As the Denver Nuggets attempt to navigate this treacherous NBA season through injury waters, COVID pitfalls, and several other potential hazards, several things have become clear:

  1. Nikola Jokić is fantastic, good enough to win a second straight MVP award
  2. The Nuggets miss Jamal Murray’s explosive scoring
  3. The bench is holding the Nuggets back

Now, there have been several games of late where the script has flipped a bit. The bench has had its moments carrying the starters through difficult times while the Nuggets have lost (or nearly lost) games they should be winning. Still, the formula for the Nuggets thus far has been pretty clear: the starters have to be good to great, and the bench has to achieve subpar level or better in order for the Nuggets to have a chance in every game.

For the most part, the starters have delivered. There were questions about Monte Morris stepping in for Jamal Murray, about Jeff Green stepping in for Michael Porter Jr., but those questions have more or less been answered. The five-man lineup of Monte Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, and Nikola Jokić has played 251 minutes, the sixth most in the NBA despite only suiting up for 13 games together. That five-man group is plus-38 in 251 minutes, which may not sound like a lot, but it’s the 16th highest plus-minus of any five-man lineup in the NBA. The offensive rating of 121.4 points per 100 possessions has been borderline unstoppable, the fourth most efficient offense among 42 lineups to exceed 100 minutes. The defense is actually the fifth worst in the NBA among those units at 113.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, but the quintet remains positive. Good. Solid.

It’s often the bench lineups that give Denver the most trouble though. Led by Facundo Campazzo in minutes per game and rookie Bones Hyland in points per game, the Nuggets bench averages 32.3 points per game this season. Offensively, the various units often struggle to create efficient, sustainable offense without Nikola Jokić. The defense is also an issue, but the offense is generally the more pressing concern. Long dry spells in offensive output have led to shorter and shorter rotations for Jokić, Morris, Barton, and Gordon. All four have dealt with injury issues, and the extended minutes and lack of break certainly play a part.

But when the Nuggets find ways to score off the bench, wins seem to follow rather consistently. In the 19 games the Nuggets have played in which they’ve exceeded 30 points off the bench this season, the team has a win-loss record of 13-6. In games when the Nuggets bench has failed to crack the 30-point mark, the Nuggets are 3-10.

Now, you may be wondering: “Why yes, Ryan. The team wins when they score points and loses when they don’t. What’s the big deal?” To which I respond: it’s the combination of starter and bench production that means the most.

Sifting through the data this season, there aren’t very many strong correlations for the starters scoring points and the Nuggets winning games by itself. They’ve scored at least 80 points as a starting unit 13 times this season, but the Nuggets are just 7-6 in those games. When the starting unit scores 70 though, the team is 12-8, which means the Nuggets are 4-8 when the starters score under 70. That seems to be a standard swing.

So, we’ve established that the Nuggets are doing well when the starters score 70+ as well as when the bench scores 30+, but is there any correlation between the two? Why, yes. The Nuggets are 9-1 when the starters score 70 and the bench scores 30 in the same game. The only loss? Against Chicago when Jokić sat out due to a wrist injury. There seems to be a pretty good correlation here: both units have to have solid offensive nights for the Nuggets to win games at a consistent rate.

The problem, of course, is the consistency. The Nuggets starters average 73.9 points scored per game while the Nuggets bench averages 32.3 points per game. Looking closer at the standard deviations of each sample though, it’s clear just how erratic the Nuggets bench can be.

  • The standard deviation for points scored by the Nuggets starting lineup this year is 10.8 points
  • The standard deviation for points scored by the Nuggets bench this year is 11.5 points

A quick statistics lesson: standard deviation is a number that works in combination with the average to project where the majority of data points fall within a distribution of data. For the starters, their average of 73.9 points means that the general range of scoring performances for the starters is roughly 63.1 points to 84.7 points per game, plus or minus 10.8 points away from the average. That’s one standard deviation, and the empirical rule in statistics says that under a normal distribution, 68% of outcomes will fall within one standard deviation of the average.

Now, basketball is anything but normal and predictive, but it DOES seem like an issue that the standard deviation for the bench points is a higher number than the standard deviation for the starters. Despite the reality that the Nuggets starters often play twice as much as the bench players, the bench scoring has offered a wider range for Denver so far this year. Based on the same rules and calculations, one standard deviation away from Denver’s bench points average means the bench is likely to score 20.8 points to 43.8 points on any given night. The Nuggets simply don’t know whether they’re getting the lower end or upper end of that range from game to game, and that has to be frustrating. When the bench goes outside their range and scores 20 points or fewer, the Nuggets are 0-5. They can say goodbye to their chances of winning at that point.

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The numbers can certainly be difficult to follow, but they make more sense when names are attached. It isn’t difficult to believe that the starting lineup featuring Nikola Jokić among others has been more consistent scoring the basketball than the one led by Facu Campazzo and the 26th overall pick in Bones Hyland. Is it fair to place all of the blame on the bench? No, but their job isn’t as difficult. They have to score at least 30 points in 16 minutes on average, while the starters have to score at least 70 points in their 32 minutes. That’s 1.87 points per minute versus 2.18 points per minute.

Will the Nuggets bench ultimately find that consistency? Maybe. COVID health and safety protocols loom over everything and could change things up a bit, but with Bones improving over time and perhaps Davon Reed finding a more permanent role, it’s possible the Nuggets bench figures some things out. Down the line, Jamal Murray returning will most likely push Monte Morris to the bench, which should also help strengthen the bench group by default.

Until then, Nuggets fans will have to sit back and enjoy the wild adventure the bench has led so far this season.