The Denver Nuggets are having a great start to the 2022-2023 season. They currently stand as the first seed in the Western Conference despite both Micheal Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray still coming back into form after missing last season due to injuries. Nikola Jokic has been particularly dominant as well, averaging more assists than last year and shooting at a higher overall efficiency.
Yet something doesn’t feel quite right with this team. Despite them playing well, you won’t see many people picking them to come out of the Western Conference. It feels like the consensus is that Denver is built well for the regular season but won’t be as good come playoff time. There are some glaring weaknesses that give this feeling some validity.
While the Denver Nuggets are ranked second in offensive rating, they are also ranked 23rd in defensive rating. This is what’s going to kill them in the playoffs, and those players who are more one-sided will be much harder to play on a shorter rotation. Let’s break it down a bit more.
Fixing the Denver Nuggets’ biggest weakness.
Bones Hyland has been a solid contributor for Denver, but all of his value comes on the offensive side. In the playoffs, rotations become much shorter. Often, teams go to an eight- or nine-man rotation. While Hyland gets 21 minutes per game now, can they afford to play him next to two or more mediocre defenders in the playoffs? Teams target these things and build their game plan around them. There are things that can be overlooked and hidden during the course of a long 82-game season but will be prepped for in the playoffs.
The other part of the equation is the Denver Nuggets’ lack of draft capital and trade assets. They don’t have a tradable draft pick until 2028. They also do not have many tradeable contracts or players that they can use to make an upgrade. They do have an option, however, which would entail giving up some of that offense in exchange for some much-needed defense.
Let’s talk about Michael Porter Jr. The young Missouri Tiger product has been an extremely efficient shooter for Denver. We all know the top-tier potential that comes with him as well. This year, he has been scoring an average of 16 points per game. He also comes with his own issue, which is the constant injuries to his back on top of some of the worst defenses on this squad. It’s not that MPJ doesn’t try; he just gets lost in his assignments and defensive schemes.
Denver has a clear-cut way to improve the roster.
If the Denver Nuggets want to make a meaningful trade that improves their shot at a title, Michael Porter has to be on the table. Now, can an offensive juggernaut like Denver afford to lose such an efficient shooter? Well, in the minutes that MPJ is off the court, Denver only drops from second to fourth in offensive rating.
Denver could feasibly dangle Porter for a more defensive-minded cast of players that would make them more whole come playoff time.
An example would be sending MPJ to the Kings for some combination of Harrison Barnes and Kevin Huerter plus picks. Denver can either keep those picks to replenish their draft stock or flip them for additional help. They could also include one of those picks in a three-team trade, bringing in a team like San Antonio, which has veterans like Josh Richardson and Jakob Poeltl.
It’s a gamble for sure because there’s a chance that Micheal Porter flourishes into a superstar elsewhere. I would also argue that he is just as likely to re-injure himself or remain the same. If Denver wants to make a move that fixes their defense and pushes themselves into true contention in a wide-open conference, then a hard decision has to be made.
A move like this could mean the difference between Denver having a season like the 2015 Atlanta Hawks or Jokic having a cast to propel him into a run like the 2011 Mavericks that results in a championship.