Welcome back to Mailbag Monday! The Denver Nuggets are 4-2 and had themselves a 2-2 week since the last edition of the mailbag. After losing their first back-to-back, the Nuggets won the second, demolishing the Dallas Mavericks and stealing a road win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. After an off day, the Nuggets will play two games in Memphis against the Grizzlies this week, followed by a game on Saturday against the Houston Rockets.

In the meantime, Stiffs readers asked another great set of questions for this week’s mailbag, including several concerning the bench lineup that continues to define Denver’s success. For context, Nikola Jokić leads all NBA players in raw plus-minus through the first two weeks of the season at plus-80. The Nuggets as a team are plus-27 on the year, which means that the bench (or at least the minutes without Jokić) is currently minus-53 in six games.

The bench is bad, and I discuss it in the questions below. But first, let’s talk about MPJ.

At some point, it’s fair to ask “what’s up with Michael Porter Jr. and why can’t he shoot?”

So far, the third-year forward is averaging just 10.8 points on 13.0 shots per game, shooting 33.3% from the field and 25.0% from three-point range. The past several games have yielded worse and worse shooting results from Denver’s newest max player, and though the defense and effort has certainly improved, the offensive execution is entirely out of sorts.

Last season, Porter went out early in the season due to COVID-19. When he returned, he spent time in a bench role for a few games before ultimately returning to the starting unit. Here are the first six games AFTER he returned to the starting unit last year in comparison to his first six games this season:

Michael Porter Jr. is struggling mightily

These two separate stretches from last season and this season are nearly identical, from the inefficient shooting to the Nuggets finding ways to a positive plus-minus despite those struggles. Last year, it was the heroics of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray that saved Denver while Porter figured things out. This year, the heroics of Jokić have persisted, while the introduction of defense into Denver’s play style has been their other saving grace.

But the Nuggets aren’t going to play elite defense forever. At least, it’s unlikely. Opponents are currently shooting under 23% on three-pointers in the corners against the Nuggets, and that will almost certainly correct itself in short order. They are benefitting from a ton of shooting luck, but it’s enough to worry about Denver’s defense as a Top 5 unit long term.

The Nuggets are going to start losing games more frequently unless MPJ gets back on track. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why he’s struggling, but I don’t think it’s the shooting foul aspect of things. He has committed four offensive fouls, but none of them have been leg kick related. His normal shooting form when he’s set and in rhythm doesn’t involve a massive leg kick, nor did it ever. It’s only when he’s on the move and a bit wild, perhaps pivoting back to his left to re-align himself, that he might commit a leg kick foul.

No, I think he’s just struggling with his new role. He’s receiving plenty of defensive attention, and he seems to be playing nervous. That may or may not actually be true, but it seems like he’s thinking about the three-point line too much right now. Hopefully, it goes away at some point.

The Nuggets have certainly been more physical at times on the perimeter, but they aren’t overly physical like some teams. Players like Aaron Gordon, Facundo Campazzo, and JaMychal Green play a physical brand of defense, while players like Nikola Jokić, P.J. Dozier, and Monte Morris play positionally solid defense while attempting to mirror movements and occasionally poke the ball free. Is one way better than another? No, but the more physical brand of basketball has definitely been rewarded this year.

As of now, the Nuggets are definitely benefitting from being a team that plays a solid brand of basketball. They don’t gamble. They teach playing 24 seconds of defense, and though there are moments where players shoot the gaps, freestyle a bit, and simply go for the big play, it’s built within a defensive identity of sliding feet, closing out, and preventing the easy stuff.

The entire NBA has experienced a shooting regression to start the year, and things will eventually balance out a bit. The most important thing for Denver is to continue to minimize rim attempts and corner threes as much as they can. Right now, the Nuggets defense is averaging the 11th FEWEST attempts in the restricted area but the 11th MOST attempts in the corners. The year before, the Nuggets were allowing the fourth fewest rim attempts and sixth most corner threes. The best thing for Denver to to continue skewing toward rim protection if at all possible, but that certainly requires hustle on the perimeter.

As the Nuggets hoped to start this year on the correct foot, they quickly learned that something was wrong with the bench unit. As I mentioned at the top of the article, the Nuggets are sporting a minus-53 plus minus in the first six games when Nikola Jokić sits on the bench. The Nuggets have a +20.1 Net Rating when he plays and a -24.8 Net Rating when he sits.

That is preposterous.

The Nuggets are going to be struggling for solutions all season, and it’s clear to me that at least part of that solution will include rookie Bones Hyland. The dynamic 6’3” guard offers Denver’s backcourt rotation a level of playmaking and shooting that they simply don’t possess without Jamal Murray. Though the opportunities have been brief thus far, they have been highly successful, and Denver’s last game against the Minnesota Timberwolves highlighted plenty of reasons why Bones should be in the rotation going forward. He scored eight points, including multiple three-pointers. He added in three assists compared to zero turnovers. And though it was expected that he would struggle on the defensive end, he hasn’t to this point with a steal and block against the T’Wolves and solid man-to-man defense.

Michael Malone has given the rest of the bench rotation every possible chance to retain their minutes, with Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, and P.J. Dozier receiving ample opportunities to succeed. To this point, those three guards have struggled mightily to offer a positive impact, and the Nuggets need a reliable pick and roll guard DESPERATELY in that second unit. There have been some calls to move Monte Morris to the bench, but that solution weakens a starting unit that has been awesome to this point.

No, it’s time for Bones to get his shot. Consistent minutes with the second unit in an attempt to prop up lineups without Jokić is a great start. If the Nuggets need to continue staggering a starter or two with the second unit, that seems like a good idea as well. In the end though, Bones simply gives the Nuggets a piece of what they’re missing from Jamal Murray: dribble creation, outside shooting, and fearlessness. That should be enough to earn some additional minutes from here on out.

As for playing him with starters? Of course. I love the Bones, Will Barton, Michael Porter, Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokić lineup. If the Nuggets stagger Monte Morris with the second unit at all, I want to see that lineup make an appearance at some point.

Zeke Nnaji has yet to log rotation minutes this year. The Nuggets have dabbled with Bones as their 11th man, but Nnaji, along with Bol Bol, Vlatko Čančar (who has been hurt), Markus Howard, and Petr Cornelie, have been stuck on the bench until garbage time.

Nnaji’s competition in the frontcourt, Jeff Green and JaMychal Green, hasn’t exactly been sterling. Uncle Jeff is averaging 21.4% from three and just 1.3 rebounds per game, while JaMychal is averaging 16.7% from three and has committed, I kid you not, eight offensive fouls in six games. That leads the NBA. Well, tied with Karl-Anthony Towns who has twice the minutes.

Denver’s vets up and down the bench unit haven’t held up their end of the bargain. Nobody is playing well, and that means no rotation spot should be guaranteed. That includes each of the Greens. Zeke Nnaji, if he’s hitting shots at a more efficient clip, could absolutely provide a boost for the bench unit. Nnaji’s shot didn’t look good in summer league, but it was very polished and efficient in the preseason and in garbage time.

The Nuggets probably won’t go to Nnaji any time in the near future, but there will be injuries in the frontcourt where someone has to step up from Denver’s reserve group. If that happens, Nnaji’s number will probably be called as Denver’s 2020 first round pick. They want him to succeed too, and he should be given opportunities at various points throughout the year.

I want to be very clear about this: the Nuggets are without Jamal Murray. That will change at some point in the second half of the season. Denver must survive until then, and at that point, Monte Morris will return to the second unit, condensing the backcourt rotation to Denver’s best units overall.

If before then, the Nuggets feel like they need to add a boost, then they certainly can. The Nuggets frontcourt could use a rim roller off the bench still, and they could absolutely use a wing that can shoot as well. Someone taller than 6’5” would be ideal.

That said, I do think Denver can turn their current bench around. Bones has the potential to galvanize the bench unit with his energy and skill set. The bench, as it currently stands, needs someone they can rally around consistently as a scorer and playmaker. The rest of the unit is good enough defensively to connect together and put forth good minutes, but they need that last little push. Bones can provide that, and the return of Murray will eventually do the same.

I remember Will Barton coming to the Nuggets in 2015 and immediately becoming the best part of the team as the sixth man. He continued in that role for awhile, and it wasn’t until 2017-18 when the feeling of positive momentum started to turn on Will a bit, mostly because he couldn’t carry the Nuggets second unit Atlas style on his back. It has since continued as Nuggets fans have called him selfish, booed him for struggling to return from injury, and just haven’t shown him the same love as they’ve shown players drafted by Denver, despite being around for longer.

I could see something similar happening to Bones. He’s an offensive minded player who plays a freewheeling and dealing style that will be successful on some nights and…less so on others. Bones is talented enough that passing to others isn’t always the best option, and Barton developed the selfish moniker when he was playing along the likes of Devin Harris, Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles, and Mason Plumlee on Denver’s bench. It was ridiculous to call Barton selfish then, and it will be ridiculous if fans ever turn on Bones for similar reasons.

Say what you will about the style of play that leads to more self-created shots than people might like, but you can’t argue that Barton (and Bones) love the team and will do anything they can to help the Nuggets win. This is just the best way they know how, and there’s no reason they should change that.

When Will Barton blocked Malik Beasley into oblivion, Beasley absolutely deserved the yell Barton threw his way after the fact.

Beasley didn’t want to be a role player in Denver. He wanted Barton’s sixth man role, and Gary Harris’ starting role beyond that. Nobody can blame him, but what CAN be blamed is Beasley’s unwillingness to do what the Nuggets asked him to do defensively to hold up at a playoff level. Beasley never developed as a defender, despite being extremely athletic and capable of high level play on that end. He wanted to be the scorer though. He wanted to get paid, and absolutely nobody can blame him for that.

Anyway, the T’Wolves traded for D’Angelo Russell, drafted Anthony Edwards, and are starting Jarred Vanderbilt and Jaden McDaniels at the forward spots over him anyway. He’s averaging 22 minutes per game in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Barton is starting for Denver and is a leading scorer and playmaker on a championship caliber team. If Beasley was more patient, that might have been him.

MPJ’s low points Minutes Points Rebounds Assists FG% 3P% +/-
2/6 to 2/16/21 (6 games) 28.9 9.7 5.8 1.3 35.5 24.3 +4.2
10/20 to 10/31/21 (6 games) 31.0 10.8 6.0 2.3 33.3 25.0 +6.7