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The missing piece for the Nuggets will make his debut this summer

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Now that the Nuggets season has come to an end, it’s time to start looking ahead to next year. The disappointment of a Game 7 loss to the Blazers will eventually subside, leaving Denver with the task of building upon a season that was a big step in the right direction.

In 2018-19, Michael Malone’s squad made the leap from a non-playoff team to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Now, they have to figure out how to grow into a legitimate championship contender.

On that path, the first task is to keep their young core together. And with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris under contract through at least 2020-21, Denver can check that off the list.

Next, they have to decide what to do with Paul Millsap. The team has a $30 million option for the upcoming season, meaning it’s up to Tim Connelly and Company to decide if they want the power forward to return. While many have been frustrated with Millsap, arguing that he hasn’t lived up to the monster contract he signed with the Nuggets in the summer of 2017, he does provide the team’s only low-post offensive threat outside of Nikola Jokic. In addition, he brings a toughness to the court that Denver’s younger players still need to develop.

So the best way to answer the Millsap question is with a question: If you don’t exercise his option for next season, who replaces him? It’s certainly no one on the current roster. So unless there’s a plan to sign Julius Randle or another power forward during free agency, there’s no reason to not bring Millsap back for one more year.

With those four starters in place, plus key reserves like Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley and Monte Morris all under contract for at least next season, that leaves the biggest to-do for the Nuggets front office. As became painfully clear in Game 7 against Portland, Denver needs one more offensive threat; they need someone who can step up at critical moments and hit big shots.

Based on the team’s payroll, that role is supposed to be filled by Will Barton. The team’s fifth-highest paid player (earning $11.8 million this past season) was given that job for a good chunk of the season, starting 38 games after returning from injury before being moved to the bench during the first round of the playoffs, but he was inconsistent at best.

Barton’s frustrating play, which often includes a deviation from the team’s unselfish brand of basketball, came to a head in the final two games against the Blazers. During the Game 7 loss, the guard/forward was a team-worst -9 in the plus/minus category; that performance came off of an unbelievably bad -25 in the Nuggets loss in Game 6.

Time after time, Barton had a chance to knock down a shot that would’ve felt like a dagger to Portland. But more often than not, he’d clank the shot. In addition, he became a liability on the defense end, repeatedly chasing the play from behind and giving up easy baskets.

The tricky thing with Barton isn’t deciding to move on from him; that just requires Malone to finally realize that the shoot-first, think-later player is a bad option on the court. The issue is convincing another team that he’s worth having on their roster.

Not only is Barton’s play problematic, but his contract looks more and more like an albatross every day. His current deal still has three years remaining, with no opt-out for the team, and a total value of $41.1 million. Yikes.

So in other words, Barton’s most likely not going anywhere. He’ll be in Denver whether everyone other than him likes it or not.

That means the Nuggets are going to have to find their additional scoring threat from within. They’re going to have to hope someone on the current roster can blossom.

Prior to the playoffs, Beasley would’ve been the best bet. In his third season, the shooting guard grew from a spot player to a regular contributor, averaging 11.3 points per game in 81 appearances. But during the postseason, Beasley seemed overwhelmed by the big stage; in the final two games against the Blazers, he went 0-for-9 from the field and was a complete non-factor.

Some might suggest that Juancho Hernangomez can develop into that player if given the chance. But he’s a career 5.1 points per game scorer, albeit in limited action. Others might lean toward Trey Lyles, a player who has seen his minutes yo-yo throughout his time in Denver; but he’s not the outside shooter or shot creator the Nuggets need.

Which leaves just one option – Michael Porter Jr.

This season, the rookie was paid $2.9 million to have the best seat in the house. Never donning a uniform, he watched every game from the bench, providing fans with 82 fashion shows in the process. Seriously, the kid has quite the wardrobe.

So it might seem like a stretch to think Porter is ready to replace Barton. But those who have been following the 20-year-old forward’s story know he’s an intriguing option.

In high school, Porter was widely regarded as the best prep player in the nation. But the much-ballyhooed college recruit saw his career at Missouri end before it started; just two minutes into his first game, he suffered an injury that sidelined him until the NCAA Tournament. All told, he played 53 minutes as a Tiger.

As a result, Porter slipped in last year’s draft, falling all the way to the Nuggets at No. 14. Denver knew they were picking someone who couldn’t help them immediately, but they were willing to be patient. Instead of rushing him onto the court, hoping he could help them this season, the Nuggets let Porter fully recover from his back injury.

Now, more than one year removed from his last live action, Porter is ready to return to the court. On Monday, he revealed that he’s been cleared to play and will be on the court with the Nuggets contingent at the NBA’s Summer League in July.

“I can’t wait to get back out there,” Porter said during Denver’s final meeting this season with the media. “Nothing will compare to being out there for the first time in a real game.”

Well, it won’t quite be a “real” game. But there will be a scoreboard. And the players on the court will be going full speed. So it’ll be a much better test than shooting around, scrimmaging or whatever else Porter managed to do during the Nuggets season.

That said, there will be plenty of reasons to keep an eye on Las Vegas this summer. If Porter can shine, he’ll become a legitimate option to start for the Nuggets in 2019-20.

He’s a 6-11 forward who can shoot from the outside, while having the quickness to attack the basket. That makes him incredibly difficult to guard, in the same vein as Kevin Durant.

Admittedly, he’s not Durant. No one is. But he has those kinds of physical traits and basketball skills.

Most importantly, he has the potential to be a lot better than Barton. That would give Denver a chance to build upon this season.

As it is, the current version of the Nuggets has shown how far they can go. They need another piece to take the next step.

More than likely, that’s not coming via free agency. And given where Denver finished in the standings, it’s not going to appear in the draft.

So it has to come from within. Someone on the current roster has to blossom.

The only true option to make that leap is Michael Porter Jr. And there are plenty of reasons to believe it’s not a pipe dream.

The answer will start to be unveiled on July 5. That’s when the NBA’s Summer League opens in Las Vegas.

Every Nuggets fan who has championship aspirations should be glued to their TV for those otherwise-meaningless games. Whether or not the team can turn the next three or four years into a title-contending window will be revealed.

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