When Denver signed Jamaal Murray to a max contract extension, it signaled a massive step for the franchise. Within the third year guard, the Nuggets had identified a secondary star to compliment Nikola Jokic. While the book on Murray remains open, it has become increasingly obvious that Denver’s recent financial commitments have not directly pushed them into title contention. The Nuggets are good, but entered the Orlando bubble a clear level below both Los Angeles teams.

With substantial money tied to Murray (and Gary Harris), many wondered how Denver could step up into the heavyweight class. 46-win seasons are nice, but hardly make any noise in the hotly competitive Western Conference. But a funny thing happened in the re-start games leading up to the postseason. That is, the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. With an array of injuries at the re-start, Denver got a long hard look at their prized 2018 draft pick. The results? They may have just changed the championship conversation in the Western Conference.

MPJ IS THE SHOT MAKER DENVER NEEDS 

It is common to look at Denver and not see anything wrong on the surface. The Nuggets came to Orlando as a top 10 NBA offense. It is a free flowing offense predicated on passing and motion. Anchored by Jokic’s elite basketball feel, the Nuggets are built on similar player movement concepts that made Golden State successful. However, what the Warriors also had was a trio of generational shot makers. Denver (obviously) does not. Why is that a such critical issue? As defenses tighten to cut off space in the postseason, shot making becomes THE premium skill. For Denver this is quite the slippery slope.

This is is how it has fared against the elite pull up shooting teams this season.

3 Point Pull Up Attempts & Percentage *thru 8-11-20
3 Point Pull Up Attempts & Percentage *thru 8-11-20

Without multiple pull up threats, Denver is a very easy prey in the playoffs. But the emergence of MPJ changes that equation. Significantly. If head coach Mike Malone does roll the dice on the rookie, the Nuggets will insert their most efficient pull up shooter into the lineup. MPJ is a gifted shot maker whose size and smooth release immediately stands out. Watch how effortless it looks with Lebron James staring him down.

Thru August 11th, MPJ is shooting 48% on 37 pull up threes this season (including 50% in the bubble). It is a small sample size. But in a lineup of few shot creators, the decision to play MPJ is an obvious one. Denver’s top pull up volume shooters from deep include Murray (32%), Barton (34%) and Harris (25%). Not exactly the trio we saw at Golden State. Adding another scoring outlet to the lineup is massive. It gives Denver the shot maker it has sorely lacked. 

THE FIT ALONGSIDE JOKIC IS IDEAL

In MPJ the Nuggets also have the perfect complimentary piece to its main star. Playing alongside Jokic requires a supreme feel for the game. The “Joker” loves to pass from either the top of the key (or elbow). Surrounding him with guys who play downhill and off the ball is critical. MPJ is a high level cutter and one of Denver’s most explosive athletes. In limited action this season, MPJ stands with some of the best cutters in the game. His 1.49 points per cut possession ranks 10th among all NBA players with over 60 possessions. A considerable improvement from Gary Harris, the player he replaced in the starting lineup.

Defensively, MPJ brings a load of potential that raises Denver’s ceiling as a contender. No one is going to mistake Jokic for a generational defender. With MPJ, the Nuggets add a combination of size and athleticism that protects some of Jokic’s shortcomings as a help defender This is particularly important if Denver draws either Los Angeles team. Why? The Clippers are loaded with explosive wings in the form of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Lakers pick you apart with size and have the option of introducing Kyle Kuzma into the lineup. MPJ’s ability to move and match size with size goes a long way to to ensuring Jokic does not have to rotate for help. This allows Malone to park his plodding center under the rim to eliminate scoring opportunities.

DENVER IS NOW THE DEEPEST TEAM IN THE WEST

While depth can be somewhat overrated in the postseason, there is no denying that Denver now has a ton of bench options with the emergence of MPJ. This is specifically the case when compared alongside the two Los Angeles teams.

While neither team will extend into a 10 man rotation, Malone’s ability to do so over a long playoff run is a massive advantage. Just take a look at how they stack up.

What immediately stands out is the two way versatility Denver has on its bench. Yes, Lou Williams may be a more explosive bench scorer and Kyle Kuzma has his occasional moments. But Mike Malone has tremendous balance at his disposal. In Jerami Grant, Will Barton and Monte Morris, the Nuggets have a trio of shooters who all hit for over 37% from deep on the season. Grant and Barton are hawkish wing defenders. A duo that can rotate to multiple positions defensively and match up against some of the game’s most explosive scorers.

These are exciting options for Malone who can now maintain two way balance when his main stars are on the bench. This is something neither the Lakers nor the Clippers can do without over-extending minutes to their main guys. 

As we embark into postseason play, there is now another horse vying for position. Little was made of the Nuggets before the bubble seeding games but the unexpected growth of a forgotten rookie has shifted the conversation at the top. Yes, Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard are still favorites. With Denver now lurking closer than ever as the dark-horse team to come out of the West, don’t be surprised if they do. The Denver Nuggets now have the pieces in place to take on the NBA’s elite. 

Click here to read Thiago’s article on why the emerging Portland Trail Blazers are about to flip the NBA Playoffs upside down.