As the Denver Nuggets prepare themselves for another year with title aspirations, they have one massive question to answer. Can Michael Porter Jr. replace the sidelined Jamal Murray as the second best player on the Denver Nuggets?
Porter is one of the most gifted offensive players to ever enter the league so on the surface it seems like Porter should only improve when given a larger role, but that is too reductive. For the Nuggets to reach their ultimate goal of winning an NBA title, Porter has to grow in a plethora of ways.
So what can Porter do to elevate his game to make up for the loss of Murray? The first and most important area of improvement would be Porter’s ability to play in the two-man game with Nikola Jokic.
Chemistry with Nikola Jokic
At this time, Porter has not fully ingratiated his style of play into the two-man game with Jokic which is to be expected. It is difficult for two players who’s games are so based on their own instincts and feel to be fully on the same page, but even with that being said, there are signs that Porter and Jokic’s chemistry is growing by the day.
If you look closely, you can see Porter calling for Gordon to use his screen directly after Gordon throws the post entry pass to Jokic. This is a good read by Porter as it forces Jaden McDaniels to choose between switching onto Gordon or sticking with Porter. McDaniels slight hesitation making his decision to stick with Porter forced him to go under Jokic’s screen giving Porter more room to pick up speed and get downhill. With McDaniels being out of position and back on his heels, Porter has just enough room to get into McDaniels chest, eurostep back to his right, and finish with his left hand avoiding the shot blocking of former Nuggets power forward Jarred Vanderbilt.
From the start of that possession, Porter knew what advantages were going to come his way and he used that information to create an opening for himself. That type of awareness in the two-man game with Jokic is what the Nuggets are looking for from Porter this season.
Even if Porter continues to grow in the two-man game with Jokic, he also needs to be able to impact the game away from the ball in the same fashion to make himself a constant threat which is fully within his capabilities. In the playoffs last year against the Portland Trail Blazers, Porter showed exactly how he can use his off-ball skills to create easy baskets.
Look at the way Porter sets up his defender for Jokic’s screen. He fakes as if he is going to cut to the top of the key before redirecting to his left allowing Jokic’s screen to fully catch Norman Powell and create as much space as possible. Once Powell gets caught on Jokic’s screen, all of the pressure falls on to Nurkic’s shoulders to stay close enough to Jokic to closeout if he shoots from deep but deep enough in the paint to protect the rim.
As expected, Nurkic is unable to cover that much ground which gives Porter a wide open cutting lane to the rim for the easy dunk. Porter’s understanding of Jokic’s gravity is what allowed that possession to end in a dunk and is also easily replicated. In the next clip, Porter uses the exact same set up to burn the Trail Blazers once again.
One of the keys for the play above to work is the angle Porter takes after receiving the off-ball screen from Jokic. Look at how wide he gets before the pass gets there. That gives Porter the most space to work with while simultaneously forcing Nurkic to cover even more ground. Robert Covington does a good job of fighting over the screen to try and recover, but he can only watch as Porter uses a hesitation dribble to get Nurkic on his heels before blowing by him for the dunk.
Once again, Nurkic is so concerned about Jokic that he is unable to cover enough ground to protect the rim as Porter drives and closeout to Jokic. Porter recognized that advantage and exposed Portland.
The next step for Porter in the two-man game with Jokic is growing as a passer and recognizing that the two of them working together will always occupy the majority of the defenses’ attention.
The clip below came from the preseason this year and might be the best example of the growing chemistry between Porter and Jokic.
From the very start of the play, Porter’s patience is on full display. He waits until Jokic cuts to make the entry pass, calmly waits for D’Angelo Russell to bite on his jab step, keeps driving until he has all of Karl-Anthony Towns’ attention, uses a shot fake at the rim to get Towns off the ground before getting a pass to a cutting Jokic in the middle of the paint with no defenders around to contest the shot.
From start to finish, that is a perfect example of the growth the Nuggets are hoping to get from Porter when he plays in the two-man game with Jokic. The biggest reason the Nuggets have been so productive in clutch situations over the years is because of the chemistry between Jokic and Murray. If Porter can begin to even moderately replicate that chemistry and late-game execution, the Nuggets will be significantly more terrifying for opposing defenses.
Still, Porter has to be able to thrive without the help of Jokic if Denver is going to continue contending without Murray. They need Porter to grow as a playmaker.
Growing into a playmaker
As of right now, Porter is generally just a finisher. He is not the one creating scoring opportunities; he is benefitting from others creating a scoring opportunity for him. Of Porter’s 443 made shots last regular season, 351 of them came off an assist from another player. This year, Porter will have to generate his own offense — as well as create good looks for his teammates — if Denver hopes to continue playing at a high level.
One of the easiest ways for Porter to create his own shot is using the threat of his three-point shot to get to the rim by attacking closeouts as he does in the clip below.
Porter notices Gordon cutting to the rim from the corner and immediately replaces him in the corner. Because Gordon’s cut sucked the defense towards the rim, Lu Dort has a long closeout to the sharpshooting Porter. Porter knows Dort has to close out hard to him so he calmly catches the pass and blows by him. Gordon also gets credit on this play for boxing out to keep the lane clear.
If teams continue to treat Porter like the lethal shooter he is, these opportunities will continue to appear. The threat of his shot also allows Porter to be a decent straight-line driver; especially when he gets a mismatch like in the clip below.
Porter is fully aware he has a mismatch with CJ McCollum defending him. Because of the difference in height between Porter and McCollum, McCollum has to be right up on Porter to contest the shot, but that is also what allows Porter to get to the rim.
Porter, using his off-hand, gets downhill and uses his size to nudge McCollum out of the way. Once he has McCollum a half-step behind him, Porter avoids the shot blocker with an euro step and finishes on the other side of the rim.
As Porter gets more and more game repetitions, he will start to recognize the advantages he has and will utilize them — as he does in the clip above — much quicker.
One of the advantages Porter almost always has at his disposal is being a walking mismatch. The combination of his size, skill and shooting ability allows him to attack slower footed big men and smaller guards.
In the clip below, Porter knows that with Damian Lillard guarding him that Portland will have to send help. So instead of settling for a jump shot, Porter gets downhill and forces the Trail Blazers defense to react.
Lillard does a good job of cutting off Porter’s driving lane, but Porter stays patient and spins back to the middle of the floor. This decision is important because it continues to occupy Nurkic leaving Gordon open under the rim. After Porter spins to the center of the floor, his height is all he needs to get the pass to Gordon for the easy bucket.
If Porter can begin to grow as a passer as well, the sky is the limit for his offensive production.
Getting out in transition
The last point of emphasis for Porter this season would be pushing the pace in transition. With his set of skills, Porter should be an absolute terror in the open court. Look at how quickly Porter grabs the rebound, pushes the pace, overtakes three Portland defenders, and creates a mismatch in transition that allows him to easily score at the rim.
This is a skill that Porter can utilize at all times; with the starters or with the bench unit. Additionally, Malone has said that he wants the Nuggets to play faster and get out in transition more often so there is no reason for Porter to play a slow-paced game.
Just look at the opportunities that the Nuggets can create by pushing the pace with Porter on the floor. In the clip below, Millsap grabs the rebound and pushes the ball up the court. Because of the pressure the Nuggets put on Portland by pushing the pace, the defense gets sucked into the paint too far leaving Porter open for an easy 3-pointer.
Of course Porter will have to find a way to improve in other areas as well. His defense still leaves much to be desired in a multitude of ways, his shot selection is erratic at best, and he has to find a way to create more assists than turnovers — something he has never done in his two years in the league.
Porter has many hurdles to overcome to step into the role of second-best player on a title contender, but as shown in the clips throughout this piece, he has every last skill needed to become the player the Nuggets hope he can be.