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Michael Porter Jr. Is Finding His Role

The talented second-year player is in an unconventional situation, but when the Nuggets move him to the 4 and take advantage of his big frame and excellent shooting, good things happen

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The marriage between Michael Porter Jr. and the Nuggets has not been easy. Porter is a second-year pro with as much talent as any young player in the NBA. He’s used to having the ball in his hands and the offense going through him. But the Nuggets are having an up-and-down season coming off a run to the Western Conference finals, and they need Porter to compete on defense and buy into a secondary role behind Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Both sides seem to have figured something out over the past week, as the Nuggets have gone on a 4-0 road trip with Porter averaging 18.0 points on 61.4 percent shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks.

The key has been using Porter as a stretch 4. Porter has spent most of the season at the 3, next to either JaMychal Green or Paul Millsap. Both veteran big men have been out on this road trip, which has allowed Porter to play next to Jokic in a smaller lineup. It’s a difficult unit to match up with, as the Pacers found out in a 113-103 loss to the Nuggets on Thursday. Domantas Sabonis had to chase Porter around the 3-point line, which is not where the Indiana big man is most comfortable. Porter has to be picked up almost as soon as he comes across half court, and can’t ever be left open:

Porter is already one of the best shooters in the NBA; he’s connected on 41.6 percent of his 3s while taking 5.7 per game this season. It’s almost automatic when Porter has time to set his feet. He’s so big (6-foot-10 and 218 pounds) and has such a quick release that he hardly needs any time at all.

Defenses have a huge problem when Porter plays the 4. There’s no way to stay on him and send a third defender to the pick-and-roll between Jokic and Murray, or help when Jokic is in the post. The phrase “pick your poison” is used too much in basketball, but this is one of the rare situations where every choice is deadly.

The other benefit of those lineups is that Porter can play next to an extra playmaker on the perimeter. It’s easier for the ball to move around the court when he’s not playing next to a more limited big man like Millsap or Green. The difference when he is starting at the 4 compared to the 3, per NBA Advanced Stats, is huge:

Michael Porter Jr. Positions

Lineup Minutes Net Rating
Lineup Minutes Net Rating
Porter at 4 (No Green or Millsap) 292 plus-11.4
Porter at 3 (Millsap at 4) 210 plus-0.6
Porter at 3 (Green at 4) 113 plus-1.3

Finding the right mix in the frontcourt has been one of the Nuggets’ biggest issues this season. They took a huge hit when they lost Jerami Grant in free agency; he was the perfect 3-and-D player next to Jokic and Murray. Plugging Porter into his spot in the starting lineup at the 3 has been awkward because Grant was a much better defender. Denver has been better with Will Barton instead of Porter when it plays two traditional big men.

But bringing Porter off the bench isn’t much of an option, either. He has too much talent to be happy in such a limited role, especially when he’s already being asked to sacrifice on offense. Porter isn’t being used how you would expect for a player who drew comparisons to Kevin Durant in high school. Denver has essentially turned him into a 6-foot-10 version of Klay Thompson. He rarely touches the ball or has plays run for him in the half court. These are his most five frequent types of offensive possessions:

Michael Porter Jr. Play Types

Play Type Percentage of Offense
Play Type Percentage of Offense
Spot Up 32.3%
Transition 21.5%
Cut 13.9%
ORBs 6.6%
Off Screens 6.0%

This role is harder than Porter makes it look. Most young wings with his physical tools need the ball. They don’t have his jumper or ability to move off the ball. His ability to thrive in that role is incredibly valuable because it’s one of the only things in an NBA offense that isn’t zero sum. There are only so many possessions in a game, so many plays that can be run, and so much time to dribble at the top of the key. Porter gets his points without taking them away from anyone else.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he wants to play that way. He was the no. 2 player in his high school class before back injuries forced him to miss almost all of his freshman season of college and rookie season in the NBA. His peers are players like Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson, All-Stars who serve as the hubs of their respective offenses.

Porter seems more comfortable with his role in Denver this season. He often played in a hurry as a rookie, trying to make up for lost time by getting up as many shots as possible. He’s playing more minutes than last season, but taking fewer shots per minute. Now he’s starting to make the extra pass even when he has an open look. Barton is surprised enough on the second clip that he ends up bungling the catch:

To be sure, there are still times when Porter lets that evil get in him, as they would say in Talladega Nights. The announcer on the Nuggets telecast said that Porter would shoot right after he grabbed the defensive rebound in this clip below. He could just tell by his body language:

But Porter’s offense is the least of coach Mike Malone’s concerns. The two have had a strained relationship at times, largely because of what Malone needs from Porter on defense. Denver already has two offensive stars with limited defensive ceilings in Jokic and Murray. They need role players to protect them. That’s a lot to ask of an offensive-minded youngster like Porter. The Pelicans don’t cut Zion’s minutes because of his bad defense. Porter’s situation is unusual in that he’s starting his career as a role player on a team with championship expectations instead of as a star on a bad team.

Porter’s defense is especially important when he plays the 4. The biggest plus is that he’s already an excellent rebounder. The Nuggets don’t face some of the normal downsides of going small because they are doing it with a 6-foot-10 player. Porter is averaging 7.0 rebounds per game this season. It also helps that rebounding ties directly into his offense. An offensive rebound gives him another shot at a field goal attempt, while Malone has given him the freedom to bring the ball up himself after a defensive rebound.

The rest of his defense is still a work in progress. There are still times when Porter gets lost off the ball, but he’s better at making rotations and anticipating the ball than he was last season:

But he’s still not on the level of veteran big men like Green and Millsap. That’s where it gets tricky for Malone. How does he balance Porter’s development with putting the best possible defense on the floor?

The answer may come down to matchups. The Jokic-Porter frontcourt worked against Indiana because Jokic could bang with Sabonis in the paint and Porter could defend Myles Turner on the perimeter without having to worry about the bigger center taking him off the dribble. But Denver had no one who could guard Giannis Antetokounmpo in a game against Milwaukee earlier in the week. Malone went to a zone that flustered the Bucks instead, but that won’t always work.

It comes down to the playoffs for the Nuggets, who are currently the no. 6 seed in the West with a 21-15 record. They will probably rise because they have the no. 4 net rating in the league (plus-5.4) and rank 26th in remaining strength of schedule. A team with a frontcourt that can’t challenge Jokic and Porter on defense could have a lot of trouble against them in a seven-game series. But that goes the other way, too. What are the Nuggets supposed to do against Anthony Davis beyond pray that he misses?

The Nuggets would be a legitimate title contender if Porter could defend as well as Grant. But their limitations on defense mean that it will be hard for them just to get back to where they were last season. Their ceiling will ultimately depend on Porter. The exciting part is that he’s already so good despite his inexperience. It’s easy to forget that Porter has played only 100 career regular-season and playoff games. It just means that the Nuggets have to be patient.