The doldrums of the NBA offseason are fully in effect; especially for the Denver Nuggets. Still, the extra time during the dark days of the offseason provide an opportunity to dive into some topics that might get skipped over otherwise.
Today, we will be dissecting a few interesting lineups Denver could unleash next season now that they are expected to be healthy outside of two-way contract player Collin Gillespie’s fractured foot.
For years now, much of the Nuggets potential has been theoretical with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. out with their own respective injuries. Finally, all of those theories will finally be put to the test this season. To make things even more exciting, the Nuggets also have the additions of Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to tinker with.
This now-complete roster in Denver is stocked full of players with a high IQ, versatility on both ends of the floor and they fit with one another perfectly; on paper at least. So what combinations of players are the most exciting entering next season and which lineups could become extremely important as the season progresses?
Let’s dive in.
Maximum offensive potential
Jamal Murray, Bones Hyland, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic
Let’s just start with the most fun five-man lineup.
Adding Bones Hyland off the bench for Caldwell-Pope with the rest of the starting unit does hurt Denver’s defensive potential, but I do not think there is a group of defenders in the NBA who have the means to keep this iteration of the Nuggets from scoring.
Both Hyland and Murray can stretch the floor well beyond the three-point arc with the ball in their hands, run offensive sets with or without a screen as floor generals, or move the ball to another initiator to become terrifying off-ball shooters. The gravity created by the two of them would be devastating to defenses, but when flanked by the dumbfounding shooting ability of Porter, a powerful finisher like Aaron Gordon, and the back-to-back MVP winner Nikola Jokic, there should be nothing the opposition can do to slow them.
Yes, this is a unit that possibly will only see between five-and-ten minutes of action a night — if any at all — as the starting lineup begins to give way for the reserves, but those few minutes each half could break open games similar to how the Golden State Warriors Poole Party lineup would throttle teams. Those big bursts of scoring over a few minutes with Bones Hyland first off the bench have the potential to be the difference between winning and losing playoff series. Cultivating that group early on during the season should be on the list of priorities.
All of the three-point shooting
Jamal Murray, Bones Hyland, Michael Porter Jr., Zeke Nnaji, Nikola Jokic
What else can you say about this group? Every single member of this five-man unit can hit a 3-pointer and, of them all, Jokic might be the worst outside shooter on the floor. Thankfully, in his words, “passing makes two people happy while scoring only makes one person happy.”
Jokic will have no lack of shooters available for kick out passes which will create open shots and scramble opponents’ defenses. So long as he can work with Hyland and Murray to break down defenses, which should not be a problem, their adversaries will be living and dying with every Jokic pass to another open shooter. Not only that, but most everyone in this group has a strong understanding of how to play productive team basketball and possesses the ability to attack downhill and get to the rim.
Again, this will likely be a unit that would only close the first and third quarters for a couple minutes, but that could be enough time for the outside shooting of this unit to break games open. Of course, their defensive ceiling is not great, but keeping up with the scoring of that five-man unit feels like a fools errand.
The biggest questions surrounding this lineup will be on the defensive end. Can Nnaji provide a similar defensive impact as Gordon? Can a backcourt with both Hyland and Murray keep perimeter threats in front of them? How will the Nuggets handle both Porter and Jokic being on the floor together when both can be identified and attacked for their poor defense in space?
There are no easy answers to those questions except for one: if you score so much no team can keep up, the defensive issues become far less glaring. Let it fly.
Nikola Jokic staggered with the bench
Bones Hyland, Davon Reed, Bruce Brown, Zeke Nnaji, Nikola Jokic
For the past few years, Jokic’s regular rotation included him playing nearly all, if not the entirety of, the first and third quarters which means he blends in with the bench quite often.
While injuries have obviously disrupted what could have been a devastating bench unit with Jokic staggered in, this season Denver has a chance to finally collect on that investment. Jokic being flanked by the shooting of Hyland and Nnaji, the defense of Davon Reed and Bruce Brown, and having a Murray doppelgänger in Hyland to run a two-man game with, it is hard to see very many bench units possessing the production to keep up with that group. Denver should have plenty of two-way potential with this group; so long as Hyland and Nnaji grow into the roles the Nuggets hope they can fill.
Hyland is being asked to carry a heavy load as a creator despite being a second-year guard who is still learning the ropes of running a lineup. Will he be able to make up for the losses of Monte Morris and Will Barton III, who both did quite a bit of initiating the offense? Will opposing teams having a better scouting report on Hyland now and attack him with more intent? Hyland has to answer those questions before the Nuggets bench unit can be relied upon. It is not an easy task, but Hyland and the Nuggets both feel he is ready to accept that challenge.
For Nnaji, he just needs to prove his growth last season before losing much of the second half of the year to injuries was for real. Can he be a multi-tool on defense who can contain on the perimeter and protect the rim while hitting open 3-pointers and rebounding proficiently? If the answer to that is yes, the Nuggets will be in a wonderful position.
Denver could not survive with their bench on the floor last year, but now that they are healthy, they have a plethora of options to take advantage of their opponents as each team begins to go to their bench.
Michael Porter Jr. staggered with the bench
Bones Hyland, Davon Reed, Bruce Brown, Michael Porter Jr., Jeff Green
Porter is very clearly the third option with the starting unit, but his game can go far beyond being the third option. Because of that, it seems likely that Porter will be staggered to the bench unit frequently this season where he will be able to flex his skills as a primary scoring option.
First and foremost, having both Hyland and Porter in a bench unit is an unfair amount of offensive gravity which should provide plenty of room for Reed, Brown and Jeff Green to find gaps to exploit in the defense as cutters or rim rollers. It also opens up the opportunity for Brown and Reed to attack as secondary creators with both Hyland and Porter spacing. Offensively, this group has a lot of firepower and should fit together well.
On defense, it is likely Bruce Brown acts as the power forward while Reed contains on the perimeter and Green protects the rim. That would allow Porter to be more of an off-ball menace on defense; something he is quietly done well since entering the NBA. Yes, both Hyland and Porter are negatives on defense, but bench units are rarely built to exploit mismatches giving both Hyland and Porter more validity as a tandem against opposing bench units.
Needless to say, Denver’s bench unit should look much more formidable next season.
Could Bruce Brown become one of the Nuggets closers?
Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell Pope, Bruce Brown, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic
This might seem like a blasphemous statement at first, but closing games with Brown over Porter is an idea that has a lot of merit.
One of the biggest issues teams will come across in meaningful games and playoff battles is having someone on the floor who can be identified and attacked defensively by the opponent. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, Jokic will be a target of adversaries who want to pull him into space and attack him. The Nuggets can cover up for Jokic, but covering for Jokic and Porter is another challenge entirely.
So what would the fix be? What about closing with Brown over Porter to bolster Denver’s own defense without sacrificing so much offensively that the Nuggets struggle? Obviously Brown is not the shooter or scorer Porter is, but he is a wonderful screener for his position which could get either of Caldwell-Pope or Murray open off the ball and a better passer than advertised. Brown is also a good finisher around the rim and as good of a rebounder for his size as you will find in the league. While Brown is not the shooter Porter is, the other side of that coin is Brown is a much better defender than Porter. Suddenly, other teams only have Jokic to exploit and behind him are both Brown and Gordon ready to rotate over to help. On the perimeter, the combination of Caldwell-Pope and Brown can keep everything in front of them while Gordon cleans up any mistakes and Jokic controls the glass.
This might be one of the most bulletproof lineups the Nuggets have at their disposal, but it will require Porter accepting that closing games might not be in the interest of winning basketball games. Porter has been willing to fit into roles for the Nuggets thus far so hopefully that trend will continue if need be.