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Michael Porter Jr.’s Third Back Surgery Puts the Nuggets’ Bright Future in Jeopardy

With both Porter and Jamal Murray on the shelf with significant injuries, the road to a title suddenly looks more precarious for the young contender Denver built around Nikola Jokic

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Something seemed off about Michael Porter Jr. from the jump. He was a sharpshooter through his first two seasons, a natural offensive talent whose spring-water-pure J stood out even among the NBA’s bucket-getting best. Yet he made half of his field goal attempts just twice in the Nuggets’ first eight games of the 2021-22 season, and was only 10-for-46 from 3-point land. The 23-year-old scoring savant, who had inked a five-year, $172.6 million maximum contract extension this summer, just wasn’t right.

It wasn’t clear precisely what was wrong, but about three minutes into a Saturday night matchup with the Rockets, it became crystal clear that something was:

Porter stayed in the game for four more minutes after pulling up on that breakaway turned lowlight. Once he checked out, though, he never checked back in.

The grim diagnosis came on Monday: ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Porter would undergo a surgical procedure on his back that, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic, is expected to sideline him for the rest of the season.

The phrase “back surgery” causes concern in any context. It’s particularly icy for Porter, though, because of the word that precedes it: “third.”

Porter’s first back surgery came in November 2017, early in his lone season at Missouri, and it shelved him for all but 53 minutes of his freshman year. Concerns over the health of his back prompted a precipitous slide down NBA draft boards, leading a player many expected to be in the running for the first pick in the 2018 draft before he got to Mizzou to fall all the way to the Nuggets at no. 14. After Denver essentially gave him a medical redshirt for the 2018-19 season, Porter went under the knife again in July 2018, a procedure that left him “pain free” and raring to go for his deferred rookie season.

MPJ quickly flashed his tantalizing talents, scoring in bunches while fighting to win Michael Malone’s trust on the defensive end, and eventually earning a rotation role on a Nuggets team that finished third in the West during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season. He built on Denver’s conference semifinals trip in the bubble, cementing himself in Malone’s starting lineup and finishing third in Most Improved Player voting after averaging 19 points and 7.3 rebounds per game on scorching .663 true shooting. Porter stepped his game up when pressed into duty as a second option alongside eventual MVP Nikola Jokic following the devastating loss of Jamal Murray to a torn ACL, averaging 23.5 points per game on 56/49/85 shooting splits during the regular season, and scoring 52 points on 32 shots in games 5 and 6 of the shorthanded Nuggets’ first-round playoff victory over Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers.

A lower-back tweak limited his effectiveness as the Suns swept Denver out of the second round, but Porter’s performance in a larger role was enough to convince president of basketball operations Tim Connelly to commit to him as a pillar of what the Nuggets hope will be a perennial contender in Colorado.

“The scary thing is: He’s not even 100 percent,” Nuggets guard Markus Howard told my Ringer colleague Rob Mahoney during the offseason. “That’s the thing that blows my mind. He was playing last year and had a historic season, and he was a shell of what he really is.”

The creeping and unavoidable concern now? That, as the surgeries and lost court time continue to mount, Porter might not be able to shed the shell—that his once-boundless potential might begin to bump against cruel physiological limits.

Injury analysis conducted by Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes revealed that “nearly three out of every four NBA players to undergo disc-related surgery report additional back problems at some point during their career,” with roughly 25 percent needing additional procedures down the line. Such surgeries don’t necessarily doom a player’s career; when Porter first required surgery at Mizzou, Stotts identified former Nuggets Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington as players who remained productive in the league. You’d be forgiven, though, if a look at the list of players who had multiple disc-related procedures—names like Rudy Fernández, Quentin Richardson, and Martell Webster—left you wondering whether what seemed like a surefire ascent to All-Star contention might now be anything but certain.

The Porter news continues a brutal run of injury luck for the Nuggets. Denver is already operating without no. 2 option Murray—and according to Mike Singer of The Denver Post, the “latest chatter” pegs a potential return around April, about 12 months after his injury. The team has also recently lost Jokic to a right wrist sprain, rookie spark plug Bones Hyland to an ankle injury, and versatile swingman P.J. Dozier to a season-ending ACL tear.

The injuries have decimated Malone’s rotation, sending Denver—which sat in third place in the West just two weeks ago—on a six-game skid during which it has been outscored by a monstrous 17.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. As damaging as it’s been to play without its top three scoring and playmaking threats, the Nuggets’ biggest problems have been on the other end of the court: During the losing streak, they rank dead last in defensive efficiency.

“The way we are built, without Nikola, without Michael, without Jamal, without P.J. and without Bones, we cannot outscore teams,” Malone recently told reporters. “If we continue to be the 30th-ranked defense, this losing streak could go for a really long time.”

There’s an argument to be made that that might not be the worst thing in the world. With its 26-and-under core all under contract for multiple seasons, and with Jokic widely expected to sign the supermax contract extension for which he’ll become eligible this summer, maybe the Nuggets would be best served slow-playing the recoveries of their injured stars, giving youngsters like Hyland and Zeke Nnaji as many developmental reps as they can handle, letting the chips fall where they may in the draft lottery, and running it back in earnest in the 2022-23 season, with Jokic, Murray, MPJ, Aaron Gordon, and perhaps another high draft pick in the fold.

(Then again, adding a high-priced lottery selection, or another veteran helper added by dangling that pick in a trade, would carry its own complications: Denver’s already nearly $11 million over the luxury tax line for next season and stands to be less than $2 million shy of the 2023-24 line, with just seven players under contract, once Jokic puts pen to paper on a supermax. Connelly said this summer, before extending Porter and Gordon, that ownership had given his front office “no financial restraints in terms of trying to further develop a championship-level roster,” but writing multiple hefty tax checks—and the threat of the dreaded repeater tax—has a way of convincing the bosses to start drawing lines.)

I don’t see the Nuggets deliberately going into the tank, though. Jokic is an MVP who was playing even better than last season when he sprained his wrist, carrying the Nuggets to respectability and a winning record even amid all the other injuries; so long as he’s ambulatory, Denver won’t be bad enough to plummet all the way to the bottom of the league. If more injuries crop up, though, and Jokic begins to strain from the weight of carrying an even larger workload than he already is, it could keep the Nuggets down around 10th place, potentially opening the door for a team that has struggled through the first quarter of the season—the post–Luke Walton Kings? The re-Zion-ed Pelicans? The plucky young Spurs or Thunder?—to sneak into the play-in chase.

Whatever the spate of injuries means for Denver in the short term, though, pales in comparison to its ramifications for the future. Through smart scouting, determined player development, and carefully considered moves, the Nuggets built a bona fide beast, constructing a roster around Jokic capable of winning a championship; remember, after snaring Gordon from Orlando at the 2021 trade deadline, Denver ripped off eight straight wins, blowing opponents’ doors off by nearly 14 points per 100 and looking for all the world like a team that had put its final piece into place.

The Nuggets so believed in that construction that they committed more than half a billion dollars in contracts to lock it into place. Now, though, with Murray still working his way back and Porter Jr. heading back to the operating table, we don’t know when we’ll get to see that team back on the court again, or whether it’ll look the same once we do. Windows, once opened, don’t always stay that way for long; contention can be a cruelly fickle thing. All that’s left is to hope for health, and to wait and see whether a team that seemed built to last truly was.