Welcome to the first week of the 2021-22 NBA regular season!

Tomorrow, four teams will kick off the NBA schedule and get us started on what should be another absolutely wild ride. Ben Simmons has reported to Philadelphia 76ers practices, Kyrie Irving has been banned from Barclay’s Center for Brooklyn Nets home games and won’t play for the foreseeable future. Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Lakers went 0-6 in the preseason and no one, I mean NO ONE, on the Lakers has shown an ounce of concern about Westbrook looking like a horrible fit already.

With the new season, I’ve decided to move the Stiffs Mailbag to Monday’s (Mailbag Monday…get it?) for the benefit of our writing staff schedule. We will have Stat of the Week making its return on Tuesday with an article about the point guard position, Sixth Man with Tommy Knowlton on Wednesday, a weekly article by Brandon Ewing on Thursday, and Film Friday with Gage Bridgford on…well…Friday. In addition, there will be more season preview content coming out over the next couple of days, so stay tuned!

For now, let’s get into the questions of the week:

For context, Mike Singer of The Denver Post wrote an excellent piece about the fallout after Saturday’s practice. I was unable to attend that scrum, but from the sound of it, things didn’t go well. The key quote about the Nuggets right now from Malone: “We spend more time bitching and complaining to the officials, where no one has a problem talking, but we can’t get ourselves organized, we can’t get ourselves into an offense.” There are other quotes, but that one stood out to me personally. To see the others, check out Mike’s piece.

There’s some cause for concern here. Without Jamal Murray and with the Nuggets trying to rediscover their identity, there’s a lot of pressure on Malone to figure things out as quickly as possible and give the team some leeway in the win-loss column. That way, if Jamal Murray returns, he can be eased back into things rather than being treated as the savior of Denver’s season.

It’s also some intrigue with Malone calling out various guards by name, specifically Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo, Bones Hyland, and P.J. Dozier. This is Denver’s point guard group without Murray, and I could see Denver starting any of the four mentioned players. That quartet will have to fill in the gaps of Denver’s starting unit, and there’s a lot to consider about what each player brings in a starting role.

I wouldn’t “worry” but one should definitely circle back to this moment as a clear indicator that “things weren’t great” if the Nuggets get off to a poor start.

The Nuggets are definitely okay with Barton starting at shooting guard. They didn’t re-sign him to come off the bench. His role will be to fill in partially for Murray’s vacancy by providing steady, versatile offensive production at shooting guard. P.J. Dozier makes some sense in the starting unit if Murray’s already there, but it’s not perfect, and that would be a massive change for this Nuggets team that doesn’t really need to change that much right now.

No, the position to watch is point guard. Does Monte Morris help elevate Barton, Porter, Gordon, and Jokić throughout the season? Is he simply a placeholder? Could someone else be a better starter than him? Is the rotation better off if he leads the bench unit rather than putting other players in a difficult position? There’s an argument for Facu, Bones, or even P.J. instead of Monte in the starting lineup, but that’s probably a question for later in the season if things aren’t working.

This is such a great question, and it involves figuring out for frequently he will play, how is role will change throughout the season, and what ultimately happens when Murray returns to the lineup.

I think Bones will be in the rotation, or at least mostly in the rotation, for all 82 games. He should improve as the season wears on, and the Nuggets will trust him with more opportunities to shine in the middle of the year. When Murray returns, I think he moves to being the 10th man in a bench unit that features Morris, Dozier, JaMychal Green, and Jeff Green, but he should still play some minutes most nights.

Let’s go with an average of 15 minutes per game for the first 25 games, an average of 24 minutes per game for the next 25 games, and about 15 minutes per game for another 15 games. Factor in injuries and rotation absences throughout the year for the other 17 games, and that adds up to 1,100 minutes across 65 games, roughly 18.5 minutes per game in his rookie year.

For context, Jamal Murray played 21.2 minutes per game during his rookie season.

It’s simply impossible to know what the Nuggets will need without getting the full picture of the season up to that point. Last year, I suspected from the beginning that the Nuggets would target Aaron Gordon or a similarly athletic complementary forward to shore up Denver’s defense and athleticism issues. However, it isn’t always as cut and dry as that particular transaction was.

Think about Denver’s projected top nine rotation players heading into the postseason:

  • Monte Morris
  • Jamal Murray
  • Will Barton
  • P.J. Dozier
  • Michael Porter Jr.
  • Aaron Gordon
  • Jeff Green
  • JaMychal Green
  • Nikola Jokić

If the Nuggets stay entirely healthy, I’m not sure where the hole in that rotation is. Genuinely, it’s a great top 9 players to have, 10 if you include Bones Hyland.

There are three potential areas of concern in my mind: perimeter defense, wing shooter, and traditional backup center. Now, the Nuggets learned their lesson wasting assets to shore up a hole in their rotation that wasn’t actually there last year by trading two second round picks for JaVale McGee. I doubt they do that again; however, they might add someone for cheaper. Perhaps a buyout big man.

The other two holes, perimeter defense and wing shooter, are certainly more pressing. The Nuggets need to fully test out Dozier before saying either of these potential problems are actually problematic. If Dozier is connecting the defense together while shooting 38% from three and being dangerous with the ball in his hands, then both problems are potentially solved already. If not, I suspect players like Patrick Beverley, Cory Joseph, or Danuel House could be had at the right price.

As an aside, the one thing I’m monitoring throughout the season: none of Bol Bol, Vlatko Čančar, and Zeke Nnaji are expected to play heavy minutes this season. How do they deal with that? How do the Nuggets deal with that? A trade seems to be a natural solution by this season’s trade deadline for one or more of those guys if they aren’t playing a role on the court at any point.

This is a good question. Denver’s battle for fourth option or fifth option in Denver’s starting lineup. Last season, they each averaged an identical 10.2 points on 8.2 shots per game. In this year’s preseason, Aaron Gordon averaged 8.0 shots in 23.0 minutes per game, while Morris averaged 6.8 shots in 21.4 minutes per game. This year, Morris’ role is likely to expand as a starter, but so will Gordon’s as he gains more comfort in his role in Denver.

If I had to pick one or the other, I’d go with Gordon. I can comfortably pencil him in as a starter for the entire season. He was just given a major contract extension, and he will be given every opportunity to be the beneficiary of back cuts, offensive rebounds, and mismatch opportunities when someone smaller is guarding him. Morris won’t be afforded the same breadth of opportunity, and his time with the starting unit will automatically be cut short when Murray returns. That will feature a reduction in minutes for sure.

Bones Hyland has completely redefined my expectations for him in Denver to this point. The Nuggets don’t often feature rookies in any discernible way, and yet Bones is receiving an incredible opportunity to showcase his talents and help the team in his own unique way. His off-the-dribble game and overall basketball IQ are advanced beyond a regular 26th pick in the draft, and he’s about to fall into a situation with this bench unit where his skill set is desperately needed, not just a good idea from time to time.

So, could Bones take on Monte’s old role while Murray is out and Monte starts in his place? Definitely. Austin Rivers and Facu Campazzo both underwhelmed in their preseason stints, and Bones shined when given the same opportunities. He provides a more dynamic scoring presence than either of the two veterans, and though he has a lot to learn on the defensive side of the ball, he isn’t a zero. He keeps his head up and gets in passing lanes and makes good rotations from time to time. He won’t be a sieve on that end of the floor the way I thought he might be.

Now, could he start next to Murray in coming years? The jury is still out on that, and it’s probably putting the cary a mile and a half before the horse. Still, the skill set for both of those guys is so dynamic and dangerous offensively that it could absolutely work. If they play with Jokić, the defense would likely be really bad; however, offense rules the day anyway so who cares? (That’s a joke. The Nuggets need to really care about defense and surround their stars with the best defensive talent they can find.)