It’s mailbag day! Let’s hop right into it.

It’s important to look at the numbers surrounding the bench unit throughout the 2018-19 season centered around three players — Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, and Mason Plumlee — to understand where Denver’s bench began to falter. That trio appeared in 78 games together last regular season and was the foundation upon which Denver’s bench unit rested.

Isaiah Thomas was introduced into the bench lineup for nine games from February 13th, 2019 to March 8th, 2019 and played with Morris, Beasley, and Plumlee for just 52 total minutes on the year; however, it’s clear that something changed in the unit’s composition before and after.

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Looking at the numbers, it would seem to appear that the Offensive and Defensive Rating both worsened incrementally down the stretch of the regular season, and while there are a variety of explanations that could contribute to a full answer, I think there are three possibilities (not certainties):

  • Morris, Beasley, and Plumlee regressed to the mean as players and as a unit
  • Morris, Beasley, and Plumlee grew tired over the course of a long season
  • The schedule became dramatically more difficult

The Nuggets played 56 games before Thomas was introduced to the rotation and 17 games after he departed (not counting the minutes he played against the Boston Celtics). 11 of those 17 games played came against playoff teams, seven of which were road contests. If there were fingers to be pointed on offense, Beasley shot just 33.6% from three-point range in his final 25 games played while Morris shot 35.7% in the same span.

The unit wasn’t really bad at all in the regular season in my opinion and should certainly rebound in 2019-20. Morris and Beasley will be better and older, more accustomed to the grind of the season. Plumlee will be in a contract year and will work his tail off. In addition, that trio of Morris-Beasley-Plumlee is set to become a quartet with the addition of Jerami Grant, who should pair well with the fast breaking nature of the second unit and work hard on both sides of the ball.

The role that Michael Porter Jr. NEEDS to play this season with the Nuggets is smaller than everyone thinks it is. Denver doesn’t have great options at small forward, but they have good enough options for a team centered around guards and bigs. Porter can certainly add to that dynamic, but that means he’s coming off the bench as a change of pace option that can occasionally score points in bunches while Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray rest.

That role settles in at roughly 18 to 20 minutes per game, and Nuggets fans need to understand the minutes will certainly limit his stats. That doesn’t mean he can’t be impressive in a reduced role. I’d play him like the bench version of Jayson Tatum in Boston until he’s back to full strength and accustomed to a season full of rigors, travel, and ice baths again.

Per 36 minutes, Tatum has averaged 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists during his young career. If he were to average 22 minutes per game, basically the ceiling for what I can see Porter playing in Denver, those numbers come out to 10.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.3 assists per game. If he averaged those numbers while shooting 40% from three-point range and 84% from the free throw line (like Tatum) then the Nuggets should be extremely excited. Even carving out as few as 10.6 points in 22 minutes per game would be highly impressive. Only five rookies in NBA history have averaged over 10 points per game in under 25 minutes per game while exceeding 40% from the perimeter, including Klay Thompson.

For Nuggets fans, it should be hard to feel anything but positive about the progress the Nuggets have made thus far under Michael Malone as head coach. He took over a team that won 30 games and was rudderless in 2015, and in four years, the Nuggets have won 33, 40, 46, and 54 games in each sequential regular season. In his first playoff run as a head coach, he made the tough change to insert Torrey Craig after three playoff games, a key factor in Denver lasting as long as they did. Denver’s young players each flashed special moments under their head coach, and the coaching staff has cultivated a strong culture of upward momentum under Malone’s watchful eye.

At points, it has taken awhile for Malone to change, but Stiffs’ own Adam Mares made an excellent point on a previous Locked On Nuggets episode: understanding minute decisions made by a head coach in the short term neglects the long term vision the coach may have. From rotations, to player roles, to offensive and defensive concepts, there is so much more to every decision made by a head coach or coaching staff in general than the fan can see, than even the media can see. Fanbases want results, but unless the owner and general manager are willing to make radical changes to the roster, results will take time to develop.

For the Nuggets, it took four long years before the blood, sweat, and tears put into the choices made in Year 1’s 33-win season could be fully realized in Year 4’s 54-win season. How important was the confidence Malone had in Year 1 with Gary Harris? Harris looked like a bust after his rookie season, but Malone gave him the starting shooting guard job and ever since, Harris has proven he deserved that opportunity. Similar cases can be made for taking a chance on a pudgy Serbian center and a non-point guard point guard from Kentucky.

The Nuggets are well positioned in the present and future for many reasons. Michael Malone is definitely one of them.

I totally hear that. For the fans that can’t quite invest in season tickets and make it to every game, I put together a list of 10 home games that stand out as the best “bang for your buck” options during 2019-20:

  1. October 29th vs Dallas Mavericks – Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Need I say more?
  2. November 7th vs Philadelphia 76ers – Nikola Jokic vs Joel Embiid and Jamal Murray vs Ben Simmons in what many hope is a previous of several Finals matchups in the 2020’s.
  3. December 3rd vs Los Angeles Lakers – It’s not a cheaper matchup by any stretch, but watching LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be a treat, even if the rest of the roster isn’t.
  4. December 20th vs Minnesota Timberwolves – Battles between Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns are always entertaining, and I have a feeling Towns is about to dominate the league offensively.
  5. December 25th vs New Orleans Pelicans – If you have basketball fans in the family and are looking for the nightcap on Christmas day, watching Zion Williamson sounds like a treat to me.
  6. February 20th vs Portland Trail Blazers – One of the two times the Blazers come to town. The first was in December. This feels like a better time to watch a playoff rematch.
  7. March 9th vs Milwaukee Bucks – Every fan should have the opportunity to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo in person.
  8. March 18th vs Los Angeles Clippers – Another not cheap game but one that should be highly entertaining. The Clippers will need time to gel and get healthy, and this will be down the stretch of the regular season with teams fighting for playoff seeding.
  9. April 5th vs Utah Jazz – These games always feature some bad blood, and the Nuggets will probably need a win here. This game figures to be intense.
  10. April 11th vs Sacramento Kings – This should be a high scoring affair led by the pace and space combination of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. It’s always fun to watch the Nuggets score with reckless abandon in these contests.

This is a fun question for sure. One thing I know right now about this Nuggets team is that they are committed to seeing this team reach its peak before considering other options. They believed in Nikola Jokic as a star. They believe Jamal Murray will get there. They have had opportunities to trade ancillary pieces for a quick and easy option to reach the top of the standings, but they believe in their group and won’t cave into the pressure of a big trade unless absolutely necessary.

One thing I don’t know right now but will know in May is, assuming he plays NBA games this year, if Michael Porter Jr. has the capability to be a top scoring option in today’s NBA. There are roughly six weeks until Nuggets fans will see Porter play his first game in a Nuggets uniform, a preseason contest against the Blazers on ESPN. At that point and through however many games Porter plays during the regular season, he should display his talent as a shooter and answer the ultimate question marks of his 1-on-1 style and ability to get the rim. Nobody knows how he will hold up in game situations, and nobody has a real gauge on how likely it is that he succeeds this year.

One thing that I think will surprise everyone is how quickly Jerami Grant pushes Paul Millsap for the starting power forward job in training camp and throughout the regular season. Right now, it’s assumed that Millsap will be the starter, but Grant offers a different level of athleticism, shooting potential, and switching-style that Millsap doesn’t. Millsap has his own skills that make him a great option as well like his post skills, defensive foundation, and occasional offensive takeover ability. Still, I have a strong feeling that Grant will come in and prove a worthy challenger for the starting power forward spot, and Denver will have important decisions to make as the season wears on.