A 6-4 start to the season with signature wins over the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns should’ve given Nuggets fans reason to believe their team could do more than just tread water while they wait for star point guard Jamal Murray’s return. But things took a turn for the worse in the team’s win over the Rockets on Saturday. Michael Porter Jr., who recently signed a five-year max extension left the game with what the Nuggets declared was “back tightness”.
For most players back tightness would probably garner some eye rolls from fans but it wouldn’t typically be considered very serious. Hence the eye rolls. But Michael Porter Jr. is a special case. Porter Jr. missed most of his lone season at the University of Missouri and his entire first season in the league due to a back injury – he even had his draft stock suffer because of the injury. He’s been pretty healthy ever since returning to the court in 2019 but a back injury is nothing to scoff at for the 6’10 sharpshooter.
This situation has gotten a little foggy in recent days – it’s unclear how long the Nuggets sniper will be out for. Reports came out on Monday that Porter Jr. would be out for the "foreseeable future", which typically means for an extended period of time but Malone doesn’t necessarily agree with that notion. "Michael could be back in a week," says Malone, “It could be more than that. I don’t know. When I say foreseeable future, I don’t really know what that means. I just know he’s not playing tonight." This seems to be a situation where the Nuggets and their fans need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
So, if Michael Porter Jr. is out for an extended period of time, how exactly do the Nuggets replace his production?
Who Will Denver Turn to in Porter Jr"s Absence?
When a star player goes down, people often look to one or two guys that need to step up and fill in for what’s missing, but you can’t just replace star players that easily. They’re stars for a reason. One or two players can’t fix the hole that Porter Jr. leaves in his absence, but as a group, it’s certainly possible.
The Nuggets are actually well equipped for this situation considering the depth they have at the forward position. Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Jamychal Green, and Zeke Nnaji aren’t even in the same stratosphere as Porter Jr. as floor spacers but they can make up for it in other ways.
Gordon, who hasn’t been asked to put the ball in the bucket a whole lot since arriving in Denver at last season’s trade deadline may have his role changed a bit going forward. Gordon is averaging 9.3 shot attempts per game so far this season and averaged 8.2 shots per game in his 25 games with the Nuggets last season; both of those numbers are the lowest they’ve been since his second season in the league and it’ll be a number to keep an eye on as long as Porter Jr. is sidelined.
Jeff Green, who’s been on 11 different teams in his career (yes, you read that right) has never quite been on Porter Jr’s level as a scorer but if there’s one thing he’s done well pretty much everywhere he’s gone, it’s scoring the ball. He even helped catapult the Nets to a win in the playoffs last season, dropping 27 points in game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals versus the eventual title-winning Milwaukee Bucks. He’s no household name but he can and will get you buckets.
Another veteran the Nuggets can lean on is Jamychal Green. His rather productive career as a player off the bench has flown under the radar. For his career, Green averages 8.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, and shoots the 3-ball at a 37.6% clip albeit on just 2.2 attempts per game. He’s been struggling to stretch the floor so far this year shooting just 16.7% from downtown, but expect to see his minutes rise in Porter Jr’s absence.
Zeke Nnaji, who’s likely relatively unknown outside of Denver, is a promising young prospect who could possibly help the Nuggets now. In his first big opportunity of the season on Wednesday night against Indiana, Nnaji put up 19 points, 5 rebounds, and knocked down a pair of triples in 20 minutes as the Nuggets went on to win 101-98.
None of these guys can single-handedly replace Michael Porter Jr., and the Nuggets will have to adjust their identity as a team with him out, but there’s one veteran on the Nuggets G-League team that could help shape that shift in identity.
Looking to the G-League For Help
On October 23, Denver’s G-League affiliate the Grand Rapids Gold selected former NBA guard Lance Stephenson 13th overall in the G-League’s draft. Hungry for an opportunity Stephenson has his sights set higher than the G-League, hoping to use the Grand Rapids Gold as a trampoline to another shot in the NBA.
Stephenson last played in the NBA during the 2018-19 season with the Los Angeles Lakers. He played in 68 games for the Lakers averaging 7.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and shot a respectable 37.1% on threes in 16.5 minutes per game.
In an exclusive interview with Betway, Stephenson talked about his desire to get another opportunity in the NBA and ultimately win a ring before his career is all said and done. One thing that stuck out in his interview with Betway was Stephenson’s mindset as he eyes a return to the NBA. "My motivation is to be the best player I can possibly be", says Stephenson, "Be in the best shape, be one of the leaders on the team. Definitely helping the younger guys, having fun out there winning games and getting a ring. Man, before I retire I want an NBA ring."
Denver isn’t short on veterans or playoff experience, but you can never have too many players who’ve competed on the highest stage before. Stephenson is often remembered for his antics on the court, such as blowing in the ear of LeBron James during a heated playoff series, but I think he brings a unique attitude to the table that the Nuggets can benefit from. The swagger and confidence Stephenson plays with is something that every team can use.
Part of what scares teams off Stephenson is also a part of his appeal. Is he a little unpredictable at times? Sure. Can his play be borderline erratic? Sure. But that’s what makes him who he is.
Most importantly Stephenson’s head seems to be in the right place – he’s not trying to be the star of the team but simply play a role on a championship-winning team.
Nothing Worthwhile Ever Comes Easy
Finding ways to make up for Michael Porter Jr in his absence, however long that may be, won"t be easy but it’s not impossible either. There will be nights when it seems like the Nuggets can’t throw a rock in the ocean, and Nuggets fans will rest their heads at night dreaming of Michael Porter Jr. burying three after three after three. But there will also be nights when the Nuggets grind out wins with their defense. There will be nights where Jeff Green turns back the clock and drops a 20 piece on the opposing team.
It won’t always be pretty, but I’m more than confident Nikola Jokic and Michael Malone will figure out how to make things work. They always do.
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