After missing the last 13 games with a left heel strain, Michael Porter Jr. is returning to the Nuggets’ lineup Friday vs. the Portland Trail Blazers, according to him.
Following Thursday’s Nuggets practice, Porter was asked about his status for tomorrow’s Northwest Division matchup. He promptly answered that he will be playing. That came around 10 minutes after Michael Malone addressed the media and said Porter’s status will be determined after Friday morning’s shootaround but that he was trending in the right direction.
The translation: Porter will be suiting up vs. the Blazers barring a last-minute setback.
Porter will also likely come off the bench for now. It has to do with the minute restriction that he’ll have when he does get back on the floor. Coming off the bench allows Porter to play all of his minutes continuously instead of starting a game and then sitting down for his normal rest at some point in the first quarter. But expect Porter to eventually return to the starting lineup full-time once the restriction gets lifted. That seems like the plan, per Denver’s coach.
“He’s our starting small forward,” Malone said Thursday.
The Nuggets will gradually ramp up Porter’s minutes. In total, he’s missed around one month of basketball. Porter first started feeling pain in his heel during Denver’s 98-97 win in Dallas over the Mavericks on Nov. 20. He played 31 minutes and scored 14 points that night but only shot 1-5 from 3. Porter was experiencing discomfort and thought he could play through the pain, and did so two days later in the Nuggets’ home loss to the Pistons where the forward scored 18 points in 33 minutes and again shot just 1-5 from 3-point range. However, the pain was getting a lot worse and he shut it down.
Porter had to stay off his foot for a few days but has still played a lot of 3-on-3 over the last couple of weeks. He made it a priority to stay in shape while sidelined. Porter has been in the training room and worked with the Nuggets’ medical staff on finding the right orthotics to wear. You got the sense from speaking with Porter on Thursday that he is very ready and eager to return, thinks he’s able to play without any restrictions right now, and that this injury wasn’t concerning since it didn’t have anything to do with his back.
“For me, if it’s not related to my back, then I’m not too worried about it,” Porter said. “Anything else, it’s part of basketball. This was something that’s unrelated to my back. As long as it’s something else, I can handle it pretty easy.”
“I think I’m in a good spot to pick up right where I left off.”
Offense and shooting are the two line items that you can always bank on Porter bringing with him to the court. He’ll undoubtedly help the Nuggets in those two areas once he’s back. The 16.4 points per game he’s averaging this season and the 42.7% 3-point shooting will add another layer to Denver’s already elite offense that ranks third in the NBA.
But what about the other end of the floor? Can Porter help Denver’s defense, which has been a disaster for most of this season, too?
The numbers say he might.
The Nuggets’ opening night starting lineup featuring Porter, Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic has a 101.6 Defensive Rating in 172 minutes this season, a stat that Malone brought up unprompted Thursday. For reference, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the NBA’s No. 1 ranked defense, have a 106.8 Defensive Rating this year. Since Porter’s injury, Bruce Brown, a much better defender than Porter, has taken his place in the Nuggets’ starting five, but Denver’s lineup featuring the starters with Brown has been much worse defensively than it was with Porter. The Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Brown, Gordon and Jokic lineup only has a 112.3 Defensive Rating in the 269 minutes it has played together.
The key might be Porter’s length. He’s 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan. Even though Brown is in another class as an individual defender, he can’t make up for Porter’s natural length and size. Brown has been playing out of position on the wing too. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with Murray out of the lineup two nights ago vs. Memphis, Brown moved to point guard, the taller and longer Christian Braun starting at small forward, and the Nuggets played their best defensive game of the season. More length just naturally helps on defense.
Malone and the Nuggets’ front office and analytics staff have been discussing that very topic recently. Specifically, they’ve been talking about the Nuggets’ length and how it can impact their defense. A takeaway from those chats, per Malone, was that the Nuggets have been at their best defensively when there’s more length on the floor.
“When we play longer, length, tall, there’s a correlation between that and our defense,” Malone said.
“Size definitely helps us on the defensive end of the floor.”
Before he got hurt, Porter was also playing the best defense of his career, which is also something Malone made a point to bring up Thursday. Prior to his latest injury, you could tell that Porter was making more of an effort on that end of the floor. He was diving for loose balls. He was identifying shooters and running them off the 3-point line with regularity. He was playing with a level of engagement, commitment and energy on the defensive end that you hadn’t consistently seen throughout his career.
Porter has always been a strong rebounder too. It’s a significant part his developing defensive profile.
“I guess just playing harder,” Porter said when asked how his defense has evolved over his career. “One day my defense is bad according to everybody, the next day they’re saying it’s good.”
Overall, the Nuggets’ defense has been trending up as of late. Denver ranks 24th in defense this season but the Nuggets are the NBA’s 12th-best defense over their last six games. Included in that sample is Tuesday’s marquee win of the season, a 105-91 triumph over the Grizzlies. With the win, Denver overtook Memphis for the No. 1 seed in the West.
We’ll see if the Nuggets’ positive trend on defense continues when Porter returns.
“Our defense with Michael Porter on the court this year has been great,” Malone said.
“It will be nice to have a 6-foot-10, long, lanky player who can shoot the lights out and help us on the glass at the same time.”