Expectations for the Denver Nuggets are as high as the Rocky Mountains. With reigning MVP Nikola Jokic captaining the ship and borderline All-Star Jamal Murray hopefully back later this season, the Nuggets are one of the league’s top title contenders. But in order to reach the next level, Denver will need rising star Michael Porter Jr. to live up to his new contract and become one of the game’s best young players. So far, MPJ has been unable to deliver.
Michael Porter Jr. has fallen short of expectations
Through seven games, the Nuggets haven’t built much momentum. At 4-3, Denver hasn’t won more than two games in a row, with its three losses coming by an average margin of 11 points. At the center of Denver’s inconsistency is Porter, who has been consistently struggling to score.
During Monday’s nine-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Porter scored just 10 points in a team-high 36 minutes. He was outscored by fellow starters Jokic, Aaron Gordon, and Monte Morris, the latter two seeing eight fewer minutes each.
Porter, the 2018 first-rounder who missed his entire rookie season recovering from back surgery, is averaging 10.7 points through seven games. Not only is it a sharp decline from the 19.0 points he averaged last season, but it’s just marginally better than the 9.3 he averaged in 16.4 minutes the year prior.
Why is Michael Porter Jr. struggling?
At only 23 years old, the 6-foot-10 Porter looks like a star in the making. But his drop in shooting numbers is a major concern for the championship-contending Nuggets.
With approximately the same average number of shots as last season from two and three, MPJ’s percentages have dropped off of a cliff. Porter’s two-point percentage has fallen from 62.8% to 45.5%, while his three-point percentage dipped from 44.5% to 23.3%. Free throws have even been a concern, albeit in a small sample size. In his first two seasons, Porter shot 83.3% and 79.1% from the stripe. In eight attempts this season, he’s at 62.5%.
As a whole, his true shooting percentage is now at 41.4%, compared to his excellent 66.3% from 2020-21. Only five players, headlined by Kristaps Porzingis, have averaged 25 or more minutes and have a worse TS%. Now compare that to last season, where the Missouri native was tied for the seventh-highest, just below Kevin Durant.
The Denver Nuggets may need to take bold action
Encouraged by last season’s breakthrough, the Nuggets made sure to keep Porter in Denver long-term. With the 23-year-old otherwise set to hit free agency in 2022, Denver signed Porter to a five-year, $172.5 million extension last offseason, the maximum allowed for a player of MPJ’s caliber. So it should be bothersome to see such a steep regression one season before the extension even kicks in.
Denver has used the same five starters for each of its first seven games. Among them, Porter leads the way with a team-high 31.9 minutes. Would head coach Michael Malone be open to switching things up, at least in the interim, and bringing his 6-10 forward off of the bench?
Porter was almost exclusively a role player in 2019-20, starting just eight out of 55 games during the regular season. He came off of the bench for the majority of Denver’s playoff run to the Western Conference Finals as well, averaging 11.4 points in 23.7 minutes. Of course, he thrived as an everyday starter in 2020-21, but clearly the shooting success from last season has not translated to the new campaign.
Malone could bring Porter off of the bench until he finds his shooting stroke, easily giving him 25+ minutes a night to do so. In the meantime, longtime veteran Jeff Green could slide into the lineup and serve as a steadying presence. Denver could also look toward P.J. Dozier, a 6-foot-6 guard averaging a higher PER (10.5) than the 2018 lottery pick (8.4).
Getting Porter back on track is vital for the Nuggets both this season and for the next five afterward. If the way to do that is bringing him off of the bench for a few games, it will be well worth it.