wanted the consistency of a veteran.
Anyone who was forward thinking could grasp the obvious. Getting Murray quality minutes was the fastest way to help him improve. And that improvement was the only way the Nuggets were going to breakthrough, as their a franchise that has to rely on homegrown talent. But Malone wanted to chase the No. 8 seed, desperately wanting to have the opportunity to get swept by the Warriors.
He hasn’t changed his ways. Prior to the pandemic hitting in March of last season, Porter Jr. was falling out of favor with the head coach.
After missing six games in early February, MPJ hardly saw the floor upon his return. He played less than 16 minutes in seven out of nine games, while also failing to see the court at all in one. In the game right before the NBA shut down, Porter Jr. played just four minutes in a loss at Dallas.
When the season resumed in the bubble, however, things changed. The Nuggets were shorthanded due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, so Malone had no choice but to play the young forward.
Porter Jr. responded. He averaged 22.0 points per game during the seven times he played during the tune-up period, highlighted by a 37-point effort in a win over the Thunder.
In the playoffs, however, he was up and down. That’s because his coach didn’t trust him.
The game after scoring 28 in a loss to the Jazz, Porter Jr. played just 15 minutes. A quick hook, something that has become the norm this season, started to emerge.
Now, it’s returned. Once again, MPJ is in Malone’s doghouse.
Some will spin this as “tough love,” the method of an old-school coaching trying to get through to a young player. Others will say it’s about making the kid “pay his dues,” just like the coach had to during two decades as an assistant before finally getting his shot.
Either is a plausible explanation. Both, however, are foolish.
The Nuggets need Michael Porter Jr. to develop into a third piece of a three-headed monster. They need him to become a star.
In 2021, that doesn’t happen by getting benched. It doesn’t come about by being treated differently than everyone else.
It comes from a head coach having his player’s back. It comes from encouragement and faith, even if those aren’t warranted at all times. It comes from opportunities.
Michael Malone needs to see the big picture. He needs to get with the times. Otherwise, he’s going to squash the career of a young player and squander the Nuggets window of opportunity.
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