LA JOLLA, Calif. – The Nuggets have made a $179 million bet they can’t afford to lose.
Will Michael Porter Jr. ever justify the money that Denver wagered on him?
At age 24, having endured three surgeries on his back, MPJ no longer takes any doctor’s word as gospel.
“I don’t really get my assurance from doctors,” Porter said. Although grateful for positive feedback from the team’s medical personnel, he leans on religious faith to deal with the uncertainty of what his basketball future might hold.
Entering his fifth NBA season, having been physically able to splash his sweet jump shot in barely 40% of the games Denver has played since 2018, there’s a big question about Porter beyond whether his back can hold up.
Is MPJ ready to grow up and make a serious commitment to playing championship basketball?
While I’m not afraid to ask that tough question, only coach Michael Malone can demand better from Porter.
He’s an artist who paints beautiful rainbow jumpers, but doesn’t show nearly as much enthusiasm for getting down and dirty to rebound or play defense.
Here’s hoping his back is sturdy enough to bear the weight of tough love, because crunch time can smell weakness, and the Nuggets are paying MPJ way too much money to hide his defensive deficiencies on the bench with a game on the line in the fourth quarter.
“We can’t hide guys. When you watch the NBA championship, no one’s on the floor that you have to hide. There’s some pit bulls out there, some tough dudes. (Porter) is going to have to show that ‘Hey, I can be on the court at the end of games, in big games,’ ” Malone said Tuesday, after his team opened training camp at the University of California-San Diego.
Since health concerns caused Porter to drop to the middle of the first round in 2018, he has been healthy enough to dress for 154 of 367 games played by the Nuggets.
Denver has gone to great lengths to give Porter the best chance to succeed and justify the $30.9 million salary he’s owed this season. New general manager Calvin Booth traded for veteran guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to provide defensive cover on the wing for MPJ.
While the Nuggets can’t keep Porter in bubble wrap, given his history of breaking down, it might be worthy of consideration to limit his playing time to 25-28 minutes per game, as well as scheduling regular nights off.
“I don’t think taking the careful route with players is the way to go,” Porter said.
“I don’t think skipping games is the way to save your body. You’ve got to respect the game. You should play when you can play and help your team win as many games as possible.”
The primary point of emphasis by Malone at training camp is defense; he insists the Nuggets must be among the NBA’s five toughest teams to score on if they want to do more than talk about being champions.
With back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic welcoming the return of guard Jamal Murray after a lengthy recovery from a knee injury, putting the ball in the basket should not be a concern for Denver. If Porter is the third-leading scorer on the team, he needs to be more than a one-trick pony to justify the Nuggets’ huge expenditure on him.
“In Michael’s case, if he is healthy, is he running the way he should run? Is he rebounding the way he should rebound? Is he giving effort on defense?” Booth said. “He’s a tough shot taker and a tough shot maker, but every now and then, do you move the ball instead of taking that tough shot? We want Michael to be himself, but there are definitely areas he can improve.”
The Nuggets have given his back tender loving care. When I asked Malone if there was an action plan to keep MPJ healthy from now through the NBA playoffs, the coach said the team would be flexible and emphasized the importance of giving Porter a voice in taking care of his body and management of his workload.
But what MPJ needs most now isn’t TLC.
If Denver wants a real shot at winning a championship, Porter needs to be held accountable, with a demand he needs to be more than one of the sweetest shooters on earth.
“You’re either good enough to be out here and help us on both ends of the floor, or you’re a situational player,” Malone said. “I know Michael doesn’t want that. I don’t want that for him. I want Michael Porter to be a guy that closes big games for us. That’s going to be on him and me helping him get there.”
Tough love can be defined: HIs contract is a rock-solid guarantee of $179 million, but should guarantee MPJ nothing at crunch time, when even an artist needs to get down and dirty.