The Denver Nuggets have struggled heavily this season when reigning MVP Nikola Jokic sits in games. This has been a pattern for many seasons now, and is something that the Nuggets have tried to patch up over the last few seasons. From signing DeMarcus Cousins last season, to trading for Thomas Bryant this season, and even bringing Jerami Grant off the bench in the 2019-20 season.
The last time the Nuggets had a positive net differential with Nikola Jokic off the court was 2020-21, per Cleaning the Glass. In possessions with Joker off the court, the Nuggets had a +0.5 net differential in that season – largely with lineups that didn’t have much consistent playing time. No unit without Joker cracked over 100 possessions played that season, and because of that the bench didn’t have an identity.
This season, the bench has had an identity – being a mess. The Denver bench hasn’t had much work in their favor up until recently, with Jamal Murray coming into his hottest streak of his season in the past month or so. With Bones Hyland tasked with running the bench unit, most of the bench’s offense has come down to long three pointers, or isolation possessions that have come up empty.
Bones undoubtedly has talent, but it was obvious that he was not at the point in his career in which he could contribute on a contending team. For that, and behind the scenes reasons, the Nuggets’ front office traded him. With the bench identity largely being synonymous with Hyland this season, this leads to the question of what the bench unit should be moving forward.
Defense Wins for Denver Nuggets
One of the things that has manifested in the last two months has been the emergence of Denver’s defense. Early in the season, the Nuggets struggled to guard anyone – even ranking 28th in the league at one point. However, they have largely turned the ship around. Since the new year, they rank as the sixth best defense in the NBA. A large part of that is due to the defensive identity that the bench has found.
In the last 13 games (since January 20th, 2023), Christian Braun has played in all but one contest. In the 12 matches in which he’s made an appearance, he’s averaging 22.7 minutes per game. In his minutes, he’s impressed not only fans, but also the coaching staff, front office, and the organization as a whole. The largest part of his success has come down to his defensive tenacity.
He will always make things hard for opponents. Whether it be star players like Ja Morant, or role players like Malik Beasley, he will hustle, hound, and harass on defense. In the one game he’s played Ja Morant this season, he forced Ja to shoot 2-7 from the field and have a turnover when guarded by Braun. He hasn’t shied away from tough match ups, and Coach Malone seems to trust him with stars.
He’s spent time guarding many talented players this season, like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic, and Steph Curry. He hasn’t always done fantastic against them, but the willingness to put a rookie on those sorts of star talents says a lot about the amount of faith that the organization and Malone have in the 21 year old.
Having a lineup of Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Vlatko Cancar, and Zeke Nnaji may be worth throwing out if the Nuggets want to focus on getting stops rather than scoring. All of the players featured would be able to switch, force turnovers, and get out in transition. It would also help lighten a bit of the load on Jamal Murray if he continues to struggle with injuries such as the right knee inflammation currently holding him out.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a sharpshooter and has some of the most surgically accurate hands in the game when it comes to getting steals. Zeke Nnaji has shown growth on the defensive end of the court, and has the best defensive rating among bench players on the Nuggets this season. Bruce Brown and Christian Braun both play with high energy, and are menaces in transition. Vlatko Cancar has also really come into his own this season and proven himself to be a rotation player.
The offense wouldn’t be pretty, but this lineup could generate transition opportunities and get stops on the defensive end. Malone has talked a lot this season about wanting to be a top defense, and to get there the bench will need to be a challenge for other teams to score on. This lineup would be the best bet for that.
Score, score, and score some more
With the acquisitions of Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant to the roster at the trade deadline, the Denver Nuggets got two scoring threats off the bench. Neither veteran is a particularly good defender, and will lean far more into being offensive threats than defensive stalwarts. Both possess the potential to put the ball in the basket at a high level and could develop some chemistry between each other to give the bench mob a potent punch.
Jamal Murray has also served as the staggering starter for the majority of the season, and while he’s back on the offensive end – the defense is often the last thing to come back for players dealing with serious injuries. That’s been apparent for the Blue Arrow this season, as his screen navigation and overall defense hasn’t been up to snuff to what he was before his ACL tear.
If the Nuggets wanted to play all three of these players at the same time, it’s possible that they might just say “Screw it! We want buckets!”
In that case, there’s a good argument that a bench lineup of Jamal Murray, Reggie Jackson, Bruce Brown, Vlatko Cancar, and Thomas Bryant would be the best configuration for getting the points up. There’s three able ball handlers, and Vlatko Cancar can attack off closeouts. There’s a lot of potential for dribble penetration and that could result in drive and kicks to plus shooters across the board.
Thomas Bryant also provides a force on the offensive glass – someone capable of making his presence felt on the interior. He can roll, pop, or score in the post. It wouldn’t be great defensively to see him trying to cover up for a lack of perimeter defense, but that lineup would surely score in spades.
A Balanced Approach
While having an elite defensive or offensive unit would be nice, it’s unlikely that leaning too far in either direction would be the result that Michael Malone would want. Most good units are like a good bowl of porridge – not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
The Nuggets have decent offensive and defensive personnel off the bench, and could play a lineup of Jamal Murray, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Vlatko Cancar, and Thomas Bryant. It gives them enough offensive firepower to score in bunches between Jamal, Vlatko, and Thomas Bryant. Bruce Brown and Christian Braun are also solid on that end, and could create advantages with their off-ball movement and shooting.
The defense would largely come down to Bruce Brown and Christian Braun being able to contain perimeter threats, but Jamal was once a really good defender and may be able to get back to that. Vlatko Cancar also has had flashes of being a good defender against players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this season.
This is the closest the Denver Nuggets can get to “just right” and they’ll need a bench unit that can live in the non-Jokic minutes. They don’t need to soar, but they do need to tread water.