The Denver Nuggets are off to what for them, in light of their recent successful playoff run to the Western Conference Finals, is a severely disappointing start to the 2020-21 NBA season.
With just one win to notch on their belt after four games, the Nuggets, who have finished top 3 in the West and first in the Northwest Division the past two seasons, suddenly find themselves tied for last place in the conference with the fifth-worst record in the league.
A major component of Denver’s struggles has been the lackluster performance of a bench unit which has seen significant changes with the offseason departures of Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig, and the signings of JaMychal Green, Isaiah Hartenstein and Facundo Campazzo in free agency.
JaMychal Green has yet to play, which has been a big part of Denver’s bench problem. Green, a six-foot-eight, 227-pound power forward, is the ostensible replacement for Grant, but has been unable to suit up for his new squad thus far due to a calf injury which sidelined him before the season’s start.
So it’s one bit of encouraging news for the Nuggets that Green should soon make his debut.
“JaMychal Green practiced again today,” head coach Michael Malone said after today’s practice. “He looks great, healthy. Should be able to go tomorrow, we’ll see how he feels in the morning.”
With rebounding very prominently rising to the top of Denver’s early struggles this season, before even having a chance to put him on the court, the Nuggets already miss Green’s size, physicality and prowess for crashing the glass.
“Obviously we signed JaMychal cause he is a guy that has been through the NBA wars, regular season and playoffs,” Malone explained, “so having some more experience and physicality should help that second group as well.”
And Denver’s second group does indeed look like it needs the help.
Superlative bench play has never been a hallmark of Nuggets teams in the Michael Malone era, but the performance of Denver’s reserves has tended to hover around league average on the whole – until now.
As the chart above shows, the net rating – or point differential per 100 possessions – of the Nuggets’ bench the last four seasons has alternated between just below and just above the middle of the pack in the NBA, but has dropped to minus-4.3 this season, which leaves them at 23rd in the league.
Additionally, Denver’s reserves are 27th in effective field goal percentage at .461 and likewise 27th in true shooting percentage at .497, a clear indication of the unit’s offensive struggles.
Following the Nuggets’ second loss to the Sacramento Kings in four games, Malone was asked if the absence if Monte Morris getting bumped up into the starting lineup when Jamal Murray had to sit due to a right elbow contusion was the cause of Denver’s bench woes.
“No, because that would be making an excuse for poor play,” Malone replied. “They outscored us 38-19, and every one of our bench players had a negative plus-minus rating.”
And Malone was quick to point out that Denver’s bench issues are not limited to offense.
“It’s not just the scoring, it’s the overall impact – the defense, the rebounding, the playmaking, whatever it is,” Malone emphasized. “So we gotta find ways for our bench to play better. We’re gonna need some of our guys on the bench to step up and provide us with consistent minutes.”
When I asked Malone following today’s practice what the Nuggets’ biggest challenges were in optimizing the performance of their bench, he highlighted Two major causes for the reserves’ struggles: the relative youth and inexperience of the players, both new and returning, who are stepping in to larger roles this season as compared with the ones Denver lost in free agency.
“To be brutally honest, we lost a guy in Mason Plumlee that has over 530 NBA games, was a starter on a playoff team,” Malone said. “You lost a guy in Jerami Grant that’s got 450 NBA games under his belt, a bunch of playoff games. You lost Torrey Craig, who has been a rotational player for us and started 11 playoff games a year ago.”
The Nuggets’ perception as a young team – which is accurate in many regards – may have belied what, as Malone points out, is actually a significant amount of NBA experience in contrast with the players backing up Denver’s starters this season.
“You’ve replaced those guys with Isaiah Hartenstein, who I think has played 55 games in his NBA career, P.J. Dozier, 41 games, Bol Bol, 10 career NBA games, Facu brand new, so it’s a challenge,” Malone said.
“This is a very young, inexperienced group in the grand scheme of things.”
In fairness, not all the news is bad on Denver’s bench front.
According to on- versus off-court efficiency differentials at Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets have outscored opponents when three of their bench players have been on the floor, with Will Barton III (plus-11.0), P.J. Dozier (plus-5.3) and Monte Morris (plus-4.2) all on the positive side of the point differential ledger.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the three Nuggets bench players who are in the black include two of Denver’s more experienced veterans and another player in Dozier who logged significant minutes for the team last season, including in the playoffs.
By contrast, the three Nuggets bench players who have struggled the most are either new to the team (or to the NBA completely in Campazzo’s case, despite his being a seasoned pro for years in Europe), or when it comes to Bol Bol, still markedly lacking in experience, having yet played only 101 minutes in the league.
“You can’t rush it, you can’t speed it up, it is what it is, you know,” Malone said of the youth and inexperience of Denver’s reserves.
“I can’t wave a magic wand and say, ‘Isaiah, Bol, P.J., Facu, whoever else, you guys are gonna be able to have all this experience.’ Those guys have to go in and play hard, play with effort, be disciplined and give ourselves a chance till we can get our starters back in the game.”
There are some good reasons for the Nuggets to be realistically optimistic about the performance of their bench improving over the course of the season.
Getting Green back alone could be the biggest difference maker, especially when it comes to taking some of the frontcourt pressure off Hartenstein in the bench backcourt. Hartenstein has shown promise with a solid, fundamentally sound skill set and an ability to bring some athleticism, tenacity and physicality to the court for Denver.
The fact that Hartenstein and Morris played together in the G League also bodes well for facilitating a faster building of bench chemistry for this new mix of players, in a framework which should ideally mirror the way the Morris-Plumlee pick-and-roll game bookended the Nuggets’ bench unit for the past several seasons.
One prospect that is perhaps less assured than Hartenstein growing into his role, but which also carries the hope of Denver’s bench finding greater success, is that Facu Campazzo might find a way to make a bigger impact on games than he has been able to so far. While his veteran pedigree and storied resume still warrant that Campazzo be given every opportunity to positively impact winning for the Nuggets, the Argentinian point guard’s diminutive size at five-foot-eleven has already visibly been an issue, especially on defense where he has struggled to contain his assignments.
While stories and highlights of Facu’s defensive peskiness abound, at least through his first four games with Denver, he has yet to demonstrate that will translate to the NBA level. With his elite, “magician”-like passing skills and ball handing ability, playmaking is where Campazzo truly has a far greater chance of putting his imprint on games, but in order to be a net positive he will need to find a way to shooting better than the .375 eFG% he has put up so far, but one encouraging sign is that his Euroleague averages of a 45.7% field goal percentage, 34.3% three-point percentage and 86.1% bode well for his improvement in the shooting department.
As for the seven-foot-two Bol Bol, who the Nuggets now have slated as a small forward but remains as enigmatic as ever, and still looks every bit the part of a high-upside, highly-skilled prospect whose continued development will be a years-long work in progress. Ideally, Bol’s timeline will accelerate as he accumulates experience, but if not, rookie first-round draft pick Zeke Nnaji and two-way contract free agent signee Greg Whittington (who, like Green, has been unable to play for Denver yet due to a calf injury) will be waiting in the wings to step up and bolster Denver’s frontcourt depth.
No matter whether it comes from continued player development, increased experience, the jelling of Denver’s new players with the returnees or, as Malone suggests, greater effort and discipline, the Nuggets will need an improved level of performance from their bench going forward, and they’ll need it sooner rather than later if they are to remain competitive in the cutthroat West.
Considering the shortened offseason, the biggest roster disruption in Denver in years, the continued growing pains of younger players and adjustments of newer players, and the general weirdness in the coronavirus pandemic era of teams playing in empty arenas with strict and strange protocols, early bumps in the road should be expected not only for the Nuggets, but for most NBA teams, and as such the Nuggets’ reserves should be cut some slack and given a bit of time to find their footing.
But if the ship does not course correct soon, if Denver’s bench continues bleeding points while the starters rest, if it starts becoming clear that solutions are more likely to come from without than within, then the urgency for president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and his front office staff to find ways of improving midseason by the trade deadline will get ratcheted up considerably.
In the meantime, by all appearances the Nuggets still believe in the guys on their roster, and their ability to step up and deliver at the level the organization deemed them capable of when they brought them on board, and the next few weeks will reveal an abundance of critical information about which of Denver’s bench players can be reliably counted upon to deliver the caliber of performance that will help the team continue on its trajectory towards title contention.