The Nuggets championship window has closed, but they pry it back open
When the Denver Nuggets signed Michael Porter Jr. to a five-year extension that could have been worth as much as $207 million in late September, they had hoped that the finally healthy, freakishly talented 23-year-old would quickly become their second- or third-best player behind defending MVP Nikola Jokic. Along with Jokic and Jamal Murray — sidelined with an ACL injury until as late as April — the Nuggets had pushed all their chips into the pot; three max-contract players gave them a chance to go to their first NBA Finals… if everything worked out right.
So far, little has. Porter Jr., who had looked nothing like himself in the opening games of the 2021-22 campaign, will now be sidelined for the rest of it due to his third lower-back surgery of his young basketball career. Porter Jr., who is expected to undergo surgery on Wednesday, is expected to make a full recovery, but the injury will cost him a chance at a whopping $35 million; the amount he could have made in bonuses by making first-, second- or third-team All-NBA this season — at least an outside possibility, based on the highly efficient offense that he put on display last season.
Porter Jr. watches that potential money fly away, but it’s the Nuggets themselves that watched a potential championship run go out the window with it.
Jokic’s sublime skills and improved fitness have him playing even better than he did in his MVP season last spring, and his presence alone makes the Nuggets a dangerous regular-season team. But with few scoring options behind Murray and Porter Jr., Denver’s hopes for a Finals run have utterly vanished — at least for this season.
Murray should be back by the end of the season, though with Porter Jr.’s absence, the Nuggets would be wise not to rush him back, even if that means ruling him out for the season, as well. When Murray’s healthy, there’s little reason to believe that he can’t be the player he was prior to his ACL injury. The same can’t be said for Porter Jr. given his concerning and continuing issues with his back.
Porter Jr. missed all but nine games of his brief college career after his first back surgery sidelined him for most of the 2017-18 season. That injury scared off at least a dozen teams from drafting a player that was considered a possible No. 1 overall pick only a year prior, with more than a few teams scratching him from their draft boards entirely. The Nuggets benefitted from the doubt, selecting Porter Jr. 14th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft; a gamble that was well worth taking, even if it would take some time.
The entire 2018-19 season went by the wayside for Porter Jr., who needed a second back surgery, but the Nuggets were willing to wait. Their faith finally paid off in the latter half of the 2020-21 campaign, as Porter was historically efficient and effective as a scorer, and other facets of his game were beginning to emerge. The Nuggets were so impressed that they handed Porter Jr. the max extension, something that only fellow 2018 draftees Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had received — and each of them had far longer track records of success.
Porter Jr. would have been a restricted free agent at the end of the season, and if the Nuggets were willing to give him a max deal, anyway, one could argue that holding Porter Jr. to a “prove-it” season beforehand would have been both justified and prudent. The Nuggets gambled, instead, and they could lose big. The first four seasons of Porter Jr.’s extension — which starts after this season, mind you — are fully guaranteed for just over $133 million, meaning that the Nuggets can’t get any salary relief under the cap until the 2026-27 season, no matter how often or how well Porter Jr. plays.
Such is life in NBA small markets, and the Nuggets had justifiable reasons to pursue the deal when they did — why even risk letting the mercurial Porter Jr. even get tempted by another market, for example? The die has been cast for this season; the Nuggets’ championship aspirations are over. So what should they do in the interim?
First and foremost, protecting Jokic is paramount. Long-term concerns need to outweigh short-term goals — or that night’s game — and coach Michael Malone will have to resist his instincts in order to ensure that the NBA’s most unique player is as healthy as possible to start the 2022-23 campaign roughly 10 months from now. He’ll also have to commit to playing young players.
Rookie “Bones” Hyland looks like a steal; a lottery-type player that may become a big part of Denver’s future. Malone needs to give him all the minutes he can handle this season, and that should also extend to 2020’s first-rounder Zeke Nnaji. Though Nnaji’s ceiling looks far lower than Hyland’s, the Nuggets — currently giving 35-year-old Jeff Green, 31-year-old JaMychal Green, 30-year-old Facundo Campazzo and 29-year-old Austin Rivers major minutes — have to start developing players that will be on their roster next season, especially ones with more days ahead than behind.
Accomplishing this will be an organization-wide challenge, with clear directives from the front office and insistence that Malone acquiesce to his better angels. The Nuggets will desperately want to keep championship hopes alive while Jokic, Murray, Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon are all still under contract, but for now, they’ll have to wait, nourished in their slumber by a careful, diligent organization if they’re to rise once again.
In the meantime, however? Nuggets fans do get to watch the astounding Jokic, the best basketball player on Earth, do his thing. That’s an awfully good consolation prize.
Shawn Drotar is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.