So much of the present and future of the Denver Nuggets centers around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Having committed financially to both players for the foreseeable future, the focus will always be on them. The beautiful two-man game they play with each other throughout games and when the clock is running down is poetry in motion. Each player has characteristics that make the other better.
What generally gets lost in the shuffle is how to construct a team around those players, both when they are on and off the floor. It’s generally easy to fit players around the Murray-Jokic duo when both are on the floor. Playing defense, hitting perimeter jumpers, and understanding cutting and spacing are the best places to start. The Nuggets have found two guys who do that at a high level in Gary Harris and Paul Millsap, and Will Barton is close to joining them, given the excellent start to the season he has had.
What’s more complicated is finding players that excel with Murray and Jokic on the bench. Very few players can replicate what Jokic does with his perimeter game, playmaking for others, and scoring chops, but in order to keep the plays the starters and bench run relatively consistent, the Nuggets needed someone to reprise that role as best they can.
Enter Mason Plumlee, a muscular, athletic big man with a penchant for handling and passing the ball. Plumlee isn’t the caliber of shooter or scorer Jokic is, but he’s one of the best passers in the NBA at the center position. This year, among all qualified centers, Plumlee’s 4.5 potential assists per game rank 13th overall (potential assists measure the opportunities created by one player that aren’t affected by the shooting of others). Nikola Jokic is second at 8.9 potential assists per game behind only Julius Randle’s 9.3, a surprising inclusion.
The Nuggets and Jokic have dealt with a fair degree of foul trouble in the first nine games of the year, and Plumlee has performed as well as can be asked in Jokic’s stead to generate good, clean shot attempts for others. Where the Nuggets have really struggled on the bench is everywhere else.
Let’s start with the general numbers of Denver’s most common bench lineup of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Mason Plumlee. This group has played 50 minutes together, scoring just 95 points on 94 field goal attempts during that stretch. This unit is shooting just 39.4% from the field, 30.8% from three-point range, and 72.2% on free throws, numbers reserved for the most inefficient units. The 96.9 offensive rating generated is the third worst among 24 five-man units to eclipse 50 minutes of court time thus far, in front of only the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets starting lineups (R.I.P. both of those teams’ seasons).
To be clear, the defensive issues for this unit are secondary. It has weaknesses, notably big bruising centers like Joel Embiid and guards with size and passing chops. And yet, the defense is perfectly reasonable, with the unit maintaining a 105.4 defensive rating, a solid mark for this point in the season. The offense is the main issue.
Plumlee, as I mentioned, has been the best of the bunch for Denver’s bench. Per 100 possessions, Plumlee is averaging the highest number of rebounds, third highest assists, highest steals, and second highest blocks among regular rotation members. He has been productive and efficient in his minutes.
Where the Nuggets run into problems is when they have ran out of space to operate their sets. Plumlee, for all his positive qualities, isn’t a floor spacer. He never will be. The Nuggets need four players around him that can shoot from the three-point line and the midrange area to compensate, and they have struggled to do either. Per 100 possessions, the five-man unit is only attempting 26.5 three-pointers right now. The average team attempts 31.6 threes per 100 possessions. The Indiana Pacers, a team with little spacing whatsoever, average 24.2 threes per 100 possessions.
Offense becomes so much more difficult when defenses can pack the paint and not fear their opponents at the three-point line, and opposing teams don’t have to fear Denver’s bench. Plumlee doesn’t shoot any threes. Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant are shooting 23.5% and 25.9% on perimeter shots respectively. Malik Beasley is shooting well, averaging 41.4% from three on moderate volume. Monte Morris is at 42.9% himself, but in averaging less than one three-pointer attempted per game, his threat to space the floor is less pressing for opposing defenses.
Now, it’s early in the year. Grant and Craig can still come back from poor shooting and be respectable. Nikola Jokic is shooting 24.4% from three right now, and I still expect him to be back in between 30% and 35% in short order. The same could happen for Denver’s bench floor spacers.
But shooting a better percentage won’t change the fact that Denver still needs more creators on the second unit. They average a high number of assists as a unit, but the creation on drives and off the dribble is relatively weak as a whole. Monte Morris averages 4.0 drives per game from the perimeter to the paint, a reasonable number in 17.3 minutes per contest. Malik Beasley though? 1.8 drives per game. Jerami Grant averages 2.8 drives. Torrey Craig has registered just three total drives in 155 minutes played.
With the paint congested, the Nuggets haven’t had enough driving lanes to create offense off the dribble. Without creators off the dribble, the bench defenses can stay home on their assignments and don’t need to sell out every time. It’s a vicious cycle that probably has to be altered by a change in style or personnel if the Nuggets want to win games with their bench again.
The Nuggets need more spacing out there, and it’s possible that Michael Porter Jr. can be that solution. The 6’10 small forward has a pure shooting stroke and the willingness to shoot that defenses will be forced to respect at any moment. It’s on Porter to remain efficient in these instances, but the floor spacing drastically changes with Porter out there over Jerami Grant or Torrey Craig because of the respect factor from opposing defenses.
Fans shouldn’t hurry to this solution though. It’s possible that the better solution may be to stagger the starters and the bench. Jamal Murray and Will Barton have been solid dribble creators that would pair well with Morris and Beasley as the other guards off the bench. Denver would become smaller with Craig out and Murray or Barton in, but that may be the best way to draw attention away from Morris and Plumlee as the only second unit creators.
Whatever the Nuggets decide to do will be intriguing. Rotating in a starter would change things drastically for Denver throughout the game. Subbing in Porter for Craig would be a major shift in Denver’s commitment to defense as Porter will definitely struggle on that end. Doing nothing and hoping things will improve with a larger sample of shooting is the most realistic and perhaps the most likely to fail.
Nuggets fans should track this storyline closely throughout the year. It isn’t going away until Michael Porter Jr. gets a legitimate opportunity. The Nuggets need him to be ready to help solve their issues, but if he’s not, Denver’s bench might be in for a long year.