Michael Porter Jr.’s surgery delays the Nuggets championship window

Nov 30, 2021, 6:42 AM
DENVER, CO - JUNE 13: Michael Porter Jr. (1) of the Denver Nuggets walks to the locker room after t...
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
(Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Steve Kerr famously warned, “I can tell you if you’re listening out there if you have a back problem, stay away from surgery. I can say that from the bottom of my heart. Rehab, rehab, rehab. Don’t let anybody get in there” during a press conference.

Back injuries ended Steve Nash’s career at 40. Tiger Woods won The Masters at 43 after four back surgeries and has since had a fifth. Danilo Gallinari had surgery before he ever got to Denver and has had a very good NBA career.

The results vary wildly when anyone has any type of back surgery, and elite pro athletes are no exception.

So what are we to expect after it was announced 23-year-old Michael Porter Jr. will go under the knife for the third time for his ailing back?

Porter slipped to the 14th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft because of a back injury that all but erased his lone college season at Missouri. The Nuggets pounced on the opportunity to add the potential of the former top recruit in the nation, knowing it was a big risk. And it took a while for their gamble to pay off, with MPJ sitting out his entire first year and undergoing a second surgery.

But in year two, he played in 55 games and helped the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals, and topped that appearing in 61 last season while moving into the starting lineup and averaging 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Denver’s gamble, and patience, had paid off and Porter was an essential part of a young roster whose title window was now open. And the Nuggets rewarded Porter with a max deal.

Then nine games into what many thought would be a true championship-contending season, Porter’s back failed him again in a breakaway lay-up attempt versus Houston. Porter is expected to make a full recovery, but he’s not expected back this season.

So what does it mean for a Nuggets team that has committed $172 million guaranteed on a deal that doesn’t even kick in until next season?

That news on top of all the recent nagging injuries, and the uncertain timetable for Jamal Murray’s return have many fans already punting on the season. If Denver were to let Murray take the entire year to recover, load manage Nikola Jokic’s season, and play Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji extended minutes, they could miss the playoffs and position themselves for another lottery pick to add to the core next season.

But that’s not in the Nuggets DNA. They won’t give away a season of Jokic’s prime when he’s playing even better than his MVP season a year ago. They’ll continue to compete and Jokic with Aaron Gordon, Will Barton and whatever Murray can add upon his return is good enough to win a playoff series like they did a year ago. But outside of Jokic becoming even more superhuman, that championship window isn’t realistically open anymore this season without Porter.

The Nuggets president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly, now has a unique challenge in front of him. There’s no move or transaction available to replace a 6-foot-10, 44% three-point shooter. And any significant addition to the roster would send Denver over the salary cap and into the luxury tax, a place they’re already headed next season with their current contracts. With over $500 million already committed to this core and Jokic almost certain to sign a supermax extension this offseason, the Nuggets likely won’t be in any hurry to start the clock on not only the luxury tax but also the repeater tax they will no doubt be facing in future years anyway.

It’s terrifying news for Porter. It’s heartbreaking for the Nuggets organization. And it’s frustrating for fans who have lived nothing but #Nugglife for their entire NBA existence. With a core all age 26 and under, the Nuggets can now only hope that health and time are on their side for that championship window to open again.


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