Denver Nuggets: How will the bench unit stay above water?

Denver Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji (22) talks with forward Jeff Green (32) in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Ball Arena 3 Oct. 2022. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)
Denver Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji (22) talks with forward Jeff Green (32) in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Ball Arena 3 Oct. 2022. (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports) /

Through a handful of preseason games, it’s clear that the Denver Nuggets have one glaring issue: bench production. While the preseason isn’t always representative of the regular season, both from a rotation and effort point of view, it’s a slight cause for concern.

A key factor to keep in mind is that injuries have limited Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray‘s playing time. Michael Malone has traditionally staggered his star’s minutes with bench units and that simply hasn’t been possible in all of these games.

Speaking with Nate Duncan on Dunc’d On Prime (subscription required), Adam Mares, DNVR said that the assumed bench lineup of Bones Hyland, Davon Reed, Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and DeAndre Jordan doesn’t have enough to score at a high level.

I’ve written about the huge leap the front office is asking of Hyland this season and while I’m confident he’ll be an elite scoring guard in the league, potentially even an All-Star one day, he needs to do a lot on this bench.

Mares explained how the loss of Monte Morris really hurts what was a stable bench unit. Will Barton, for all of his flaws, was a confident shooter off the bench for the Denver Nuggets and at least looked for his shot.

Malone liked to keep Jamal Murray in with the bench unit, using him as the go-to scorer with Monte as the primary ball handler. Morris is one of the more efficient point guards when it came to passing the ball and Jamal is an excellent movement shooter, with and without the ball.

If the Nuggets try and run some of the same actions, Bones probably won’t be able to replicate the passing that Monte brought. Additionally, Murray is coming off major knee surgery and will likely be taking several rest days throughout the season. When Bones is promoted to the starting lineup for those games, is Ish Smith going to create off the bench?

But Michael Porter Jr. presents another hope for the bench unit. The 82-game regular season will be more of a test lab than in previous seasons and the coaching staff should be doing all they can to find an effective combination of players without Nikola Jokic.

If Zeke Nnaji is able to play serious minutes at backup center, the bench unit should be a fast-paced, five-out unit, led by Bones Hyland. Stagger MPJ in with the bench unit, sitting at the other big position with Nnaji, and this could get fun.

Porter Jr. was one of the better transition players in the 2020-21 season, helping spark 1.6 percent more transition opportunities when he was on the court and scoring at an above-average level according to Cleaning the Glass.

Combine that with the pacy Hyland, and there could be some electric fast break opportunities with four shooters around him.

But that’s after two leaps of faith: one that Nnaji will supplant DJ as the primary backup center and that Bones is good enough to be relied on as the main ball handler off the bench.

If we’ve learned something from the preseason, it’s that the starting lineup looks good (in the tiny sample size) and that the bench needs to find answers and find them quick. This “answer” might be in a lesser-known bench player (like one of the rookies) or in an early trade, we’ll have to wait and see.

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As it currently sits, Nikola Jokic will once again be tasked with a huge load as the roster tries to find a way to keep its head above water when he sits. The past few seasons have been difficult due to major injuries, but at full strength, there has to be a combination that makes it all work, Michael Malone just needs to find it.

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