While it was the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, and Los Angeles Clippers who turned heads with their headline-grabbing superstar acquisitions this month, the first-place Denver Nuggets should not be overlooked as viable championship contenders in the Western Conference.
It is obvious that Denver’s front office does not want to interfere with the progress and chemistry that they have established over these past few seasons. The Nuggets only made minor adjustments to their roster before the February 9 trade deadline, shipping out reserve Bones Hyland and trading for back-up center Thomas Bryant in two separate deals. They also added point guard Reggie Jackson from the buyout market after the Charlotte Hornets waived the 32-year-old.
The results so far have justified their confidence in this group as Denver has run away with the lead in the West standings this year. The Nuggets’ 42-18 record has afforded them a comfortable six-game cushion over the second seed Memphis Grizzlies and it would take nothing short of a disaster for them to lose this lead with 22 games left on their regular season schedule.
The Nuggets have their internal hierarchy clearly figured out at this point, with reigning back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic leading the charge and high-scoring guard Jamal Murray playing a secondary role on offense. The emergence of veteran forward Aaron Gordon into a borderline NBA All-Star has been a boost too as his all-around skillset perfectly complements the pairing of Jokic and Murray.
Though the presence of these three aforementioned players guarantees that Denver will be a solid team on any given night, it is 24-year-old Michael Porter Jr. who can push them to the next level and unlock this Denver team’s full potential.
Porter’s ability to spread the floor as a 6’10 forward is invaluable in the modern landscape of the NBA as he often spots up on the weak side as Jokic and Murray engage in their two-man game actions. This puts opposing defenses in a sticky situation given that they have to make a difficult decision between providing help defense or leaving Porter, a career 41.5% three-point shooter, open for an outside shot.
After appearing in only nine games last year due to a back injury, Porter initially struggled to regain his form at the onset of this campaign. However, he has suddenly rediscovered his groove this February and is enjoying his finest month of the season so far. The Nuggets may have stood pat at the trade deadline, but the recent jump in Porter’s production has had the same impact of a key acquisition in itself.
In February, Porter’s scoring average has increased to 19.5 points per game in 10 outings which is his highest of this year so far, surpassing his 18.5 average in six October appearances. His three-point attempts have seen an uptick as well from his season average of 7.2 to 9.1 while his conversion rate has incrementally improved to 41.8%.
During Denver’s most recent win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Porter led the team in scoring with 25 points, eight-of-14 field goal shooting, six three-pointers, six rebounds, and a block. It marked his fifth 30-point game this month and his best performance since their February 8 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves where he put up 30 points on 11-of-15 shooting along with five rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block.
Porter’s emergence this month has helped Denver win eight of their 10 February games, including each of their last four. If he can keep this up, the Nuggets can easily match up with any team in the West in terms of firepower and they have a strong chance of advancing to the NBA Finals.
Denver may not have made a splashy move at the trade deadline, but Porter’s month-on-month improvement is exactly what they needed to turn them from a good team into a great one heading into the homestretch of this season.