This week is all about the Denver Nuggets season in review. From Monday to Friday, we will be releasing season evaluations by position, beginning with point guard and ending with center. Ryan will break down what expectations were at the beginning of the season, what actually happened, hand out a letter grade, and ask what’s next for each player involved.

Small Forward Rotation

  • Starter – Michael Porter Jr.
  • Rotation – Christian Braun
  • Reserve(s) – N/A

Michael Porter Jr.

Expectations entering 2023-24: “I currently have him ranked as about the 54th, 55th best player in the NBA, and he absolutely deserves that.” – Pickaxe and Roll

Reality: Michael Porter Jr. worked his way back from a season long absence in the 2021-22 season and played 62 games in 2022-23. Many thought that’s where he would stay for the rest of his career, about 55 to 65 games played and hoping for good health in the playoffs. Instead, Porter played an absurd 81 games during the 2023-24 season and was the second most consistent player on the Nuggets roster. Porter effectively replicated his 2022-23 numbers over a longer period of games. He had some improvements as a mid-range shooter and went from 1.0 to 1.5 assists per game (which was progress), but the most important aspect of Porter’s game was that he stayed on the floor and was available every single night.

In the first round of the playoffs, Porter averaged an impressive 22.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game while shooting 48.8% from three-point range. It was the first time in Porter’s career he’s ever averaged so many points, and it shows how much the Nuggets relied upon his scoring capabilities while Jamal Murray struggled with efficiency and health. The the second round of the playoffs though, those numbers dropped off a cliff. Porter averaged 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game on just 37.1% from the field and 32.5% from three. The Timberwolves respected Porter enough to play their best perimeter defender, Jaden McDaniels, against him, and that hurt Porter and Denver’s offense a ton.

Season Grade: B+

What’s Next for Porter: Porter was heading for an A grade on his 2023-24 season before the final seven games against the Timberwolves. He blamed himself after Game 7, and it’s important that he continues to hold himself to a high standard; however, the Nuggets don’t even reach that point without Porter’s play throughout the first 86 games he played between the regular season and first round. Perhaps that’s a good reminder that Porter is human and that even if he’s capable of playing 80+ regular season games, the Nuggets shouldn’t need him to do so going forward.

There’s an outside chance the Nuggets trade Porter this offseason. His contract of three years, $115 million is a heavy cost for a third option. Porter can live up to it by being the best third option in the NBA, but that means stepping up when Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray need him to. He did it in the first round and didn’t in the second. That’s not grounds to be traded on the spot, but the Nuggets should do their due diligence if a great deal emerges. I don’t expect the Nuggets to seriously consider it though, and Porter should be back in a Nuggets uniform next year.

Porter has been available. He’s improved in all of the areas the Nuggets have asked him to improve. If there’s another area he can get better, it’s as a ball handler and playmaker. He does see the floor at times and makes certain reads pretty consistently, but it’s time to increase the playmaking repertoire. If he can handle some more pick and rolls and DHO passes, the Nuggets will benefit greatly.

Christian Braun

Expectations entering 2023-24: “Expecting Braun to put it all together by next season would be folly though. Development takes time, and more importantly, repetition. The Nuggets will need Braun to go through the trials and tribulations next season in ways that he didn’t have to as a rookie. Braun averaged just 1.9 drives per game in the regular season and 1.1 per game in the playoffs. That’s a void that Bruce Brown is leaving, and Braun will be expected to fill it in part.” – Can Christian Braun replace Bruce Brown?

Reality: As written above, expecting Christian Braun to be Bruce Brown was always a bridge too far, and Braun showed some holes in his game throughout the pre All-Star Break portion of the season. He often tried to do too much, driving into spots on the floor that weren’t open, trying to convert a crazy finish around the rim, or simply slowing down the offense. That was always part of the plan for Braun’s development, but it took him a little extra time to figure things out early on.

As the year went on though, Braun improved. He messed around with the ball less and focused on the defensive end. That helped him on the offensive end too, improving his efficiency by cutting out the bad shots and focusing on the easy ones. He shot 42.2% from three post All-Star Break and 54.8% on twos while also rediscovering his edge defensively. He played in all 82 games and was constantly available for the Nuggets which helped.

In the playoffs, Braun became Denver’s sixth man, averaging 17.0 minutes per game and taking on tough defensive assignments while on the floor. Unfortunately, he shot just 4-of-18 from three and rarely had transition opportunities. He was relegated to a cutter and offensive rebounder on that end of the floor, which wasn’t good enough for the role he was playing.

Season Grade: B-

What’s Next for Braun: I didn’t expect Braun to figure everything out in his second season. This was supposed to be a developmental year for him, potentially one step back to take three steps forward as it were. That more or less came to pass. Braun was more involved in what the Nuggets were doing and proved to be a helpful player. What is still to be determined is what his actual ceiling is and whether he can step into a starting role in the near future.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has a player option and could possibly depart in free agency. Braun is a wing, caught between shooting guard and small forward, and has a variety of connective skills. He doesn’t need the ball to be effective as a screener, cutter, hustler, and spot up shooter, but if he wants to be a starting caliber player, he must become more capable handling, playmaking, and scoring around the rim off the dribble. If he’s able to improve in those areas, he could absolutely become Denver’s fifth starter in place of Caldwell-Pope. That might be too soon, but it’s at least a possibility.

If the Nuggets do end up retaining Caldwell-Pope, then expect Braun to play a similar role off the bench going forward.

Final Thoughts

The small forward spot for Denver is made up by two players that are inverses of each other. Porter is the dynamic shooter and offensive threat that might be too big to guard some wings. Braun is the athletic, connective tissue that the team needs sometimes on both ends of the floor but might be too small to guard some forwards. Together, they did a reasonable job for the Nuggets this season. They both seem likely to return and reprise their roles, so expect more of the same from the Nuggets at the small forward position.

If the small forward position changes drastically, then something major transpired.