Jamal Murray dropped 48 points on the Boston Celtics. He burned them so bad he left Kyrie Irving angry about unwritten rules... in basketball. That will be the story, that is what will be remembered about the game against Boston and rightfully so. Meanwhile the Denver Nuggets are off to their best start in the NBA. No doubt performances like Murray’s or Gary Harris’s countless clutch moments or Nikola Jokic doing things we’ve not seen since Wilt Chamberlain are the story in Denver’s early success. What should not be lost though is how the Nuggets reserve unit has been a consistent force of its own, and how it serves as further validation of the Nuggets front office and the outstanding job they’ve done particularly in the draft.
The bench’s performance certainly wasn’t lost on coach Malone last night (or any other night really). “Our bench was terrific” is a phrase that seems to be in his lexicon every single post game press conference and he goes out of his way to point out how big they have been in the victories. It’s easy to see that his trust with his reserve unit is high, often electing to lean on a bench player down the stretch whether that’s been Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley or, as was the case against the Celtics, Monte Morris. Frankly, why not trust them? Ever since the win against the Golden State Warriors where Juancho sealed the deal by blocking Damian Jones in the waning moments of the 4th quarter this bench unit has been on fire. The only game where they weren’t an outright positive since the home opener was the nail biter in Chicago against the Bulls. Every other game at least one reserve player has had a major impact, and on most nights it’s more than one.
There’s also something very significant about the Nuggets bench putting everything together this season: it’s Tim Conelly’s bench and he went all in with them. The Nuggets made a very pointed shift with their roster this offseason. Gone were the relics of the Masai Ujiri era like Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler as well as Connelly’s own security blanket veteran players like Darrell Arthur, Richard Jefferson and Devin Harris. With the exception of Paul Millsap, who serves a far greater role than veteran presence, the Nuggets decided to metaphorically push their chips into the middle of the table with the 27 and under core they built. Injuries perhaps thrust some players into the spotlight a bit early, but that was a risk they had to be comfortable taking when the decision was made to go young. It might not have been the Nuggets plan when they signed Monte Morris to have him be the reserve point guard in game 1 but Isaiah Thomas, Denver’s one veteran addition in the offseason, has yet to be able to play a game. Same goes for the Nuggets first round selection Michael Porter Jr. (whose absence was likely planned from the start) but that, along with Will Barton’s untimely injury has opened the door for Juancho and Malik.
A lot of criticism has come Connelly’s way for primarily two decisions: trading Jusuf Nurkic and swapping a first rounder with a second for Mason Plumlee; and trading away the thirteenth pick in the 2017 NBA draft for Trey Lyles and the twenty-fourth pick. That second deal had an especially poor light shine on it last week when the Nuggets declined the team option on Tyler Lydon, the player Connelly selected with the aforementioned twenty-fourth pick. Take a closer look though. Say what you want about those two moves but three of the five players that are making up this stellar unit of reserves were either acquired on draft night 2017, or in that Mason Plumlee trade. Another player selected in the 2017 NBA Draft, Vlatko Cancar, looks like he’s on a progression path destined for the NBA and the Nuggets swapped that second round pick from the Plumlee deal a couple times to eventually turn it into Jarred Vanderbilt. Ever since December 15th two seasons ago, the Nuggets have known who their engine is, but the moment Nikola Jokic stepped off the floor the team went into disarray. It took Connelly just two seasons to completely overhaul the reserves and change that weakness into one of the team’s greatest strengths and it fits precisely within their timeline, and he did it by making the right moves, even when some of them seemed like the wrong one at the time. Lydon is obviously the exception but he’s just that: the exception, not the rule.
The Nuggets core of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Jokic is still incredibly young with Harris as the elder statesman at age 24. The front office had always bolstered that youth with heady veterans but when they made that switch this season to go with their youth on the bench they expanded the core to damn near a whole roster. Before this year Juancho and Malik looked to be teetering on the edge of heading towards NBA obscurity as there first two seasons had been largely hit or miss; now they are key components off the bench along with Morris and Lyles, two players who have “beat the odds” stories of their own. Three of the four are 23 years of age (Beasley is 21) making the unit’s growth and maturation (and contract status) line up directly with the Nuggets starting core. The Nuggets haven’t found a few young guys to build around, they’ve found a few young guys to build around and an entire set of young complementary players to go with them. It’s not about what they need to add, it’s about watching what they already have develop and flourish. 10 games into the season, and flourishing might be putting it lightly.
Yes, there have been some outstanding performances from Jokic, Harris and Murray, but as each of those players have also had games where they weren’t at their best, the bench has remained the constant steadying force to the Nuggets ship. It’s coming at a time when it was least expected, when the Nuggets exchanged the reliability of veteran depth for the potential of young depth and it’s paying off big time. A ton of credit goes to the players obviously, as well as their coach for pulling the right strings to put them in a position to succeed. That said, a ton of credit is also due to Connelly, Arturas Karnisovas and the rest of the Nuggets front office who had the eye for talent to find so many contributors through the draft but also the gumption to be willing, in a contract year no less, to test their resolve by making those drafted players into key contributors across the board.