Keeler: Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are two pieces of Nuggets’ NBA championship puzzle. They need to find out if Michael Porter Jr. is the third.

If the Broncos season is / was / should have been a referendum on Drew Lock, then the 2020-21 campaign for the Nuggets should be more or less the same function for Michael Porter Jr.

Here you go, boy. Keys. Title. Sales invoice. Temporary tags. It’s all there. Car is in the parking lot.

Just don’t put us in a ditch.

“I think the future looks extremely bright,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone of MPJ, the franchise’s 22-year-old scratch card. “And I think he will have a good chance of starting for us if he keeps doing the right things. But nothing is given to him or anyone else. They will have to work for it. ”

Malone’s ragged – sorry, tiered – preseason camp opens Tuesday. In his initial state-of-the-team speech, he touched on the general strangeness of a short off-season; the unusual roster turnover for a locker room rooted in continuity and chemistry; Will Barton’s health, physical and mental (improvement on both counts); and a starting line-up that keeps moving, alongside Jamal Murray on the point and Nikola Jokic in the middle.

He also admitted – given the absolute Dove Valley massacre last weekend – at least a little shocked, and rightly so, about what COVID-19 could do with an NBA squad outside the protection of an Orlando bubble.

“If we have one or two cases, or if we have to close during the season,” warned Malone, “that could be a decisive week, a two-week period, when your season is over.”

At best, basketball and not the pandemic will drive the story for the next seven months. At best, the six-foot Porter, who teased his ceiling at Disney World, averaging 11.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 treys, and 23.7 minutes in 19 playoff appearances, the perfect addition to the two-headed monster. from Murray and Jokic, and not a third wheel.

We already know that the double act works. That you can ride the Blue Arrow / Joker Express all the way to a Western Conference final. That this is the core, the foundation, the backbone – post-season tested, tough post-season – that you can build a title contender around.

Now we have to see if the trio also gels. If the Murray-Jokic-MPJ supergroup, like all good bands, can play well together under the brightest lights and the biggest stages.

No more training wheels. No more children’s gloves. No more main games. Jerami Grant walked. Barton is a wait-and-see attitude. There is no safety blanket. This puppy is MPJ’s job to lose.

Just don’t put us in a ditch.

Trust shouldn’t be a problem. Lord knows that talent will not be. The millstones for the child are largely on two fronts:

First, consistency. Especially during a regular season that will almost certainly be stopped, started and generally ripped out by the coronavirus.

Second, defense. It’s not fair to expect a 22-year-old to routinely control Kawhi, LeBron and Anthony Davis. Not yet. But that’s the bar. That’s who’s on the fight map.

Porter is a stretch-4 with wing-guard range, wing-guard hop. The Nuggets don’t have many bodies that combine that much range with that kind of speed. MPJ doesn’t have to be Scottie Pippen. But he has to try. More importantly, he needs to show the coaching staff that he’s trying.

For Malone, that means putting up with the blunders and brain cramps. Completing the inevitable rollercoaster weeks, given the increase in the child’s minutes and responsibilities.

The playoffs are a different beast, admittedly. But until then, it befits everyone in the organization to spend the games for it to find out exactly what they have in Porter. Or not. And to act on that information.

Malone claimed on Tuesday that every runway is open on the Nuggets, but two, which are the obvious two. Then he switched unsolicited to:

“I will say that Michael Porter showed really well in those 19 playoff games he was allowed to play in Orlando. And I think Michael Porter has the chance to become an all-league talent. And I’m excited to see what he can do this year. ”

Join the club. Since we’ve learned this from Lock’s last 12 months too: if MPJ doesn’t take the next step, the Nuggets probably won’t.