There are just about two months of the NBA offseason left before the Denver Nuggets report for training camp to begin their pursuit of a NBA title.
While a good portion of Nuggets head coach Michael Malone’s rotation is set in stone already, there are a few slots that will be up for grabs from the start of training camp. The starting five is locked in, but the only two players off the bench who figure to be in the rotation every night are Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown.
That means there are two or three spots left in Malone’s bench rotation: small forward, power forward and center. Let’s take a look at how those position battles are set up before training camp begins.
Who will lock down the backup small forward minutes between Christian Braun and Davon Reed?
This will be the most important position battle entering training camp.
Christian Braun — the 21st pick in the 2022 NBA Draft — will be going against Davon Reed — who just signed his first full-time NBA deal this offseason after playing on a two-way contract for Denver last year — to decide who the first wing off the bench will be.
Reed, who was a favorite of Malone last season, will enter training camp as the more experienced and prepared player. Reed might not have the same upside as a shooter, but his physicality and tenacity on defense has been proven at the NBA level making him the easier player to trust. He is more limited as a scorer than Braun on paper, but he does have some utility as a secondary creator who can attack the rim or run pick and rolls.
That being said, if Braun wins the position coming out of training camp and keeps hold of that role for the rest of the season, that would be a major win for the Nuggets because it would mean Braun’s defense and three-point shooting translated to the NBA with ease. If that is the case, his upside jumps up quite a bit higher than Reed, who is not a threat to opponents as a three-point shooter.
Still, Braun is a rookie and asking him to shoot well — somewhere around 37% from three-point range or better — and defend at a high level on a championship contender while potentially logging meaningful playoff minutes is a gigantic ask. Denver will need a go-to wing defender to diversify their lineups in order to take their defensive potential to a higher level. Can a rookie really step into that role right away? The answer to that question is usually no.
Malone, despite saying that he thinks Braun might be able to play minutes right away, forces his rookies prove themselves. No role is given out; they are earned. That was true for Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokic. That gives Reed the early edge to earn the role of first wing off the bench going into training camp despite it being likely an open competition.
Who will earn the bulk of backup center minutes?
Backup center might be the least straight-forward role in Malone’s rotation going into the season. Will it be Jeff Green as it was for much of last season? Will DeAndre Jordan, who has struggled the past few years, find a way to help Denver enough to earn that role outright? Could Zeke Nnaji or even Vlatko Cancar see some of those minutes as a small-ball center?
The signing of Jordan was puzzling at the time it happened and still is. Yes, the Nuggets needed a true center to match up with teams who also employ true centers off the bench. Yes, the market for centers was unusually expensive during free agency. But with that being said, Jordan has not been a productive player in years. He is immobile on the perimeter as a defender and his explosion around the rim has diminished dramatically over the past few seasons. Outside of scoring around the rim, he hurts more than he helps.
It is very likely that the backup center role is decided based on matchup and available players. If the Nuggets are playing against a team who employs a true backup center that Green and Nnaji could not compete with physically, Jordan would make sense as a counter. The same is true if Nikola Jokic rests for a night or misses games due to injury. Having someone who is big enough to take up space in the paint, box out bigger bodies, and roll to the rim is helpful in certain circumstances.
Still, outside of those specific situations, it would make sense for Green to take on minutes as the backup center alongside Nnaji. Green was one of the few steadying forces on the Nuggets injury-plagued roster last season and he has the trust of the team and coaching staff. His rim rolling and pick-and-pop ability would give the bench a few more ways to attack on offense. Green is also a much better defender in space than Jordan.
If the Nuggets wanted to go even smaller, they could play Nnaji at center and play both Braun and Reed or even bring Cancar into the mix to play center while Nnaji falls back into his more natural power forward position. Malone will likely experiment quite a bit early on.
Backup center will likely look different every game with Green getting the biggest slice of the pie, but that could change after training camp or depending on the Nuggets needs as the season unfolds.
Can Zeke Nnaji solidify his spot in Michael Malone’s rotation?
It may seem like an overstatement to some, but Nnaji is one of the biggest X-factors for the Nuggets. His potential as a 3-and-D forward at six-foot-10 can create tremendous versatility for a Nuggets bench unit that lacked life for much of the 2021-22 season. Thankfully, before he got hurt, there were signs that he was finding where he fit with the Nuggets reserves.
Before Nnaji got hurt last season, he was just starting to blossom as a player. His finishing around the rim had improved, he had a few of his best rebounding performances and his combination of perimeter defense and three-point shooting shined. He had the look of a player who could be considered part of the Nuggets core, but much of that was masked by him missing 25 games of the Nuggets last 27 games of the regular season with bilateral knee soreness.
For perspective, before getting hurt, Nnaji had played 21 games since January 1st. During that time, he played 19 minutes per game and averaged 7.1 points, and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 57.3% from the field and 47.4% from three-point range. He was 18-38 from deep and the Nuggets went 13-8 in that stretch. He had great chemistry with Hyland, was more assertive around the rim as a scorer and rebounder, and his confidence was growing rapidly.
If the Nuggets get the version of Nnaji before he got hurt this season, their bench unit with have much more optionality because he spaces the floor and helps on defense. Every offensive action will have more space to breathe and he will cover a lot of ground on defense. In order to succeed in that role, Nnaji will have to improve in two clear ways: first is staying healthy and the second is coming into the season a stronger rebounder.
If Nnaji cannot claim his spot in the rotation and falls short of the expectations the Nuggets have for him, they will be much more limited. They would have to look at filling his role with Cancar or give Jordan a full-time role in the rotation, but that comes with losses. With either option, Denver’s perimeter defense and there-point shooting would be significantly worse.
Nnaji is one of the biggest X-factors entering the season for the Nuggets because of how much he can provide to the bench unit. If that group struggles as it did last year, it could mean the difference between winning or losing a playoff series. Denver needs Nnaji to grab ahold of his role and thrive if they hope to reach their ceiling.