The starting five may be locked in, but how does the rest of the Nuggets roster fit within Michael Malone’s rotation?
The Denver Nuggets roster is officially complete, but that does not mean every decision is set in stone as they enter the doldrums of the offseason.
They have filled all 15 full-time roster spots and signed two players into their two-way contract slots. Barring a trade or cutting a player to sign another, this will be the roster the Nuggets begin the 2022-23 season with.
At this time, the Nuggets starting group as well as the first two players off the bench are essentially locked in now that Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are healthy and ready to play. That leaves eight players and both two-way contract players competing for the last two-or-three spots in the rotation.
Let’s take a closer look at the Nuggets rotation, where everyone on the roster fits, and what position battles exist.
Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic
The Nuggets starting group, as listed above, was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Michael Malone at Summer League when he went on the NBATV broadcast and stated that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would slide in as the starting shooting guard. There will be no competition for a starting role entering the season for anyone on the Nuggets roster. Still, that does not take away from the intrigue surrounding that five-man group.
This group has no holes offensively and the have the capability to simply outgun their opponents. There should be no reason — outside of unexpected injury issues — for the Nuggets starters to be anything less than an elite offensive group. Denver’s starters have elite spacing with Murray, Caldwell-Pope and Porter all flanking Gordon and Jokic. That group is also full of skilled players at every position. For opposing defenses, 3-pointers will reign down like mortar fire, there will be cutters attacking from every direction, multiple players able to exploit a bent defense and thrive as secondary creators and, in the middle of it all, will be the back-to-back Most Valuable Award winner Nikola Jokic orchestrating everything.
While outscoring opponents will work during the regular season, Denver will have to find a way to defend with Porter and Jokic on the floor in a playoff setting against elite teams if they hope to win the Nuggets’ first NBA title. Jokic has far fewer holes in his game defensively these days, but he still struggles against teams like the Warriors or Clippers who have an endless onslaught of perimeter scoring threats. Porter struggles with consistent focus, fighting over screens and general perimeter containment. That being said, Porter is more disruptive than he gets credit for and can provide some rim protection. Still, having two players that elite teams can attack is a situation that must be managed carefully regardless how seemingly limitless their offensive ceiling is.
This starting group should be elite on offense and no worse than average on defense which should equal out to one of the best five-man units in the league; that is what the Nuggets are banking on after trading Will Barton III and Monte Morris in order to solidify the starting group by adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
All that is left is to prove they are up for the challenge.
Bones Hyland, Bruce Brown, Davon Reed, Zeke Nnaji, Jeff Green
Of the five expected bench players for the Nuggets, only two are set to play every game unless injuries interfere; Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown.
With Barton and Morris now in Washington after being traded for Caldwell-Pope, the Nuggets are shorter on creators than in years past. One reason the front office felt comfortable trading two creators for one finisher was because of their faith in Hyland to take control of the backup point guard role. Hyland’s growth last season could become massively important. If he can become the Nuggets version of Jordan Clarkson or Jordan Poole, Denver’s bench unit becomes significantly more terrifying. On the other hand, if Hyland cannot handle the weight of his increased role, the Nuggets could be in trouble. Behind him at point guard is only Ish Smith and two-way contract player Collin Gillespie. Bones has sizable shoes to fill with both Barton and Morris gone.
Alongside him will be the newly signed Brown, a defensive-minded utility player who is one of the better screeners, cutters and rebounders in basketball at six-foot-four. If not for the hopes resting on Porter’s shoulders, Brown might be the most interesting and important non-star on the Nuggets roster. His versatility on both ends will allow the Nuggets to unlock many different lineups and styles of play, but that is a topic for another time.
Beyond the two guards, the rotation gets cloudy. Zeke Nnaji should claim a role as the backup forward; especially after playing well last season before going down with injury, but he still has not shown he can handle a full-time role in Malone’s rotation. Many in the organization believe Nnaji is ready, but he still has to show it on the court.
Davon Reed seems to fit in as the backup wing. He was a favorite of Malone last season and did well playing on a two-way contract before being rewarded with a full-time NBA contract this offseason. That being said, the Nuggets would like for first-round pick Christian Braun to claim that role. Braun has to earn it so for now, he will be discussed in the next section.
The last bench role to fill would be backup center; one of the Nuggets biggest holes all last season. Many, myself included, were surprised by the signing of DeAndre Jordan, who has not been a helpful NBA player in years. It is hard to imagine him having a regular spot in Malone’s rotation which means the spot will likely go to Jeff Green, who thrived last season with the Nuggets despite being asked to play a much larger role than originally expected. If Malone wanted to get weird, he could play super small off the bench with Nnaji at center and both Braun and Reed together with Brown and Hyland. Denver has lots of options and Malone will likely experiment with backup center for the first couple months of the season.
End of bench
Ish Smith, Christian Braun, Vlatko Cancar, DeAndre Jordan
If injuries begin to pile up or the Nuggets are looking for a change after a slow start, these will be the players called upon.
If Murray rests from time to time and Hyland has to start in his place, the Nuggets can call on longtime NBA journeyman Ish Smith to provide competent point guard play off the bench. If the Nuggets need another wing who can, in theory, defend guards and wings while adding three-point shooting, Braun can slide in. If the Nuggets need a forward because Nnaji has struggled or Jeff Green gets hurt, Cancar will be next up. If Jokic needs a night off or one of the Nuggets backup bigs gets hurt, that should be when Jordan sees most of his minutes.
The Nuggets are not the deepest team in the league, but this is a serviceable group of players who can help out in a pinch. It could be significantly worse and Denver is set up well if they have to find more rest for their starters or deal with injuries.
Collin Gillespie, Peyton Watson, Jack White
The only player of this group who could see real NBA playing time is Collin Gillespie and that will only happen if he ends up securing the role of third point guard that Ish Smith seemingly occupies for the time being. Beyond Gillespie, neither of Peyton Watson or Jack White should play real minutes. If they do, it is likely because something went very wrong for the Nuggets.
The Nuggets plan to let Watson get most of his reps in the G-League this season and there is a high likelihood that Jack White will join him. Gillespie might stick with the Nuggets at first until Murray’s minutes restriction loosens up, but he will spend time in Grand Rapids with the Gold as well.
That being said, it should be a very fun Grand Rapids Gold season.