Can Michael Porter Jr. Fill Jamal Murray’s Shoes For The Denver Nuggets In The Playoffs?

The Denver Nuggets saw their title chances close entirely when Jamal Murray went down with his ACL tear against the Golden State Warriors on April 12th. At least, that is what most thought. The team responded to that catastrophic loss with a 13-5 record over the final 18 games of the regular season. One of the main drivers of that success was Michael Porter Jr. 

Porter checks nearly every box you can ask for from a statistical standpoint in judging offensive stardom. Need a shooter? A 44.5 percent 3-point marksman that stands 6’10 tall should do just fine. Looking for efficiency? His 64.8 effective field goal percentage ranks in the 98th percentile among forwards. Desiring an avid rebounder? Gobbling up 18.3 percent of defensive rebounds (95th percentile among forwards) should suffice. 

All of these glowing attributes are not to say that the youngster comes without flaws. It’s well documented that his defense could use some work (even though he has made modest improvements on that side of the ball) and his passing vision could use some assistance. Regardless, the strides made in his second year in the NBA have the Nuggets excited about what the future may hold. But the future and present are colliding into a world in which fans get a sneak peek at what Porter can do as the second banana on a playoff team. His run at the end of the season paints a picture that has looked slightly different than what has transpired so far in the playoffs. 

Porter lit up the scoreboard during his final 17 games of the 2020-2021 season. He averaged 23.5 points per game on 56 percent shooting from the field and a 3-point percentage of 48.9. The score-first forward was doing what he does best, but even better. His play was increasingly important for the Nuggets with his +/- sitting at 7.8, which was the 10th highest in the league over that span for players that qualified. 

The beautiful thing is that Porter gets the luxury of playing with Nikola Jokic who can take advantage of the forward’s ability to cut and launch from deep. Jokic is the center of the Nuggets’ offensive universe and Porter is the main beneficiary with his intelligence. Kevin O’Connor did a great deep dive a few weeks ago highlighting the strengths of Porter, noting the variety of ways in which he scores. He even mentioned his lack of free throws as something that, in an ideal world, would mirror the early career struggles of Paul George. 

His overall improvement has been encouraging and even seemed to make the Nuggets the favorite in their first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. The possibility of winning is still very real, but Porter’s play has handcuffed the Nuggets a bit. He has seen his points per game and efficiency drop precipitously during this series — he currently sports a 48 percent field goal percentage over the first four games while averaging only 15.3 points per game. 

One of the areas in which Porter struggled the most was getting free from Portland defenders. Porter works almost as a large shooting guard — often he’ll curl around screens with the goal of capitalizing on catch and shoot opportunities. Norman Powell did an excellent job of staying tight to Porter to mitigate those opportunities. JaMychal Green had an excellent observation on exactly that after Saturday’s game via Nick Kosmider of The Athletic: 

“They were the aggressors,” Nuggets forward JaMychal Green said when asked what Portland did to limit Porter’s effectiveness offensively. “They got into his body, made him uncomfortable. Next game, he’s got to come out and be more aggressive, watch film, pick and choose his spots and he’ll get it going.”

It’s probably easier to chalk up Saturday’s loss as one that isn’t predictive of how the rest of the series will go, but that only comes with actual changes. 

There will be times that Porter is just expected to rise over defenders, but it’s important to get him some easier opportunities to help spring his scoring. On this play in the 3rd quarter of Saturday’s loss, Powell was able to get into his body while Porter failed to take advantage of his size by backing him down. 

Denver would be better off trying to use Jokic on some dribble handoff actions with Porter to help him get a step on Powell who has been able to not only use his quickness, but his strength in bothering Porter with his shot.

The Nuggets are still in great position to ultimately take this series, but it will come down to Porter elevating his game to become a true complement to Jokic for that to happen.

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