What the likely end of Michael Porter Jr.'s season means for the Nuggets

·4 min read

Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. — a key component in his team's quest for contention — will undergo back surgery and is expected to miss the remainder of the season, according to multiple reports.

Following a breakout 2020-21 campaign, Porter signed a five-year, $172.6 million maximum rookie contract extension in late September. Long before that deal begins in 2022, the 23-year-old will undergo a third back surgery in four years. The latest procedure is scheduled for Wednesday, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, raising serious concerns about the the long-term viability of Porter as a player and Denver as a contender.

Porter played through back pain to become the top high school prospect in the Class of 2017. A setback suffered minutes into his freshman season at Missouri required surgery to remove one of two bulging discs in November 2017. He played just two more games in college before declaring for the 2018 NBA draft.

Former Memphis Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger said Porter's pre-draft medical report was the worst he had ever seen for a prospect. Porter said the Los Angeles Clippers twice passed on him because their team doctor said he "would never play basketball again." He fell to Denver with the 14th pick. Before wearing a Nuggets uniform in earnest, Porter required a second spinal surgery.

He missed the entire first year of his rookie contract and ultimately debuted on Halloween 2019. Porter broke into the starting lineup in the Orlando bubble and was an important contributor behind stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray on Denver's run to the 2020 Western Conference finals. Porter's emergence as a bona fide third option last season, when he averaged 19 points on remarkably efficient 54/45/79 shooting splits, had many listing the Nuggets as title favorites — until Murray tore the ACL in his left knee in April. 

Denver flamed out in the second round of the playoffs against the Phoenix Suns, as Porter "tweaked" his back in Game 1 of the series — an injury he admitted would have sidelined him, were it not the postseason. Porter pulled up lame on a layup attempt seven minutes into a game against the Houston Rockets on Nov. 6. He has not played since, and Monday's news confirmed fears The Denver Post's Mike Singer reported last week — that Porter would miss the rest of this season due to the chronic nerve issues in his back.

In between, Nuggets teammate Austin Rivers said Porter had been playing through back pain all season, which would explain his 9.9 points per game on abysmal 36/21/56 shooting splits in nine appearances prior to his most recent setback. It would not explain why the Nuggets signed him to a max contract two months ago, when he had apparently been battling persistent back problems since the playoffs at the start of June.

While Porter's agent, Mark Bartelstein, told Wojnarowski that his client is expected to make a full recovery, Denver has to be concerned that recoveries from two previous surgeries did not prevent a third. Should Porter never realize his potential as a player, his contract will be a crippling blow to Denver's title chances.

Murray's injury already cost Denver a title shot last season, and Porter's injury — combined with the uncertainty of Murray's status this season — all but ends any discussion of their chances this season.

Murray, Porter and Aaron Gordon — paid more than $20 million annually as a fourth option — are all signed through at least the 2024-25 season. Jokic becomes eligible for a supermax extension worth $241 million after this season, when he will decide whether to tie his title chances to these Nuggets or enter 2023 free agency. There will be more bites at the championship apple, but they are heavily dependent on a 23-year-old whose back has already required more surgeries than the two that ended Larry Bird's career at age 35. 

Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. is likely out for the season after news of his impending back surgery. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. is likely out for the season after news of his impending back surgery. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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