Three years on from their Conference Finals matchup in the bubble, the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Lakers are once again set to fight it out for a spot in the NBA Finals. But while the matchup might elicit a strong sense of déjà vu, the Nuggets will certainly be hoping the result doesn’t.

They went down 4-1 that time around, but having won 53 games this season and as the number one seed, they’ll be confident in their ability to avoid that. Still, the Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, are getting better the longer the season goes, and the Nuggets will need to be at their absolute best to beat them in a seven game series.

Clearly, Nikola Jokic will have a massive say on the Nuggets’ fortunes. Likewise Jamal Murray. But against the defensive firepower of the Lakers, there’s one name who looms as an underestimated X-Factor in this series.

Nuggets X-Factor: Michael Porter Jr.

Michael Porter Jr. certainly isn’t without his critics, and rightly so at times. A talented scorer he may be, but shooting aside he doesn’t always offer a great deal at that end of the floor and defensively, let’s just say he leaves a little left to be desired. But Porter Jr.’s performance has proven to be a barometer for that of the Nuggets for much of the season, and whether he fires or flops may have a significant say on which team makes their way into the NBA Finals.

Throughout the course of the 2022-23 regular season, there was a fairly hefty difference in Porter Jr.’s numbers in wins as compared to losses. During the 41 regular season wins in which he played, Porter Jr. averaged 18.8 points, shooting 51.8% from the field and 44.9% from long range. In contrast, in the 21 regular season losses he played in, those numbers dropped to 14.8 points per game on 42.2% shooting from the field and 34.8% from deep.

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He is a hit-or-miss type player at this point in his career; look no further than his last four games, in which his three-point shooting numbers read 0-4, 5-8, 2-9 and 6-10. Whether or not he’s hitting them though, he’ll likely take 10+ shots per game, and with such a vast disparity between his good and bad games whether they fall could have a significant impact on the outcome of games.

What’s more, the Lakers have established themselves as a very good defensive team over the past few months, and in the playoffs have the best defensive rating of any team at 106.5. The Nuggets have a brilliant offense, obviously led by Nikola Jokic, but he will have his work cut out scoring as easily as he did against the Suns with Anthony Davis patrolling the paint. When Denver do invariably hit periods in which scoring becomes difficult, a 6’10” outside shooter is a great way to relieve the pressure.

Porter Jr.’s is a shot which he can get virtually whenever he wants. Towering over the vast majority of those guarding him, he is Durant-like in his ability to get a good look at the basket – even if he’s a nowhere near that level in execution. If he can hit his threes at a decent clip, it will go a long way to beating the Lakers in what looms as a tight series.

What’s more, when he’s at his best Porter Jr. is more than capable of aggressively driving closeouts and using his substantial size to finish efficiently at the rim. When he’s not being aggressive, he settles almost exclusively for his jump shot, whether it’s falling or not.

There are plenty of players in this series who are a lot better, and a lot more important, than Michael Porter Jr. There is star power en masse in the form of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and to a lesser extent Jamal Murray. Their performances will clearly play a major role in determining the outcome of the series, but as is often the case deep in the playoffs, the contribution of role players is underestimated in its importance. Porter Jr. is one such example, and particularly given the wide gap between his best and his worst and his ability to act as a spark plug when he’s firing, he could be a lot more important than many expect in the 2023 Western Conference Finals.