Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr. should start, but his bench fit is phenomenal

Making a highly anticipated return after an extended absence, Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. has elevated the bench to new heights.

The Denver Nuggets should start Michael Porter Jr.; a quick glance at Monday’s box score makes a convincing case.

After Jamal Murray’s ejection, Porter fulfilled Denver’s need for buckets, dropping 30 points while shooting 6-of-10 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, starter Will Barton faced the same opportunity and scored just six points while converting only 2-of-9 field goal attempts.

Yet, a broader view shows Monday was nothing new for Porter. He’s stepped into the mold of a reliable scorer this season, averaging 18.4 points per game on 55.2 percent shooting, despite a less-than-consistent role and a slew of differing lineups around him.

In his first three games back from a COVID-related absence, Porter averaged 17.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per contest off the bench. Playing heavy minutes with the reserves, he averaged an astounding plus-12.7 +/- in these games, carrying slack for a fatigued starting unit.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone faces an intriguing decision, as the bench with Porter has proven stellar.

Porter’s talent demands a starting spot. But should he remain with the second unit, seeing how superb the fit has been?

Earlier this season, the bench — featuring guards Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo and P.J. Dozier — struggled to materialize offensively, boasting an abundance of playmaking complemented by very little shot-making.

JaMychal Green returned from injury several games ago, providing solid shooting and defense to stabilize the pine. Coupled with Morris’ scoring surge (Morris has posted double-figure points in 9 of his past 11 games), the duo provided much-needed shot-making to the bench, while also maintaining a tight defense.

However, Porter’s addition elevated the second unit’s play into the stratosphere, suddenly furnishing the group with a dangerous three-level scorer who’s unmanageable for most opposing bench defenders.

The offense often begins in Morris’ hands, with the ball swinging around the perimeter to other capable drive-and-kick operators in Dozier and Campazzo. When one of these three backcourt members drives, Green and Porter drift to favorable shooting spots, awaiting the pass.

If opposing defenders don’t adjust, the driver (Morris is particular) capitalizes by scoring near the rim or draining the midrange jumper. When defenses shift towards the driving guards, pinpoint passes are whipped to Porter and Green in scoring position, often in favorable spots behind the arc.

Porter’s averaging 6.0 3-point attempts in the aforementioned three-game stretch while shooting a sizzling 55.6% from deep, demonstrating the high-quality shots he’s receiving alongside the second unit playmakers.

Meanwhile, Green has attempted 4.5 3-point attempts per game this year while shooting 47.1% from range, both of which are absurdly high marks.

The reason MPJ should continue to come off the bench

A chief concern for Denver is Murray and Nikola Jokic’s heavy minutes, as the Nuggets have depended weightily upon their duo thus far; they’re both playing at least 35.0 minutes per game this season.

Instilling a dynamic bench is the best way to accomplish a rhythm in which Malone can rest Jokic and Murray, limiting their minutes when the game allows for it.

Clearly, Porter could start, as he’s Denver third-best scorer. However, due to the second unit’s sudden conversion from a liability to an asset, Malone may deem this bench-anchor role a step forward for Porter and the Nuggets alike.

With Denver winning four of their last five games, either decision could be justified.