Welcome into the Denver Stiffs mailbag! Thanks for stopping by, and thank you to those that submitted questions on Twitter last night. I always appreciate the interaction.

We had some big news on Sunday night, and the first part of this mailbag will cover that, as well as the ramifications. After that, some other important points for the Nuggets going forward. I decided to stay away from playoff matchup specific questions this time around. Perhaps next week.

Onto the mailbag!

If you’ve missed the latest Woj Bomb, you may not have heard that Michael Porter Jr. is getting closer to a return and is hoping for “a return to the lineup sometime in March.” Both parts of that quote are significant, but let’s focus on the second part for now.

Sometime in March is fairly vague. The Nuggets will officially play Game 62 of their 82-game season on March 1st, while March 30th features the last game in March, number 77. No matter when he returns, the turnaround from the regular season to the playoffs will approach at a rapid pace, but the later his return ultimately occurs will become more and more difficult to manage a massive shift in the rotation.

Now, the first part: it seems like Mark Bartelstein, Michael Porter Jr.’s agent, is expecting a return to the “lineup” for Porter, which would imply a starting role. That may or may not happen. The Nuggets have invested a lot of time, money, and resources in Porter, and though him coming off the bench would be easier, it might not be the right decision. When Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies returned late last year from a season long injury, he played 11 regular season games, seven coming off the bench before ultimately returning to the starting lineup for the final four. He also started all five playoff games.

I don’t know if I would say there’s “no way” Porter doesn’t start. Would I bet on him starting? Probably not, given Denver’s starting lineup success this year. Still, it’s a choice between Porter and Jeff Green, and Green is clearly the fifth starter who does some very important things but is still just the fifth starter.

I’m keeping an open mind.

Let’s assume, for the time being, that Porter returns and plays about 15 to 25 minutes off the bench, which is probably the safest bet. Let’s also assume that Jamal Murray is back and also coming off the bench, something I’m becoming increasingly open to given Denver’s starting lineup success on most nights.

That means the following seven players will be in the rotation: Monte Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Nikola Jokić, and both Murray and Porter.

In a playoff rotation, I probably play just nine guys regularly. Murray and Porter make seven, and I’m giving the nod to one of Austin Rivers or Bryn Forbes as the eighth man, depending on the matchup. The last spot could go to any of JaMychal Green, Zeke Nnaji, or DeMarcus Cousins, but I truly believe Cousins has been the guy to separate himself. His rebounding, playmaking, rim protection, and foul drawing abilities all lead me to believe that he could play 10 to 12 minutes a night behind Jokić and the team still be okay.

When Denver goes to their bench, they will have the ability to stagger any of Morris, Barton, Gordon, or Jeff Green depending on the situation. Murray, Forbes/Rivers, Porter, and Cousins is a fearsome bench group in my mind, capable of winning the Nuggets games. Rotate in one of the other non-Jokić starters and the Nuggets have a serious chance to win playoff games going forward.

To answer your question in full, that leaves out JaMychal Green and Zeke Nnaji. JaMychal has been awesome lately, and Nnaji was a great floor spacer for Denver for much of the pre All-Star break schedule. Unfortunately for them, Porter needs to play. He raises the ceiling of the bench exponentially.

I had to think about my response to this question for awhile. My answer is, it depends on what level of Jamal Murray one might expect. I find it difficult to believe that Bubble Murray is making an appearance during this playoff run. He could always surprise, and let’s face it, surprising opponents is probably the most important attribute of his game. Still, he was in such great shape in the Bubble, playing with such explosiveness and coordination. It’s just hard to see him reaching that level on such short notice with such little runway for improvement.

Now, if the question is “am I worried that Jamal isn’t coming back?” No. I think he’s coming back. I think the Porter news got out because Porter’s agent got it out there, and there are reasons for that of which I won’t get into. Murray doesn’t have the same benefit of putting news out there, and the Nuggets don’t seem in a rush to force him to provide a timetable. Murray will know when he’s ready, and because he’s such a competitor with such a hunger for the game of basketball, I’d be surprised if he was medically cleared and didn’t play. To my knowledge, he hasn’t experienced any physical setbacks since Tim Connelly said on Altitude Radio that Murray and Porter would both likely be medically cleared before the season ends. If Murray is cleared physically, I don’t see him waiting much longer than that to return.

A late March return seems to be on the horizon for both players in my mind.

Here are some of the key numbers for the lineups with DeMarcus Cousins and Bryn Forbes on the floor at the same time this season:

  • 128 minutes
  • +38 plus-minus
  • 39.2% from three-point range
  • 107.5 Offensive Rating
  • 94.6 Defensive Rating
  • 38.1% Offensive Rebounding rate
  • 83.5% Defensive Rebounding rate

So far while Cousins and Forbes have been on the floor, they’ve brought some excellent production in a number of ways. For each player though, the key factors have been three-point percentage and rebounding. Forbes is shooting 45.3% from three-point range so far with the Nuggets, and his ability to draw the attention of opposing defenses has made things easier for the rest of the offense. It’s also opened up offensive rebounding opportunities for both Cousins and JaMychal Green.

Despite that, the Nuggets only have a 107.5 offensive rating with that tandem on the floor, which means that the defense has to be solid to keep opposing teams at bay. So far, the defense has been elite, which is not something I expected from Forbes and Cousins. They’ve held opposing teams in check by walling off the rim, closing out on the three-point line, and grabbing almost every defensive rebound they can. Cousins is grabbing 4.7 defensive rebounds in just 13.6 minutes per game since arriving in Denver on January 23rd. That would rank 4th in the NBA in defensive rebounds per 100 possessions behind Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokić, and Andre Drummond.

Both players have been super helpful, reshaping the bench in a more functional and sustainable way than asking Green to run pick and pops with Facu Campazzo or Bones Hyland all the time. The offense and defense both just make sense now, and while they’ve played mostly weaker opponents, there’s no reason to believe this bench group won’t be better than previous alternatives.

This is a relatively easy answer: we will know for sure by Tuesday. March 1st is the deadline for players on the buyout market to relocate to other teams. If the Nuggets don’t sign anybody else by then, then they will have this roster heading into the playoffs.

And honestly, that’s okay. The additions of Forbes and Cousins have been helpful, while the prospective returns of Porter and Murray are likely more than enough to give the Nuggets a fighting chance in the playoffs. At one point, I was more concerned about Denver’s perimeter defense, but their ability to guard lately has been noticeably better, and they just have to guard well enough to outscore other teams anyway.

I don’t expect any changes. This is probably the roster that Denver will enter the playoffs with.

At this point, I would bring back Boogie. The price will always be a point of contention for a team that’s already over the tax line with several roster spots to fill, but it’s pretty clear that the team has connected well with Cousins as the backup center. His prior relationship with Michael Malone has helped matters, and it appears the Nuggets are in a pretty good place with their center rotation this way.

Still, I wouldn’t pay much more than the minimum salary for a true backup center. I doubt Cousins gets more than that, but it’s still notable for a team that needs to be fiscally responsible to bolster the roster in other ways. They might decide to trade JaMychal or Jeff Green and free up some time for Nnaji on his rookie contract.

But if the money’s right, I think Cousins is right for the Nuggets. A Jokić-heavy if you will.