The Denver Nuggets have been carried by their starters through the first quarter of the season. Their reserves have struggled to produce offense consistently, and allowing them to split time with the starters could change that trend.
Through 19 games, the Denver Nuggets are 14-5, and they’ve shown some impressive developments through the early part of the season. While they’re struggling on the offensive end of the floor, their defense has been clicking in a major way, as they’re currently second in the NBA in defensive rating. They’re also 11th in the league with a net rating of +4.2. The starters have played outstanding, as their +14.0 net rating is the seventh-best mark among lineups that have at least 100 minutes and 10 games played.
The problem has been that the bench is not holding up its end of the bargain on most nights. Their most-used bench unit which features Mason Plumlee, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley is -8.1 in their 50 minutes played, and that’s the lineup that head coach Michael Malone has used the second-most. When looking through the Nuggets’ 5-man lineups, you have to get to one that has been used for a total of just 11 minutes to find one with a positive net rating.
Going down those lineups, you will notice a common theme that is staggering the starters leading to far more good lineups than bad lineups. Looking at the top 13 lineups (13 is where the positive bench lineup comes in) only three of the negative lineups feature a starter. For Malone to get these reserves rolling again, he needs to get more lineups with his starters on the floor with these guys.
The story for the first quarter of the season for Denver has been the struggles of All-NBA center Nikola Jokic. He’s averaging 14.9 points per game after a six-point outing against the New York Knicks brought his average down even more. Through the first part of the season, we’ve seen him defer to other players on the offensive end a lot more than we’re used to seeing from him, and that seems like it is part of his problem.
Playing with the bench more often would immediately help him several different ways. He would be getting a backup center to go against far more often, and he’d be surrounded by many athletic shooters in Jerami Grant, Malik Beasley and Monte Morris. Malone has been hesitant to lean on a lineup surrounding his big man, as the most-used lineup with Jokic as the lone starter has played just eight minutes across three games.
Malone often leaves his starters in for the entirety of the first quarter before pulling them for the reserves to start the second period. He could get the starters out after about eight minutes, and give Jokic four to five minutes with the reserves to try and get him rolling. His passing would pair perfectly with the athletic cutters we’ve seen from him, and, with the way he’s been playing, it wouldn’t hurt to try and experiment with this group.
The Blue Arrow
Jamal Murray has shown out to start this season. He’s averaging 18.5 points per game to go with 4.8 assists while shooting 44.2 percent from the field. He’s been great in the clutch for this team, as he’s second on the team in clutch points per game behind only Jokic, and his offense shines when he’s allowed to play that assassin style role. Playing on a bench unit that has struggled to score the ball with any consistency would allow Murray to further expand on that role.
Among all of Denver’s 5-man lineups, there is just one that features all bench players that has an offensive rating over 100, and they’ve played five minutes in two games when it was garbage time. The knock on Murray throughout his career has been his defense or his lack thereof. However, he’s gone to work to shed that moniker this season. He’s tied for fifth on the team with a defensive rating of 102, and he leads the team in steals per game at 1.7.
Murray isn’t a natural distributor, which is something that could pose an issue on the bench that prefers a more team-friendly approach. That doesn’t matter when you’re playing offense as bad as these reserves have. Murray would instantly become the best offensive player in any reserve unit, and he would get more of a chance to shine as an individual scorer. We’re working to kill two birds with one stone again.
If Murray isn’t scoring, Will “The Thrill” Barton likely is. He’s been outstanding this season after coming into the year with a big question mark at the small forward spot. He’s just a hair behind Murray on defense with a defensive rating of 103, and he’s been scorching the nets to the tune of 14.9 points per game, and he’s over 40 percent from 3-point range which is much higher than his career mark of 34.4 percent.
Why should he be paired with the bench? It makes perfect sense for both sides and for a lot of the same reasons as we saw with Murray. He’s a natural scorer, and he does well with the ball in his hands. He also has outwardly said before that he wants to have a bigger slice of the pie, and this is one way that he could get that piece.
Barton has been playing in some lineups that have featured him as the lone starter, and the results have been largely successful. One lineup that features a ton of length between Juan Hernangomez and Jerami Grant alongside Barton is +14 so far this season. Unlike the previous two starters, Barton has been explored as the lone starter, and Malone just needs to lean further into those lineup combinations.
Gary “Gary Harris” Harris
First off, this is the best nickname on the entire list, and it is not close. Moving on, Gary, similar to Jokic, has struggled to get his footing on the offensive end. The difference is that the spotlight on Joker is significantly brighter. Harris has the defensive chops to hang no matter what lineup he’s on the floor with, but it would be nice to get him some offensive touches to see if his shot starts falling.
In Harris’ best season two years ago, he shot nearly 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. Harris struggled mightily last year, and he hasn’t been able to get back to that level. Last season, it was chalked up due to his offensive struggles, but he doesn’t have that “excuse” anymore. He’s expected to be a key piece for this team, and he’s just not always pulling his weight on offense.
Harris has only been used sparingly as the primary option this season, and it makes sense as he’s not an offensive stud. However, he does have the ability to be a lightning rod of scoring when he gets the opportunity. His defense is going to hold up, so you don’t have to worry about that. Getting his offense rolling with the bench unit would likely improve his confidence in scoring with the starters and improve their offense.
I had no idea that this was Paul Millsap’s nickname until now, but I’m ok with it because it fits him so perfectly. As the resident veteran in this locker room, he’s in charge of keeping this team in check emotionally on and off the court. He’s one of the more fundamental players you’re going to find, and he’s in the right place far more often than he’s in the wrong.
One particular way that he could help out the bench is on the defensive end of the floor more than on offense. Michael Porter Jr. has completely fallen out of the rotation in large part due to his struggles on the defensive end of the floor. Millsap plays sound defense, and MPJ would be wise to focus on what the veteran does and trying to copy the little things. He’s likely never going to be a defensive stopper but learning from the veteran.
Millsap is the player that has been the most consistent of the starters thus far, and he doesn’t need to focus on his growth as much as the others. His bench minutes will do more to benefit others than it will to benefit him. Ultimately though, the more that the bench improves will just allow the starters more minutes to rest and keep them fresh for the remainder of the year.