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The Nuggets Are Stuck in No-Man’s-Land

With Michael Porter Jr. likely out for the season, where does Denver go from here?

The Nuggets did everything right. They drafted stars—Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr.—at spots in the draft when those picks weren’t obvious and then signed them long term. They found young, valuable contributors—Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier—who were passed over by the rest of the league. They even swung a trade for a coveted veteran—Aaron Gordon—who could help them in a deep playoff run. And yet, even after slam-dunking all those decisions, Denver currently finds itself further away from an NBA title right now than at any other point during the last three seasons.

That’s because Porter, the third-year scoring machine, will undergo back surgery and miss the rest of the season, according to multiple reports. MPJ missed a full year when he entered the league due to back issues. This will be Porter’s third operation on his back, after also undergoing operations his one year in college and after the 2018 draft. MPJ, who played in only nine games this season, is joining Murray (who tore his ACL last April) and Dozier (who tore his ACL earlier this month) on Denver’s crowded injury list. After entering the season as a title contender, the Nuggets’ immediate future is incredibly murky.

In the short term, there’s a legitimate conversation Denver’s front office needs to have about taking a little bit of a step back year. That doesn’t mean full-on tanking, but there are advantages for the Nuggets to aim for the lottery as opposed to the playoffs. Jokić played in every game last season after the short turnaround post-bubble. He’s already dealing with a wrist injury this year, and, when he does return, the burden he will be forced to carry is massive. Murray could still return in 2022, but if he’s not ready until April, that could mean he’s thrusting his surgically repaired knee right into the high-stress environment of a playoff chase.

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If the Nuggets decide to hold out Murray, or at least slow-play his comeback, they can employ a strategy not unlike what the Warriors did in 2020. They can lighten the load on their veterans by periodically resting Jokić and Gordon, not worrying about the play-in and then add a lottery pick to the Jokić-Murray-Gordon-MPJ core over the summer, with all the principals still signed for multiple years. It’s a hard pill to swallow, especially for a franchise with title aspirations. And Jokić, when healthy, has looked like one of the top five players in the world this season. But it would help keep everyone fresh for the battles to come, and it would arguably put the team in an even better position to win a championship in 2023.

On the other hand, Denver can try to remain competitive. Even with three rotation players scheduled to miss months, and two the whole season, there is talent on the roster. Morris, Gordon and Will Barton are solid complements to Jokić. The bench will be an adventure every night, but the team should at least compete for a play-in spot. Maybe they can sneak into the postseason and hope Murray is healthy enough for a proper run. This is definitely the more appealing option from a competitive standpoint, though it’s a little bit riskier for the long-term health of the team.

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) on the bench in the third quarter against the Chicago Bulls at Ball Arena.

It’s a very difficult position for the franchise to be in. Punting on a full season this early with the defending MVP on your roster feels wrong. And as Denver’s injuries have shown, there are no guarantees the stars will align in the future either. At the same time, an early playoff exit does little for a team that’s already postseason-tested, and adding a lottery pick could open multiple pathways to improving the team significantly in the offseason. The Warriors missed the playoffs for two years in a row, and now they are contenders with young pieces who can either contribute down the line or be moved for an impact veteran. And the Nuggets should theoretically have an even bigger window than Golden State.

The keyword there of course is “theoretical.” Denver made the right decision at every turn to build its current roster. The Nuggets didn’t have the benefit of signing stars to form a superteam. They are a small market who took the right risks to put together a title-worthy roster, only to see all that hard work come undone due to injuries. Though the Nuggets have a good track record, they’ve quickly reached another inflection point on their path to a championship. In the NBA, the decisions don’t get any easier, no matter how many good ones you’ve made before.

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