Welcome to morning target practice, where every day of the week you will receive an up-to-date and current column from one of the SI.comNBA Writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Michael Porter Jr. can be one of the most frustrating players in the NBA. At one point he’s pulling up for a contested jumper who glides perfectly through the net. The next, he’s completely lost on defense and his teammates raise their hands in frustration. It’s that inconsistency that often kept Porter out of the Nuggets’ rotation for much of last season. Yet this year, particularly after an injury to stalwart veteran Paul Millsap, MPJ appears to have finally found its proper role within the Denver ecosystem. And with that development, the Nuggets may have finally cracked the code to unlock the full potential of their roster.
After a Millsap’s injury on Valentine’s DayMichael Malone started Porter Jr. at power forward on February 23, along with Jamal Murray and Monte Morris in the backcourt, as well as Nikola Jokic and Will Barton up front. The Nuggets went 6-1 with that group starting before Millsap’s return after the All-Star break, the only loss by two points. Denver has just three high-use lineups this season (units that have played at least 100 minutes together). And the MPJ-Jokic-Murray-Morris-Barton group is by far the best, with a net rating of 23.6 in 151 minutes, including a shocking defensive rating of 101.9. (The other two lineups in that cohort, both with Porter Jr. at small forward, have defensive efficiencies of 112.8 and 111.6)
Simply put, playing with Porter Jr. as power forward has been a huge help to the Nuggets. Consider this: The MPJ-Murray-Jokic trio have a net rating of 18.0 when they share the floor without Millsap, a great sign for the long-term success of these young talents. Add Millsap to the mix, and that figure drops to 10.2, and the defense goes from stingy levels to generous granny levels by Thanksgiving. Overall, Millsap and Porter Jr. have played 278 minutes together this season, and Denver has a net 2.8 rating in that time.
It makes sense why the forward Porter Jr.-Millsap pairing doesn’t quite work. Defensively, neither one currently has the speed to chase athletic wings. Porter Jr. isn’t a great defender, but he’s more likely to compete against rated power forwards than against perimeter players who handle the ball frequently. Millsap, who has long been a great team defender, is 36 years old and has some injuries under his belt, so he’s probably better suited for hitting crosses than defending four elastic. For a team that never struggled with offense but often couldn’t stop a lazy person, finding a lineup setup that allows Porter Jr. to survive defense is imperative to Denver’s title aspirations. Offensively, the spacing is much cleaner when Millsap and Porter Jr. are not on at the same time.
Since the second game after the All-Star break, an injury to Morris has put Millsap back in the starting lineup, for now. The vet told Malone it would be willing get off the bench, and his coach has hinted that he will he came back to the MPJ-at-four lineup once Morris is healthy. This is not a small order. Moving proud veterans to the bank isn’t as simple as it is during the 2K loading screen.
Somehow, Millsap legitimized the Nuggets when he signed with the team as a free agent in 2017. After a celebrated career with the Hawks that included four All-Star appearances, drawing in Millsap was a huge win for the head office of Denver. And Millsap himself said he signed with the team because he wanted to play alongside Jokic. In four seasons in Denver, Millsap has only come off the bench 10 times in total. Malone has been fiercely loyal to Millsap, and perhaps wouldn’t be considering putting him on the bench if it weren’t for the overwhelming success of the new group in his absence.
However, MPJ in all four is very important on multiple levels. First, it works on the court. Second, it can help clarify whether or not it should be included in a possible operation. It’s no secret that Porter Jr. is the Nuggets’ best chip if they want to go star-hunting. But if it’s thriving alongside the Jokic and Murray building blocks, then the main office would probably be less inclined to negotiate it. And if the current setup has legs, it should make it clearer how to build around the emerging trio in the future.
A possible playoff rotation seems much clearer with MPJ playing power forward. Millsap can come off the bench as all five, with JaMychal Green, who has been great for Denver, spelling out Porter Jr. in all four. Gary Harris can still be useful as a 3-and-D player in the backcourt, even if his offense has been heavily affected by injuries. That would give Denver eight players who can theoretically survive on the court in important moments, when the failures or inexperience of some of the current backups could become overwhelming.
Of course, the Nuggets didn’t become a perfect team with this lineup change. The sample size of the fifteenth Murray-Morris-Barton-Porter Jr.-Jokic is still relatively small. And Barton, while competitive, is not a tight defender and lacks the size to face some of the stars at his position. If the Nuggets are willing to bet on some of their current more marginal rotation guys to step up, they can try to pack Harris and Barton for one more impact player. (Kyle Lowry?) If he’s not a big name, even putting a slightly above-average 6-foot-8 shooter who can defend in Barton’s place could eventually pay big dividends for the Nuggets with Porter Jr. at home alongside Jokic.
MPJ is still going to get frustrated. He is 22 years old and has only appeared in 85 NBA games. But the ups and downs that define his career thus far seem to be finally heading in the right direction.
LeBron’s MVP grudge
Late Thursday night, LeBron James really started his 2021 MVP campaign in earnest, regretting the fact that he has only four MVP.
“I think I should have more than four,” James said. “I don’t sit around thinking about it or crying about it, or whatever the case may be. I’m just trying to come in next season and be the MVP and have it talked about again. I bet a lot of the best who played this game feel like they should have more too, if you ask any of those guys. “
Kyle Kuzma and Frank Vogel also helped spread the word, and both essentially say that LeBron should have more MVPs considering how long he has been the best player in the league.
Personally, I think James should have five MVPs. He was robbed in 2011, when the voters elected Derrick Rose, which will never convince me that it was not on some level the result of spite directed at James in the wake of The Decision. (LeBron averaged 27, 7.5 and 7 that year. Rose averaged 25, 4 and 7.7).
Since his last MVP in 2013, I don’t think James has been treated unfairly in any of the following years. Kevin Durant was spectacular in 2014. Stephen Curry took the Warriors to new heights in 2015 and 2016 as he single-handedly changed the NBA’s style of play. Kawhi, Russ and Harden had better cases in 2017, and the 2018 Cavs just weren’t very good. LeBron’s best argument is the 2020 season, and he made it clear that Giannis won the award while in the bubble. I think if the regular season hadn’t been interrupted, LeBron might have caught Antetokounmpo in the race.
However, what I really want to hear from James is the years where he feels like he should have won. You have not been afraid to ask for prizes in the past. (Ask teammate Marc Gasol about his 2013 Defensive Player of the Year trophy.) LeBron, we all know you have an incredible photographic memory, so please make the case for each additional year you think you should have won. I’m open to being convinced, but more than anything, I’d love to hear from James himself why he thinks he’s better than someone in any given year. Too many times we hear players say they don’t play for individual prizes. It’s refreshing when someone readily admits that they care.
More morning shootings
Herring: Within the year of the NBA southpaw
Pina: Dončić is finding his rhythm behind the three-point line
Mannix: 10 stories to watch before the trade deadline
Beck: Analyzing the case for Webber’s Hall of Fame
Nadkarni: Butler has put Heat on his back
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.