Injuries are a part of the game and they can significantly alter how an entire season plays out. They can derail a franchise, test a team’s depth and take a mental toll on the players themselves. Rehab and time away from the game can help to a certain extent, but getting back to form has proven to be extremely difficult for some. There are three players that didn’t play at all last year, but figure to be major contributors to their respective teams this season.
How these players adapt and perform this year will largely determine the playoff seeding in the loaded Western Conference. All three of these players happen to play in the out west, two of them on teams slotted in the same division. They all play different positions on the floor, but their impact will be vital to their team’s success.
Will they get up to speed quickly? Can they return to the same version of themselves? Will they be able to stay healthy all season? These are all questions that loom over each franchise as they prepare to tackle the grueling 82-game season.
The Unicorn made his way out of New York City and into the Lone Star State. The Dallas Mavericks paid a steep price for the talented big man, and will finally be able to reap the rewards this year. The basketball world has been salivating at the opportunity to see the dynamic pairing of Porzingis and Luka Doncic, last year’s Rookie of the Year. How will it all work out? Even they don’t know at this point. After all, he hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 6, 2018.
On paper, the pick and roll possibilities are endless. When at full strength, Porzingis is a monster that is nearly impossible to tame. He proved that in New York, where he was clearly the focal point of the offense and a great interior defender. Now with more spacing and another star to keep the defense honest, it would figure to be a dream scenario for the Mavericks. Especially when you consider that Doncic and Porzingis are just 20 and 24-years old, respectively.
The real question isn’t about how the pair will run the offense — however, the concerns on defense are real. The organization tried to address that with the addition of Delon Wright, who is capable of anchoring the defense from the guard position. Both Seth Curry and Jalen Brunson will get plenty of guard minutes as well, depending on the situation. With their dynamic duo both on the floor playing heavy minutes, they will also need solid defensive play from Dwight Powell inside. Powell will fit nicely with Porzingis, as he was an elite pick and roll finisher last season, averaging 1.33 points per possession as the roll man.
How many players in the league right now would you feel comfortable giving a five-year max contract? Porzingis is one of those guys and Dallas agreed. The Mavericks gave him the full $158 million extension, which will go a long way in keeping him and Doncic together for quite some time. Porzingis is under contract through 2023 and Doncic is entering year two of his rookie deal.
The Mavericks have a lot of different parts and pieces to surround Porzingis, up to head coach Rick Carlisle to make it all work. As one of the brighter minds in the game, fans in Dallas should be able to rest easy knowing their team is in such capable hands.
Dejounte Murray is the lone player on this list that has already played for his current team. The San Antonio Spurs looked significantly different the last time Murray was on the floor though. The ultra-athletic point guard was destined to have a breakout year before going down in the preseason. Since his injury, the Spurs have re-tooled their roster dramatically.
In fact, the San Antonio now has one of the biggest backcourt log jams in the league with Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes and, potential breakout candidate, Lonnie Walker IV.
A healthy Murray at 100 percent is clearly the Spurs’ starting point guard as his length and defensive skillset are undeniable. White figures to be in the other guard spot, with DeRozan likely playing more small forward with the starting unit. What does this mean for Rudy Gay and how much will LaMarcus Aldridge play at the center position? Floor spacing will likely be an issue for the Spurs, who will sorely miss the long-range shooting of Davis Bertans.
In his second season, Murray was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team after ranking in the top ten in three major defensive categories. His progression should be on his offensive game. Viewed as an unwilling shooter, Murray should do like most guards and develop a consistent step-in mid-range jumper, or a high-percentage floater.
If Murray is able to improve his shooting, it will greatly boost San Antonio’s chances of success this season. This will open up the offense even more for DeRozan and Aldridge, who live for the mid-range game. Murray is also an excellent cutter and moves very well without the ball in his hands. The 22-year old has so many weapons at his disposal on both ends of the floor.
Gregg Popovich has guided this team to the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons. The organization has made it to the postseason 39 of the last 43 years. So just when it appears as if might take a step back, Popovich gets the most out of whatever players he has. With a full healthy roster at his fingertips, don’t be surprised to see San Antonio in the postseason once again.
Michael Porter Jr
The great unknown — Michael Porter Jr. is the one with the most questions. Largely because this is the one that no one has seen yet. When the Denver Nuggets drafted Porter Jr with the 14th pick in the 2018 draft, it was almost a sigh of relief. The injuries were a major concern, as he dropped down the draft board. The Nuggets took a chance on the highly talented forward, and they hope that pays off this year.
Denver has arguably the deepest team in the league and for good reason. They are stacked at every position with proven players that constantly prove they can play at a high level. Obviously, the don’t need Porter Jr. to come right in and crack the rotation, but what if he does?
Nikola Jokic is the heartbeat of this team, and Jamal Murray is unquestionably the best playmaker on offense. They have a healthy abundance of shooting and big men that can work inside, but the one thing they don’t really have is an athletic scorer that can finish above the rim. That is where Porter Jr. comes in.
While he may not have a defined role, Porter Jr. will need to show that he can earn minutes. He will be competing with guys like Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Juan Hernangomez and the newly acquired Jerami Grant. Porter Jr. was slated to make his Summer League debut in July but suffered a left knee sprain in practice that held him out once again. Now, the 21-year old has his sights set on training camp.
There is a reason the 6-foot-10 forward was once seen as a generational talent. He can handle the ball, lead a fast break, shoot from deep, rebound and, of course, play above the rim. Despite missing what was supposed to be his rookie year, Porter Jr. was able to travel with the team during the season and even suited up in the playoffs. In many ways, it is similar to what Ben Simmons went through in Philadelphia.
The Nuggets had an incredible season a year ago, winning 54 games which earned them the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, their time didn’t last as long as they had hoped, but head coach Michael Malone will have his same group of players ready to improve upon last year’s success. Add to that the possible X-Factor in Porter Jr,. and it just might be the recipe for success the Nuggets have been looking for since their last trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2009.