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Stiffs Mailbag: Bench struggles, Fools Gold teams, and Jokić vs Giannis vs Luka

Ryan answers Twitter questions from Denver Stiffs readers

Milwaukee Bucks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to Mailbag Monday! If you’re new around here, I have decided to move the Denver Stiffs mailbag from Thursday to Monday this year. That way, we lead off the week with interesting content requested by Denver Stiffs readers. I often ask for questions on Twitter, so if you’re looking for a place to ask questions yourself, either drop them in the comments below or find me on Twitter and ask me there.

We have some great questions this week. Thank you to everybody that submitted one. I went in-depth on several answers and hope Nuggets fans enjoy the content.

Let’s dive in!


The first week of the NBA season was wildly entertaining. Denver Nuggets fans were able to enjoy a 2-0 week, defeating the Phoenix Suns (elite team) and San Antonio Spurs (quality team that always gives them issues). Nikola Jokić once again appears to be an MVP candidate, and the rest often falls into place eventually when a team has as much talent as Denver does.

The biggest positive surprise around the league — in my opinion — is the Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies. In my opinion, both teams were considered purgatory teams that were stuck in the middle, but it appears that their top level players (Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr.) are all on the fast track to forming elite young cores for the rest of the season. Add in legit rotation pieces around them and structure to the respective defenses from some veterans, and it appears that both could compete for legitimate playoff spots, not just play-in opportunities.

The biggest negative surprise? It’s hard to tell. The Zion Williamson situation with the New Orleans Pelicans is just plain sad. They have a roster built around the scoring and playmaking exploits of a freak of nature of a player in Zion. Unfortunately, that relies on Zion being available to play, and the reporting about his injury is about as ambiguous and unreliable as reports can possibly be. Nobody knows how close he is, and if they are, they aren’t divulging the actual truth. In the meantime, the Pelicans are 0-3 and look absolutely hapless.


The G League is in an interesting place this season, and as this is Denver’s first season with a G League team, they are going to face some interesting challenges.

If you’re looking for good information on the upcoming season for the Grand Rapids Gold and the G League, check out this article here. Basically, the season will get started in November with a Showcase Cup, a large scale tournament where teams will be split into four regions and play 12 group stage games. The winners of each region will advance to a four-team playoff for the winner of the Showcase Cup. That starts on November 5th and will last through the middle of December.

Following the conclusion of the event, the G League regular season will start in earnest and feature 36 games. That begins on December 27th and will last through the beginning of April 2022.

With regard to two-way contracts, the NBA decided to eliminate the 45-day rule that limited two-way players from appearing in a certain amount of games last season. This year, they’ve changed that rule entirely. Two-way contract players are allowed to be eligible for a maximum 50 of the 82 regular season games. That means that Markus Howard and Petr Cornelie are only eligible for another 48 games each, so the Nuggets must use their days wisely throughout the season. It’s fair to say both will spend significant time with the Grand Rapids Goal throughout the year.


So, I think the first thing that needs to be addressed is Denver’s sixth man, Monte Morris, is in the starting lineup. If Jamal Murray is healthy and Morris is in the second unit, the conversation may very well be different. As it stands, the majority of Denver’s financial resources are dedicated to the starting unit. Jokić and Murray are both on max deals. Gordon and Barton each make $15 to 17 million. Morris is Denver’s next largest contract at $9 million. The Nuggets have built the best possible starting lineup they can with the money they have, and as a result, their bench is less competent than it was. It’s a simple matter of financial allocation, and it’s something most great teams deal with when they become contenders.

That being said, Denver’s bench is worse than a usual contender at the moment. Again, their sixth man is starting. They’ve built a roster that fits and blends around Jokić’s skill set, but for the 14 to 16 minutes during each regular season game that Jokić doesn’t play, the bench is going to look worse for the wear. The Nuggets have several players that flourish in an off-ball cutting, spot up, switching capacity. They don’t have a traditional second unit by any stretch of the imagination.

Their current problems on the bench are exacerbated by not having a standout scoring option. None of Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, PJ Dozier, Jeff Green, or JaMychal Green are ever going to carry an offense, nor do their skill sets work particularly well together on that end. Campazzo is best utilized with a rim runner at center while being surrounded by elite shooters and slashers. The Nuggets currently play host to none of the above, which means that Denver’s primary playmaker is left at a disadvantage.

Could that change with the addition of rookie Bones Hyland? It’s possible. I wouldn’t consider Bones to be a savior, but I consider him a better option offensively than whatever the current plan is. The Nuggets don’t want to sacrifice the integrity of their defense by weakening the defense on the bench, but the fact is, the horrible offense is already putting the defense at a strong disadvantage with the number of run-outs allowed by missed shots and turnovers.

Something will probably need to give at some point.


It was me who said that Marc Gasol would be a good option, and there are a variety of reasons why. Though Gasol isn’t a rim runner, he is a strong playmaker, allowing the Nuggets to utilize several of the plays they like to run with Jokić and continue running them with the bench. It was reasonable for Denver to run those same plays with Mason Plumlee while he was here. Less so with Isaiah Hartenstein and JaVale McGee. With Jeff and JaMychal Green, it’s almost laughable.

I’d love for Denver to add Gasol. I think Denver would consider it heavily too, though there are financial ramifications as the Nuggets must avoid the tax this season, though that’s easily worked around. The problem is whether Gasol wants to come to Denver or not. I’d wager no, especially right now. He doesn’t need to play regular seasons anymore. Not at his age and with what he’s proved already.

Now, your plan of rolling with the Greens until the All-Star break? That sounds great to me. Denver can certainly fill in the gaps until then, and if they chose to add someone like Gasol around the deadline, it would be a great wrinkle Denver could add to their rotation going forward.

Until then, press on. Gasol won’t be back in the NBA until February, if at all.


I do think Bones Hyland will play this week, but I’ve also predicted that he would play in each of the previous two games and am currently 0-for-2 on my Bones predictions.

But I think it will eventually have to happen. The Nuggets play back-to-backs on Monday and Tuesday as well as on Friday and Saturday this week. There are some difficult opponents on the schedule, and if the Nuggets lose because of the bench, I’d expect Malone to introduce Bones into the rotation at some point after that.

Now, if the Nuggets never lose again, they probably won’t change the rotation. That’s a fact. Even Jamal Murray might have to wait for the Nuggets to falter on their 57-game winning streak for Malone to change what works.


This is always the trick at the beginning of the season. Which teams are simply off to a hot start? Which teams have reached another level and can sustain it throughout the year? Who are the teams that start slow and will roar back to life?

Let’s pick two of each.

Two teams in the Western Conference that are off to a hot start that probably won’t sustain at the same pace: the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors. The T’Wolves are a team I mentioned earlier, and I like them. I just don’t think they have the talent to stay in the Top 6 for long. They will be a play-in team though. The Warriors...are good. Don’t get me wrong. I think highly of what they’ve done. I just also think that they’re a Stephen Curry or Draymond Green injury away from looking like a high lottery team again. In addition, they’ve caught some shooting luck in their first three games with opposing teams not performing at their best. That probably won’t sustain all year.

Two teams out West that are hot and will stay hot: the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers. The Jazz are going to be a regular season juggernaut, and despite the fact that they have weaknesses against the NBA’s elite, I think what they are doing with their second unit (the additions of Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall), along with a trade to acquire some backcourt defense, will go a long way toward making them a formidable team. The Blazers are a weird answer, but I was impressed with their Saturday night performance against the Phoenix Suns, who they demolished and looked good doing it. I think they’re doing some interesting stuff with their rotations as well that should help them pick up a bunch of regular season wins as long as Damian Lillard stays healthy.

Finally, two teams that have started slow and will come back to life soon: the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns. Boring answers, and both teams have their respective questions they need answered. Still, it’s easy to trust LeBron James and Chris Paul to right the ship for their respective teams. Some games against the Eastern Conference should do them each some good.


It’s still early in the process to know which matchups are best for Denver. Teams are still finding their way, and rosters can and absolutely will change between now and April.

Still, the teams I’d want to face if I were Denver are the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Portland Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies are a new threat, and they have a hyper-athletic point guard in Ja Morant that could absolutely give Denver problems. Still, I like Denver’s offensive matchups with Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr., as long as Porter doesn’t let Dillon Brooks bother him the way Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder did. The Mavericks are simply a team I have zero confidence in. Luka Dončić will make it a contest, but they don’t have the personnel to match up with any of Denver’s stars. Finally, the Blazers are improved, but I’d feel comfortable in a matchup against them following Denver’s last couple seasons of domination.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Golden State Warriors. I don’t want Murray to have to chase around Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and even Jordan Poole on a surgically repaired knee out of the gate. He will almost certainly grow tired and lose some effectiveness on that end. I also don’t necessarily want the Utah Jazz, though I know that Denver can beat them. They’re just a well-coached team, and it will come down to whether Donovan Mitchell and others can out-shoot the Nuggets. I will take Denver, but I don’t feel great about it.

In the middle are the Los Angeles Lakers. Until we see them in action for more than 20 games, I can’t fully grasp what they could be in the playoffs. If I had to predict a winner, I’d pick the Nuggets to beat them; however, that could change if they ever commit to Anthony Davis at center.


This is an insane question. How can I possibly weigh the consistent greatness of Dirk Nowitzki against the pantheon level ceilings of Jokić, Dončić, and Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Dirk was incredible. He average 20+ points per game for 12 straight seasons while missing a TOTAL of 58 games. That’s an average of about five games missed each season and factors in a 20-game absence in the final year of his prime. He was an ageless scorer who discovered new ways for bigs to be impactful at the highest levels. He won a championship as the sole superstar on his team against a super team. It’s hard to compete with that. Dirk was probably a top 15 greatest player ever with a top 25 greatest peak.

Can Giannis, Luka, or Jokić achieve that standing? It will take a long period of dominance, rings, and overall impact on the sport to accomplish such high level goals. Giannis is already well on his way with a championship of his own, in addition to various accolades. Luka has definitely started off in a great place, and his career is just getting started if he stays healthy and explosive.

But I have faith in Jokić. Ever since I first began to watch him in 2015, it became clear how special he could be, how game changing of a player he could soon become. So many have been slow on the uptake of Jokić’s success, but he’s finally beloved universally as perhaps the best offensive player in the league today. He’s unique, ambitious, and exemplary at his craft, has an MVP under his belt, and appears to judge be getting started. If the Nuggets win a title this season, he will be neck in neck with Giannis on that upward journey through the ranks of the NBA pantheon.

Put me down for Jokić, then Giannis, then Luka, then Dirk. The league is about to experience three of its most dominant international players of all-time. Whether they exceed the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon remains to be seen, but there’s no ceiling on their accomplishments. All three will be worthy of the crown when it’s all said and done.