The Nuggets made a bad bet on a bad back. And now a house of cards is sturdier than their championship dreams.
“In my opinion,” oft-injured forward Michael Porter Jr. said Friday, “we can be the best team in the NBA when we have everybody healthy.”
Well that sounds nice, until you acknowledge the cold, hard facts of the boxscore: MPJ is damaged goods at the tender age of 23.
In five basketball seasons since graduating from high school, Porter has taken the court for only 157 of the 390 games on the schedule of the Nuggets and the University of Missouri, because his creaky, frequently repaired back has made him unfit to play at an alarming 60% rate.
I asked Porter how he balances the uncertainty of his long-term health with a desire to reward a team that has invested so heavily in him.
“You work as if it’s up to you,” Porter replied “And you pray as if it’s up to God.”
Oh Lawdy me, oh Lawdy me. Is hoping for divine intervention any way to win a championship?
Although there’s reason to believe guard Jamal Murray, who admits to being no more than 85% recovered from a torn ACL in his left knee, will be back doing Blue Arrow things next season, the Nuggets’ playbook has been reduced to a prayer book.
That’s a huge problem for Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, who gave a five-year contract extension to a player with chronic back issues before a disappointing season in which MPJ never felt completely healthy, then retreated to the sideline after nine regular-season games.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” said Connelly, contemplating the wisdom of the investment in Porter. “We tend to be a team that rewards guys earlier instead of getting in the marketplace. So we are really looking forward to him being fully healthy. And he’s working his butt off to achieve that goal.”
The Nuggets can’t afford MPJ to sit on the sideline in street clothes more often than he fires jump shots in uniform.
For all his MVP might, Nikola Jokic can’t lift Denver to its first NBA championship while dragging a $172.5 million ball and chain behind him.
That’s the crazy amount of money Connelly gambled on Porter over the course of a deal that binds him to the Nuggets through 2027, a span that figures to encompass the prime years of Joker’s career.
After the Nuggets were eliminated 4-1 by Golden State in the playoffs’ opening round, Jokic declared himself open to the idea of signing a supermax contract extension because, “I think we have something that we are building.”
Connelly, who deserves full credit for taking a chance on a pudgy Serbian teenager with the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, knows how blessed he has been by Joker’s development into the No. 1 player in franchise history.
When Jokic recently ate dinner at Connelly’s new home, he teased the Nuggets center: “Where should I put the statue? … Your statue … Without you, there’s no way we can afford this house.”
It would be a crying shame, if not a firing offense, for Connelly to allow Jokic to join Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley on the list of greatest NBA players to never win a championship ring.
“You want to do everything and anything you can to ensure you’re putting the best team around him to give him a chance to compete at the highest level,” Connelly said. “I’m both blessed and certainly aware with a player of (Jokic’s) magnitude what it means to try to ensure he’s got a real chance. I think about it every day. I tell my kids all the time, ‘Mr. Nikola is very important in this household.’”
How long does Jokic, who prefers feeding his horses in a Serbian barn to squinting into the bright lights on the NBA red carpet, want to play basketball?
“Until it’s no longer fun,” said Connelly, who discusses that very subject with Jokic multiple times per year. “Certainly he’s not motivated by money … He’s a guy driven by joy and competition. The competition will be there. When the joy isn’t, he won’t be here. As long as he’s having fun, he’ll play until his wheels fall off.”
The workouts and the early wake-up calls are a grind. Winning is fun.
For the Nuggets to lead a victory parade in downtown Denver, it will require more than a Joker and a prayer. Counting on MPJ to play another 250 NBA games at a high level, let alone another 10 seasons, seems like a risky proposition.
I’m no doctor. But how often are there miracle cures for a bad back?
If Porter isn’t worth every penny of the $29.75 million salary the Nuggets will pay him in 2022-23, the best opportunity for this cast to be a legit contender might be gone.
So this is the last time the Nuggets can talk about waiting until next year. Starting today, the pressure is on Connelly to guarantee Jokic doesn’t have to win a championship by himself.