Denver Nuggets: The backup center spot is looking Green

Jeff Green, formerly of the Brooklyn Nets, guards JaMychal Green of the Denver Nuggets during the second half on 12 Jan. 2021. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Jeff Green, formerly of the Brooklyn Nets, guards JaMychal Green of the Denver Nuggets during the second half on 12 Jan. 2021. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

One of the key moves, or non-moves, for the Denver Nuggets this past offseason was to not sign a traditional backup center to fill the void JaVale McGee and Paul Millsap left.

The league’s Most Valuable Player, Nikola Jokic, will be playing most of the team’s minutes at backup center and unlike past seasons, it doesn’t look like the front office was worried about finding the main backup.

There’s no Mason Plumlee or Isaiah Hartenstein to start the season behind Jokic. It’s probably the right choice considering that after trading for JaVale, he racked up numerous DNPs and only averaged 13.5 minutes a night when he did play.

Yes, the roster still features young prospects in Bol Bol and Zeke Nnaji, two players who project as centers, but neither has proven they can stay on the court just yet. Additionally, Michael Malone has shown a hesitancy to play his younger players early on since becoming one of the Western Conference’s elite.

There’s a world in which the Denver Nuggets won’t miss a traditional backup center at all, the two Green’s: JaMychal and Jeff, can stretch their own positional versatility for an entire season.

Both standing at 6’8″, the Greens won’t be winning many jump balls against opposing centers or deterring as many shots at the rim like a typical big man, but considering that most of the time both will be matching up against other backups, there isn’t much to worry about.

For example, on a night against the LA Lakers, Nikola Jokic will likely play as many minutes against Anthony Davis, a serious post threat. AD’s backups are DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard, two non-threats down low and players who aren’t able to effectively create their own shots.

But look across the league, how many backup centers truly strike fear into opposing team’s hearts? Montrezl Harrell won a Sixth Man of the Year award with the LA Clippers as a scoring, energy big off the bench, but since then, the league (and the Denver Nuggets in the bubble) figured out that he’s too slow to defend in space.

Plus, is Harrell behind both Daniel Gafford and Thomas Bryant on that Washington Wizards roster?

In his single season with the Brooklyn Nets, Jeff Green played 44 percent of his minutes at the center spot per Basketball-Reference and that figure jumped up to 81 percent in the playoffs. JaMychal Green played 12 percent of his minutes as a backup five this past season, but he might even be the permanent power forward next to Green, both figuring as a switchable, long frontcourt.

Both Greens shot 40 percent or more from 3-point range this past season and their lack of size at the position should be countered on offense when they pull opposing bigs away from the paint.

Jokic averaged just under 35 minutes a night in 2020-21 so there’s only a small number of minutes to make up for behind him, but a small ball backup plan could work.

There’s also the possibility that one of the younger players in Bol, Nnaji, or even recent two-way addition Petr Cornelie, who stands at 6’11”, breaks out and steals this spot from one of the veterans. It’s not a likely outcome but it’s greater than zero.

If that does happen, both Greens can slide to other positions given their positional versatility.

But I’ll play devil’s advocate here: what if the backup center spot is truly an issue? Thankfully, backup-quality centers are one of the most abundant commodities in the league and can be signed or traded for on the cheap.

One name that comes to mind is Daniel Theis who signed a four-year deal with the Houston Rockets in free agency. Theis isn’t on the same timeline as that Houston team and is likely sitting behind Christian Wood in the rotation, would the Rockets be happy trading him away for a look at one of Denver’s prospects like Bol Bol? Probably.

If the team doesn’t want to go the trade route, there are still some interesting center options on the free agent market like DeMarcus Cousins or Marc Gasol.

The Denver Nuggets don’t have a traditional center behind Nikola Jokic at the moment but there’s also the possibility they finish the season without one. All that matters to this team moving forwards is winning playoff games.

In the 2021 playoffs, JaVale McGee played about half an hour. Of those 30 minutes, 19:40 game in Game 4 against the Phoenix Suns when Jokic had been thrown out and the team’s season was over.

Why invest more into a position that isn’t going to play anyway?