The Denver Nuggets, for a team with a 2-1 record that includes a convincing win against the team that eliminated them in the playoffs last season, seem to be filled with more questions than answers at the moment. In a cruel twist of fate, the Nikola Jokić led team ranks 27th in the NBA in offensive rating and 5th in defensive rating.

After Monday night’s implosion of a loss against the Cleveland Cavaliers on the offensive end of the floor, the quality of Denver’s offense can and should be called into question. The Nuggets scored 87 points, never crossing 25 in any individual quarter. Matching Denver’s 27th ranking in offensive rating is their 27th ranking in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.16) through three games, an extremely abnormal occurrence for a team that generally makes great decisions with the basketball. Denver’s 20.5% turnover rate is the worst in the NBA and a massive increase over their 13.5% turnover rate in 2020-21 (15th in the NBA). The shooting efficiency is also bad (32.7% from three, 20th in the NBA).

Though the starters have had their struggles, there’s a certain trust that fans can have in Nikola Jokić on that end of the floor. He has never been the leader of an offense ranked lower than 7th in the NBA in all of his seasons (outside of his rookie year), and though he will be without Jamal Murray for awhile, there’s no reason to think Denver will rank any lower than about 10th in the NBA at worst. The starters will figure it out, from Jokić, to Michael Porter Jr., to Will Barton, to Aaron Gordon, to Monte Morris. They’re too talented not to.

The bench, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

Through three games, the Nuggets have two distinct lineups that have played significant minutes, their five-man starting unit and their five-man bench unit. Actually, the Nuggets’ two lineups rank first and 26th respectively in total minutes played across the NBA, with the starters playing 76 minutes in just three games already. Here’s how they rank in respective categories among the 34 five-man units to play at least 20 minutes across the NBA:

Lineup Minutes Min Rank Offensive Rating O RTG Rank Defensive Rating D RTG Rank Net Rating Net Rating Rank
Starters 76 1st 101.2 28th 93.3 13th +7.9 16th
Bench 25 26th 76.5 34th (last) 129.4 32nd -52.9 34th (last)

To put in even plainer terms than the numbers, the bench unit of Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, P.J. Dozier, Jeff Green, and JaMychal Green has been flat out awful. It’s a basic representation of Murphy’s Law as a five-man lineup. Everything that can go wrong HAS gone wrong. The offense is archaic. The defense is incapable. The Nuggets are losing, on average, over a point per minute with this group on the floor so far. It’s fair to say that the Nuggets currently have the worst bench unit in the entire NBA.

In the first two games, the starters were good enough that the bench unit’s struggles were masked by winning. It turns out having the MVP around to save the day often helps the rest of the team look good, even if there are issues bubbling below the surface.

On Monday night, those issues were placed under the microscope. The Nuggets starters had a bad game, and the bench was placed in a suboptimal position of having to make up ground to give the Nuggets a chance to win the game. In the first half, they nearly managed it. Of course, that lineup wasn’t the lacking bench unit, at least not entirely. This one included Bones Hyland, the 26th overall pick of the 2021 NBA Draft and a very exciting, dynamic rookie guard. The lineup featured Bones in place of PJ Dozier, who had two quick fouls, and it actually stayed afloat in the first half, defending well and stringing together some positive offensive possessions here and there. It wasn’t perfect, but it was progress.

In the second half, the Nuggets reverted back to their veteran group with Dozier back in, and the team fell apart in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets scored three points in seven bench possessions, forcing Jokić and the starters to re-enter the game earlier than anticipated. By that point though, the damage was done, and any momentum that the Nuggets carried at the end of the fourth quarter had dissipated. Denver scored just 87 total points against the Cavaliers, an embarrassing offensive performance.

The most interesting issue with Denver’s bench is that their scoring issues shouldn’t simply be a reflection of Denver’s talent, but rather their structure. Most teams stagger their starters in an attempt to bridge the gap between their best and next best lineups. For example, the Phoenix Suns often stagger Chris Paul and Devin Booker in an attempt to lift up all 48 minutes of the game offensively. The San Antonio Spurs staggered Dejounte Murray and Derrick White to play bench minutes as well despite being the two best starters on the Spurs. The Cavs staggered the minutes of their starting lineup as well, with Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, and Evan Mobley all spending time in staggered bench configurations.

Rather than stagger their starters, the Nuggets have done their best to come up with separate five-man units. The starters have been fine overall, but it has come at the expense of scoring talent on their bench unit. Currently, the Nuggets bench unit is comprised of players with career usage rates of 13.2%, 18.1%, 18.1%, 20.1%, and 17.0%, which all add up to 86.5%. Generally, a five-man unit adds up to 100%, which means that if some players in the lineup are more complementary options (<20% usage) then it’s often counterbalanced by options that are offensive focal points (>20% usage).

Here are the usage rates and True Shooting percentages for each of Denver’s five bench players:

  • Facundo Campazzo – 14.8 USG%, 36.7 TS%
  • Austin Rivers – 17.6 USG%, 29.5 TS%
  • PJ Dozier – 12.9 USG%, 66.3 TS%
  • Jeff Green – 19.3 USG%, 48.2 TS%
  • JaMychal Green – 24.1 USG%, 53.8 TS%

It’s pretty clear that Campazzo and Rivers have especially struggled to remain efficient under the current conditions of Denver’s bench lineup. Campazzo has had other residual benefits to the unit with his defense, facilitation for others, and overall energy. Rivers has found it more difficult to make an impact. He has yet to make a three-pointer this season and seems hesitant to take open shots, and his defense hasn’t been impactful in Denver’s matchups thus far.

When the Nuggets have pivoted away from that bench lineup, they have either decided to stagger Barton for Rivers or use Hyland for Dozier. Those two options seemed to work at the time, though they were very small sample sizes. It’s possible that they would be less effective in a larger sample.

But I have seen all I need to see from Denver’s current five-man bench unit of Campazzo, Rivers, Dozier, Green, and Green. Each of the five is built to be a complementary option within a larger construct, but the Nuggets have used all five of them together. They can’t make up the usage gap as a collective but instead need another player to fill in. That’s why lineups with Barton and Bones have been successful, as each of those guys are built to capitalize on the higher usage of a lead bench scorer.

The Nuggets play tonight against the Utah Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back. They just scored 87 points against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that, while clearly better this season, ranked 25th in defensive rating during the 2020-21 season.

If Denver plans to roll out the same bench unit tonight, they are admitting defeat before the game even tips off.