MPJ is MIA: Michael Porter Jr. is the biggest mystery in Denver

Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) reacts to his three point basket in the second half against the Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Think of Nuggets swingman Michael Porter Jr. like this – like Santa Claus.

Remember when you were a kid, and you knew – all year long – that jolly ol’ Saint Nick was going to slide his way down the chimney about the time December 24th turned into the 25th? And when he did, the spoils to follow were well worth the wait; the goodies in that big read bag were so good that holding out for 365 days was bearable.

Michael Porter Jr. is Santa Claus.

Or, so we thought. So we think (?).

Ever have that older sibling who spoiled it for you, though? The one who felt it was necessary to let you know – as a younger brother or sister – that Santa Claus wasn’t really all that he was cracked up to be. That perhaps, just perhaps, all the hype and pomp and circumstance surrounding the world’s fattest and most-beloved elf wasn’t really what it was cracked up to be.

Well, meet Michael Malone (aka, “older sibling”) and Michael Porter Jr. (aka, “Santa Claus”). It’s like Santa got stuck about 36 inches from the fireplace, like older brother just broke the news.

We waited oh so patiently for Michael Porter Jr., a player who was once thought to be a potential No. 1 overall selection until injuries knocked him back to 14th, where Nuggets GM Tim Connelly wisely scooped him up. You know the story; the Nuggets waited patiently, too, allowing their thoroughbred time to heal and grow before putting him on the track. Porter Jr. sat out an entire year, yet the plan seemed perfect.

We believed, in part because the Nuggets told us, that Porter Jr. could be a savior of sorts – the type of talent that was worth waiting for, worth patience. And from what we’ve seen of him, that might still be true. In just 14 minutes per game, Porter Jr. averages nearly 8 points and more than 4 rebounds. He shoots at a highly efficient clip – .504 from the field and .429 from downtown. When given the minutes, he can be a double-double machine. There’s no doubt he’s shown signs of being that transcendent talent that takes teams places.

But to say he is that kind of talent – now – is probably irresponsible. After all, we simply haven’t seen enough of him. We’re reminded he’s not ready, he can’t play defense, he can’t … something … on a nightly basis by Malone, who clearly doesn’t favor the kid. It’s obvious that Porter Jr. walks onto the court with the shortest leash in the NBA dragging behind him.

The Nuggets last four games provide an adequate example.

When the Nuggets ventured west for a pivotal matchup against the Clippers, who’ve been jockeying for the No. 2 spot with the Nuggets all season, it was clear that Porter Jr. didn’t factor into Malone’s game plan. The coach didn’t trust his rookie on the road against a marquee team in the West. In effect, Porter Jr. played just four minutes in an embarrassing loss (yes, the boxscore reads 9:28, but anyone who watched knows the last 5-plus were solely garbage time).

Perhaps because the loud roar coming from those who follow the Nuggets – everyone asked why Porter Jr. didn’t play in L.A. – Malone handed Porter Jr. more than 19 minutes the next game against the Raptors; the Nuggets won the game and the youngster provided 11 points and 6 rebounds. In that game, Porter Jr. connected on 50 percent of his shots.

As a follow up against a lowly Golden State team, Porter Jr. played just 13 minutes. To be fair, he wasn’t good against the Warriors at all, going 1-for-6 and only scoring three points. Also to be fair, none of the Nuggets wee good that night, as Malone’s team took one on the chin from a team nearly incapable of throwing a punch – and it still hurts.

Then last night, in a road game against the Charlotte Hornets, a team almost as bad as the Warriors, it seems a statement was made: Michael Porter Jr., DNP, Coach’s Decision.

Huh? (or as the kids like to say, “WTH” … or something like that).

When asked about the decision not to play Porter Jr. – at all – Malone said it was because Denver’s defense ranked 27th in the NBA since the All-Star break.

So, are we to assume that Denver’s defense is that bad because of one player? A player who’s played in just six of Denver’s last seven games, and averaged under 12 minutes in the games in which he’s played? After all, the Nuggets – without the services of Porter Jr. – still somehow managed to give up 112 points to the Hornets, not exactly an NBA juggernaut (in fact, Charlotte ranks dead last in the NBA in scoring, averaging 102 points per game). Nobody will be casting a vote for Porter Jr.’s inclusion on the NBA’s all-defensive team, but that short of blame seems a bit extreme.

The Denver Post’s Mark Kiszla wrote a fantastic piece about the Nuggets – a team pretending to be what’s it’s not (hint, hint…a contender), a team that’s “living a lie.” Kiz suggests that the sooner the Nuggets accept the notion that they’re not winning an NBA title this season, the better off they’ll be. Because – then and only then – can they truly find out what they have in Porter Jr.

But does Malone already know?

Does the head coach of the Nuggets know that Porter Jr. actually and truly doesn’t have the goods? Does he not play him because he honestly believes the Nuggets have a better chance at an NBA title than everyone else, and that his youngster could derail the plan? Sure, a coach’s job is to believe in his team and accumulate as many wins as possible, but if Kiszla is right, it might be the GM’s job to step in and say, “Hey, it’s time to give the kid a chance.”

Malone may or may not believe in Porter Jr., but somebody within the walls of Pepsi Center sure does. A lot. Because the word on the street is that when it came time for trade talks, any team that expressed interest in Porter Jr. was told “thanks but no thanks.” Without knowing or including all the details, it’s probably safe to assume that the Nuggets valued Michael Porter Jr. more than Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday as recently as the trade deadline.

Is there a showdown between the coach and the GM on the horizon? How will Tim Connelly and Artūras Karnišovas know what to do during the offseason if they know what they have in Porter Jr.? Could it be that the Nuggets head coach is the only one who truly knows whether or not Porter Jr. can play? If Connelly thinks as little of Porter Jr. as Malone seemingly does, why not trade him at the deadline?

Does anyone really know what or who MPJ can be?

We sure don’t. We haven’t seen enough. It feels like we’re still waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus, and it’s starting to feel like Christmas could be cancelled this year.

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