The Denver Nuggets like their hand and are going all in. Is it a sure thing? A Royal Flush? I’d disagree with anyone saying the Nuggets have, as we stand right now, the best hand in the NBA. But a four of a kind can win a lot of games, maybe even the whole pot. After all, who can you really say, with confidence, has a much better hand than that? So Nuggets President Tim Connelly and company are rolling with their guys and saying THIS is the group that will finally bring a championship to the city of Denver.
After it was reported that the Nuggets would sign Michael Porter Jr. to a five year max extension worth up to $207 million, it would appear the final puzzle piece had fallen into place and the Denver Nuggets, like it or not, have declared their BIG 4 going forward.
Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and now, Michael Porter Jr. are all locked up in multi-year deals. For the most part, a home-grown roster with a few bells and whistles added for a finishing touch. Gordon signed an extension in early September for four years worth $92 million meaning Denver clearly liked what they saw from him in just a small sample size late last season and into the playoffs.
All of this is a rather large gamble for the Mile High Crew as I could argue that no one on this roster, save for the Joker, is a proven superstar. Jamal Murray, who will miss a good portion of the season because of a torn ACL in his left knee, has certainly had flashes of stardom; The NBA Bubble being the largest sample size of that. But through a large chunk of the 2020/21 season, Murray was inconsistent. He’d have his Bubble-like games where he’d drop 40 plus but he’d also have those games of 12, 15 and 18 points. I can learn to live with under 20 points a game but, especially as a point guard, I need the ‘other’ stat. He averaged just under 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game. When you are paying a guy $30+ million a year, you tend to want an average of AT LEAST 25 points or to be flirting with a double double on a nightly basis. Last season, the Blue Arrow scored just north of 20 points per game, a number that must go up when he’s healthy.
Gordon looked unstoppable when he first arrived in Denver but once Murray went down, he came back down to Earth. Still a solid player for the Nuggets but when they needed him to step up both offensively and defensively against the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the Playoffs, he sort of disappeared.
Then there’s MPJ. At his best he’s an incredible shooter that can score in bunches. Often times, he can drill three after three without even squaring up to the basket. His touch is incredible and that fearless mindset is exactly what you want in an elite offensive player. However, at his worst, he loses himself on defense, struggles to handle the ball when tightly guarded and his decision making doesn’t always seem to sync up with the game plan. But he’s 23 years old. There’s still so much room for growth. Before last season we needed to see him make a leap as far as improvement and he did. While his defense wasn’t great, he did start to look more comfortable on that side of the ball. Going forward, the next step for Porter Jr. will be what to do when he is the game plan for opposing defenses. The Suns wanted to neutralize his scoring and for the most part, mission accomplished as MPJ scored just 15, 11, 15 and 20 points in Denver’s 4 games against them. He’ll need to create with the ball in and out of his hands and become more of a scorer….not just a shooter waiting for an open look.
In the end, I like the moves. They are BIG gambles but I like the direction. Building around Nikola Jokic was always the plan and this group seems to gel really well for the most part. Adding a proven superstar to pair with Nikola might look nice on paper but perhaps growing a few “hopeful” stars is the best course, for now. After all, Jokic is THE MVP and makes everyone around him better. I’m very interested to see he and Gordon with a full season together and with a nice supporting cast such as Will Barton, Monte Morris and veteran Jeff Green, I see no reason why the Nuggets won’t, at the very least, get to the second round of the playoffs in 2022. But if this team wants to go further…… it all comes down to MPJ. With Murray out, this is a prime opportunity for Porter to earn that superstar status and show the organization and the fanbase that he is worth every penny going forward. Joker will be a contender for MVP again, Gordon will be a tough nosed defensive guy, Barton will slash and score in streaks and when Murray is back, hopefully he can find that inner bubble boy and light the league on fire again. But Denver MUST have MPJ be great. Not good. Not one dimensional. Great. Right now they are a playoff team. But that’s not the mission. They believe they are in a championship window and that may very well be the case but that window will close pretty quickly if their recent extensions and investments don’t pay off in a big way.
We may not know for certain how this will all take shape in 2021 as Murray being out will surely slow their progress but the long term plan is in place. Did the Nuggets do enough to surround their MVP in the long run? We’ll find out soon enough. Game one of the 2021/22 season is on October 20th on ESPN against none other than the Phoenix Suns.