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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: Beaten by the bench

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NBA: New York Knicks at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.

I want to start this week’s film study session with one big qualifier. I understand that injuries are a major reason for the Nuggets’ struggles with their bench unit. Using their roster to start the season and counting Will Barton as a shooting guard, they are currently playing without their top five guards to start the year. This also doesn’t account for R.J. Hampton, who had become a rotation-level guard before his trade to the Orlando Magic, being out of the mix. Six members of this team’s guard rotation, which was seen as a strength due to its depth, to start the year are gone. I understand that factors heavily into the bench’s effectiveness, but we are in a danger zone right now.

At one point in the Nuggets’ Wednesday night win over the New York Knicks, they led by 31 points. They were demolishing the Knicks, and Nikola Jokic was playing out of his mind with 24 of his 32 points coming in the first quarter of the game. Denver was up by 31, and they still ended up with a victory with Facundo Campazzo being the only starter to play more than 29 minutes. However, instead of winning by 20 or more, they won by just 16 points because the bench, outside of Austin Rivers, provided next to no offensive value.

During the playoffs, the bench becomes less important as they play fewer and fewer minutes, but your starters still need some rest. The reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers even had a nine-man rotation along with Javale McGee logging around 15 minutes per game en route to the franchise’s 17th championship. Right now, if no one else gets healthy, you could make a case that Denver’s rotation should only feature seven players with Rivers and Shaquille Harrison with a splash of McGee thrown in to give Jokic a breather. What are we looking at today? What the hell is going wrong, and how can we fix it?

Passing is a good thing

Isolation-heavy basketball is rarely a successful style of play during the regular season. Outside of possessions late in the game, teams are constantly passing to get better shots, but the Nuggets’ bench isn’t subscribing to that type of thought. Among healthy rotation players, Rivers is the only bench player who has an assist percentage north of 10 percent. JaMychal Green has been in quite the slump of late. Over the last two weeks, he’s shooting just 44.4 percent from the field including a 1-of-7 showing on Wednesday night. His lone made basket was the one above when Campazzo put pressure on the defense and found Green cutting backdoor for a dunk. He could have tried to force up a shot, but he knew that one extra pass would make the difference.

As with the rest of the Nuggets’ roster, Campazzo sees a heavy portion of his 3-point makes are assisted buckets. In fact 85.7 percent of his makes from beyond the arc have been assisted on. Among rotation players, only Jamal Murray, Monte Morris and Barton have lower marks in that category. On the play above, Porter is far and away the best offensive option on the floor for Denver. He’s taken shots from the Ball Arena logo on more than one occasion. Instead of doing that, he shows the growth to make one extra pass for a better look which turns into three points. Sometimes you don’t need to make that extra pass, but there are a lot of situations where the bench could help themselves by helping someone else.

Get Out and Run

When is the best time to attack the defense? When they’re not set and scrambling in transition. How do you take advantage of that? You push the ball in transition and play to some of your strengths. Rivers and Harrison both rank in the 94th percentile or better on transition possessions, but they don’t get a ton of those chances. This play above starts with MPJ getting into the paint within the first six seconds of the shot clock. The defense isn’t set in the slightest, and they’re scrambling from start to finish. With the defense running around, that gives Harrison the ability to slice to the rim for an easy layup.

Turning defense into offense puts you into advantageous positions more often than not, and that’s especially true on this play. Harrison strips the ball away from Ivica Zubac of the LA Clippers, and he immediately starts pushing the ball up the floor. The team has a three on two situation, and he makes one pass to Rivers which allows Porter to get into position for a four on two and an easy dunk. This lineup has two starters involved in Porter and Jokic, but this play is made by the reserves pressing the pace. Use your speed to your advantage, and you can make plays like this happen.

Go to the rim

The Nuggets, outside of a few exceptions, shoot better when they’re open or wide open vs when they’re covered from 3-point range. How do you generate separation for outside shooters? You drive to the basket to draw in help defenders. On this play, Harrison drives in which draws one additional defender towards him. He whips the ball back to Porter who drives and pulls in another defender and gives Green a wide-open look from the corner for the easy triple.

What do you do when 3-point shooting isn’t your lineup’s strength? You drive to the basket and make plays off of it. On this play, three of the five players on the floor shoot 31.5 percent or worse from 3-point range. Rivers knows that, and he also knows that McGee has a height advantage inside. Once he is driving and as Montrezl Harrell moving his way, it’s an easy lob for McGee to throw down.

For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.