Michael Porter’s Defense Is Holding Him Back

Porter Jr. has tremendous upside and is one of the Nuggets’ most important players, but his struggles on the defensive end are glaring.
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Nothing is more valuable to an NBA franchise than a legitimate superstar, those sublime talents who can single-handedly transform and elevate an entire team’s identity. If a superstar isn’t available, the next most desirable commodity is a sparkling young prospect who’s flashed greatness, has no theoretical ceiling and may someday—if everything breaks right—become one.

Denver might have three such pieces: 25-year-old Nikola Jokić, 23-year-old Jamal Murray and 22-year-old Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets are +16.6 points per 100 possessions when all share the floor, piping hot on offense and passable solidity on the other side.

Jokić is the organization’s munificent sun, averaging 27.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game, casually making everyone around him feel like their best self, with one of the highest PERs in NBA history. Murray looked like a young Steph Curry in the bubble but has yet to make the unwavering leap that’s required for an All-Star appearance—though multiple invitations feel inevitable.

Up next is Porter Jr., the skewed variable with undeniable scoring chops, tantalizing athleticism and enough shortcomings to complicate his short-term fit on a championship contender. It’s that high-upside polarity that helps explain why Porter Jr.’s name is in just about every significant trade rumor, be it for James Harden, Bradley Beal or whichever star is (ostensibly) available.

If everything comes together, he’s an All-NBA-caliber forward who rounds out the best trio in the Western Conference (and possibly the league, pending what happens in Brooklyn). If not he tops out as what the most optimistic Lakers fans see whenever they look at Kyle Kuzma.

On a team that doesn’t require him to do much besides hit outside shots and cut for Jokić-fed layups—right now, 78% of Porter Jr.’s baskets are assisted, which is 2% lower than DeAndre Jordan and 2% above Rudy Gobert. Porter Jr. is an efficient, explosive scorer with a knack for the ball that overrides his tunnel vision (18 assists in over 450 minutes isn’t ideal).

But all in all offense isn’t the problem. Porter Jr. is a bouncy 6' 10" forward who makes 38% of his threes and 58% of his twos. It’s the other end that will ultimately decide what type of career he has, and whether the Nuggets can afford to sit around and wait for him to improve. Calling Porter Jr.’s defense “bad” would be like saying it’s “risky” to drive south on a northbound highway. It’s debilitating stuff, a true reinforcement of the truism that any good defense can only be as strong as its weakest link.

The Nuggets have the NBA’s third-worst defense when he plays and the seventh-best when he sits. They allow a higher shooting percentage at the rim than the league-leading Heat, and even though it’s unfair to attribute all these numbers to any one player—a vast majority of Porter Jr.’s minutes are tied to Jokić and/or Paul Millsap, sometimes forcing him out of matchups that might make more sense—they also aren’t close to a coincidence.

No rotation player in the NBA makes more avoidable mistakes that occur in so many different ways, be it in transition, guarding a pick-and-roll, rotating from the weakside or closing out to a shooter. It’s frustrating because Porter Jr.’s size, strength, athleticism and timing should make him a plus defender, and there are many examples on the ball where he’ll clamp down his man and show what he’s capable of.

But mostly he’s a catalyst for calamity, approaching most possessions by assuming what the offense wants to do instead of either anticipating their next move or even just watching what happens and reacting accordingly. Dribble handoffs where the ballhandler keeps it are his kryptonite. He’ll relax and rise up out of his stance just long enough to enable a breakdown.

Or watch him follow the ghost of Khris Middleton under Giannis Antetokounmpo’s cross screen, as Middleton’s actual body fades to the opposite wing, forcing Millsap to lean up and let Giannis dive to the rim.

He’s the opposite of solid here and in so many other situations, obsessed with wherever the ball happens to be, like a housecat that’s zeroed in on a laser pen. It’s erratic, without discipline. Watch Denver’s bench (especially head coach Mike Malone when Porter Jr. falls for this ball fake by Dennis Schröder.

Going back to last season the angles he takes racing out to plug a hole on the perimeter are inexplicable, as is how aggressive he is against players who pose little threat behind the three-point line, or have already been run off it. He’ll position himself to help, but then completely forget where his man is and what the quickest path back to him would be.

Last night against the Celtics, Porter Jr. was benched for the entire fourth quarter—despite Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Monté Morris all being unavailable—after a series of lapses gave Boston the spark it hasn’t had in weeks.

There were several rotation-related blunders throughout the night, including one that had JaMychal Green yell at him through the entire next possession for failing to slide off the weakside corner and stop a Tristan Thompson dunk. It’s frustrating inactivity. But most of his mistakes have the opposite effect, where he’ll go over to help in a spot that calls for no such thing. Here he is whirling to cut off Payton Pritchard, who’d already been run off the three-point line, toward a wall of bodies. In a vacuum this isn’t the worst misread. But then you realize he’s also leaving Jaylen Brown wide open and it’s an absolute disaster.

Some of the more egregious examples come in transition, where he’ll fail to locate his man entirely, or trot back so the opponent can take advantage of an unwanted mismatch and doom a possession before it starts. There might not be any way to verify this, but smart money could be on Malone and Porter Jr. as the head coach-player tandem that leads the league in defensive errors that immediately lead to a timeout.

When Brown hit this third-quarter three—a gift after Porter Jr.’s missed jumper right before convinced him defense wasn’t an important part of the game—Malone called time and subbed his second-year forward out for good. (Again, watch Denver’s bench here. One coach’s head literally drops into his hands.)

Sometimes his overall inattentiveness in these areas mount on top of one another and you get sequences like this one against the Rockets. First Porter Jr. is slow to match up with Sterling Brown as they jog back on defense. Then he gives up a blow-by to David Nwaba, who’s made 25% of his threes this year.

All this criticism seems harsh, but it’s also called for. Porter Jr. has a very real chance to tilt a title race in his team’s favor someday, but not if he can’t grow on defense. Yes, his career isn’t even 75-games-old; it’s unfair to assume he’ll never recognize the most basic patterns or consistently supply the type of effort that’s needed to be part of a championship rotation. Experience-based improvement is in the cards; and there were plenty of moments during last year’s playoffs where bright spots outshined all his confusion.

But in the context of whether the Nuggets are being shrewd or too patient with the one player on their roster who’s capable of turning them into an unfair juggernaut, Porter Jr.’s defensive woes are a critical subplot. They are built to win it all right now, and, in their estimation, that reality has yet to justify a win-now deal that could propel them even closer to the mountaintop.

Given his great potential and current role, only a star (like Beal) makes sense as the asking price. And thanks to his rookie-scale contract, all deals that could bring in someone of that caliber would require more outgoing salary to complete (i.e., it’d deplete Denver’s depth). Thus, a Porter Jr. trade is more complicated than it could or should be. But sometimes I’ll watch Porter Jr. and wonder if the Nuggets’ conservative approach is less about their own desire to preserve continuity and a seemingly bright future and more about how faults distort his trade value around the league.

For anyone this disorganized on defense to ever become a marquee building block—or more importantly, worthy of a max contract—there needs to be high-usage, high-efficiency, James Harden– or Kyrie Irving–esque production with the ball in their hands. There may be a universe where he gets there as a scorer. But the strides he’d need to make as a playmaker are harder to visualize. And consistent defensive mistakes as a power forward—Porter Jr.’s probable long-term position—are more costly than those made by a guard.

In the meantime the Nuggets believe Porter Jr. can raise their overall ceiling. They might be right. His defensive rating off the bench is much lower than it’s been as a starter, and in an uber-specific role against opposing second units he’s less of a liability. He has less understanding than most his age, thanks to an injury-plagued, 53-minute college career, followed by a 0-minute rookie NBA season.

There’s a foundation for him to build from as a defender, but it currently lies in rubble. If he can clean it up and turn himself around, All-Star games and deep playoff runs will be in his future. If not the Nuggets may eventually need to look at other options.