DENVER — Michael Porter Jr. is proud of his new tattoo. Proud that it represents his Christian faith, proud that it carries meaning to his family. It's “Michael” written in Hebrew, scribbled on the underside of his left forearm, the first splotch of ink on an otherwise inkless NBA body.
"It means, 'One who is like God,'" Porter Jr. explained.
Wouldn’t that be nice, Nuggets fans? Because this all comes back to Porter. Fifty-four wins and a run to the Western Conference semifinals showcased their potential, but it also exposed their ceiling. Like Nikola Jokic hustling through a hotel doorway, they bumped their head on it.
So it all comes back to Porter. He’s the key here. If the Nuggets hit on Porter like they hit on Jokic and Jamal Murray, they can start planning the parade route for 2021, 2022 or 2023. Nuggets media day was Monday, and here was my takeaway: this team’s going to be a blast.
The Nuggets go to Colorado Springs for training camp at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center from Tuesday through Friday. (No, practices are not open to the public. Bummer.) So I want to give you a comprehensive rundown of what I learned at media day. And I learned it all comes back to Porter.
- Nikola Jokic: His trotting horses in Serbia won six races. (Talk about proud.) The Joker filmed a Serbian commercial pitching goldfish crackers, an ad that features the childhood passport photo where Jokic resembles the Truffle Shuffle kid from "Goonies." He’s still a mountain of a man, which took me back to the end of the Trail Blazers series and Gonzaga great Zach Collins asking, “You sure he’s not 300 pounds?” He’s at least 300, I said. And now he has the fifth-best Vegas odds to win NBA MVP.
“I think he should average a triple-double this year. Why not?” Gary Harris said.
“Going into the year I don’t know how you can have an MVP conversation and not mention (Joker’s) name,” coach Michael Malone said.
Agreed. But the Nuggets must manage his minutes. No more of that silly 65 minutes stuff.
- Jamal Murray: Worked out with Kobe Bryant, his favorite player. The Mamba actually reached out to Murray, which suggests his star is rising along with the bottom line in his bank account after he signed a $170 million extension. While Kobe’s name is mud around these hills, Murray’s best when he’s in Kobe mode, acting like he owns the place.
Are the Nuggets a title contender this year?
“I thought (we were) last year,” Murray said.
See what I mean?
- Michael Malone: Not a player, but top five on the most-important-Nuggets list. “We have so many good players,” Porter said. “There’s no bums on the court.” It’s Malone’s job to keep Porter engaged, rest Joker more than Malone prefers and consider newcomer Jerami Grant in the starting lineup. (Just wait. You’ll see.) Malone doesn’t need to keep everyone happy. He’s not their agent. But he does need to remind the Nuggets that going to the conference semifinals is considered a down year in some NBA markets, and the goal is to make the conference semifinals a down year in this one.
Malone's off to a humbling start, as you can see here: "How do you keep these guys motivated and not relaxing and coming up for air? That’s going to be our greatest challenge this year. It’s not the Lakers, the Clippers, the Warriors, the Jazz, the Rockets. It’s us, fighting ourselves, fighting human nature and not thinking we’ve arrived. We haven’t done a damn thing yet.”
- Michael Porter Jr.: The title aspirations all come back to him. The risk-averse nature of the NBA suggests the third member of a Big 3 isn’t coming here via trade. The last half-century suggests a star free agent isn’t coming here, period. Growth must come from within, and Nuggets brass, after a few cold ones, will tell you Porter’s behind Door No. 1.
“We have to find a way to give him a chance to play,” Malone said.
Porter told me he’s 100-percent healthy. No pain from the back injury that dropped him from the probable No. 1 pick to the Nuggets at 15. No issues from the knee sprain that sidelined him for summer league. No restrictions.
“I have no pain or anything,” he said.
Porter’s 21 years old, 6-foot-10 without shoes, a candidate in the small forward battle that Malone said is “an open competition.” He dunked for the first time in sixth grade and got his first college scholarship offer in eighth. His age is apparent when he beams about Kevin Durant. While your favorite might be Bill Russell, Michael Jordan or LeBron James, his is the 31-year-old Durant. These guys make me feel old.
“I always grew up watching those players play. Now being on the same floor as them? It’s a blessing,” Porter said. “You kind of got to switch your mindset from ‘I’m playing these dudes?’ to ‘I’m going at these dudes.’”
What else? Porter deleted his social media accounts, a decision made easier when he leaked the phone number of NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Snapchat. And this should measure expectations at the same time I’m raising them: last week was the first time Porter played 5-on-5 with Jokic. Hope you guys won.
“Yeah. Easily,” Porter said.
“It was so easy. All I had to do was move and cut and then I would get the ball for wide-open shots," Porter said. “It was just so cool playing with him."
See Porter around Colorado Springs this week? Say hi. Tall, really nice guy. No pressure, either. He's only the key to a Nuggets championship.