The Nuggets’ bench has improved significantly since the start of the season. With the playoffs around the corner, who should be in the rotation come playoff time?
At the start of the season, we all know what the situation was. The Nuggets’ bench was simply a weakness. A lingering wound that would leave the team bleeding points for their entire stints. The entire thing looked pretty bleak. Especially after PJ Dozier tore his ACL and the Nuggets bench became even more muddled. They didn’t look entirely sure of what they should be doing when — just plain disorganized on both ends of the floor. There was a lid on the rim for them on the offensive side of the court and they gave opponents five-star valet parking on the defensive end.
However, things change; things can get better. That’s exactly what happened for the Nuggets’ bench. It’s gotten to a point where when the starters play lazy, or looked gassed, the bench has kept the Nuggets in some games. Sometimes it’s nice to see them get extended run now, when before it was tough to sit through a few minutes. That has to do with some key additions to the roster in sharpshooter Bryn Forbes via trade, and fan favorite big Demarcus Cousins via free agency. They both addressed issues that the bench had before they were added; shooting and an actual center.
Bryn Forbes, since his addition, has played as advertised and shot 40% from 3 for Denver on 4.3 attempts a game. He doesn’t do much else, but he is an elite shooter and those are a valuable thing in the NBA. Defenders can’t leave him or it’s an automatic 3 points on the board for Denver. Now Boogie is the biggest addition for Denver. He has provided great rebounding and screening for the Nuggets; who before his arrival were struggling with their bench being small and no one really having gravity as a roll man. He isn’t the finisher he once was, and struggles a decent amount with finishing around the rim nowadays, but it’s still better than what Denver had. He can shoot the pill a slight bit as well. With the Nuggets he has shot 33% from 3 on 2.6 attempts a game. His playmaking is good from a big as well. He registers a 20.4% AST%, which means that he is assisting on 20% of shots while he is on the floor. He also has formed a chemistry with Bones Hyland, and it’s really improved both of their productions with the team. Their pick and roll has become the foundation for a lot of what the bench does on offense, and their energy is just infectious.
Bones Hyland has really impressed as a rookie guard this season. He’s just so fun, man. He provides an energy boost whenever he gets on the floor and has become far more comfortable playing at the NBA level compared to when he first entered the league. When he first started playing with the bench, he didn’t look completely sure of what to do. He was playing an off-ball role next to Facu Campazzo and it just didn’t click for either guard. Bones was inefficient and not playing up to the standard that some thought he could be playing at. His minutes came and went; getting spot minutes here and there, playing large amounts other times. It was a very inconsistent sort of role and it’s hard to get a rhythm going when you’re not sure you’re going to play. You don’t know whether tonight is your night or not. Through his first 29 games that he touched the floor in, he only averaged 7.8 points per game on 35/30/85 splits. As well as only 1.6 assists per game. After that though, he started getting playing time more consistently. He looked more self assured and confident in the shots he was taking. He began being used on ball more, and started flashing playmaking chops that weren’t apparent in the early stages of the season. Throughout the last 30 games, he’s left his mark on the team. He’s fifth in scoring in that time averaging 11 points per game on 42/42/85 splits. It’s a vast improvement mid-season, which is an encouraging sign for his development going forward.
Another guard who has improved as the season has gone along has been Austin Rivers. In the first 20 games of the season, he played in 18. Those games you could just see him getting in his own head. On his career he’s a 35% 3 point shooter, but during this stretch he was only shooting 27% from downtown. It was a low point for him in Denver. Last season, he was so impactful in the playoffs and to come in and not being able to produce affected him. After those 20 games he was held out with an injury, but once he came back he started to look much, much better. He has been a consistent contributor on the defensive end; being one of Denver’s best defenders besides Aaron Gordon. He gives guys issues on the perimeter and he’s been a staunch defender for much of the season; something that can’t be said for basically any other guard on the roster that has gotten rotational minutes this season. His shot has also come around, shooting 37% on 4 attempts a game over the last 39 games.
Much of the same can be said for Jamychal Green too. He wasn’t playing up to his standard early on in the season, and it got to a point where it was rumored that he was being shopped by the Nuggets before the trade deadline. Nothing came to fruition though, and since he’s been consistently good. Playing the defense we all knew he was capable of; cutting down on the fouls that were giving him so many issues in the earlier stages of the season. He’s finished pick and rolls with the most ferocity I’ve seen from him in his time here. He’s back to being the Jamychal that was loved by the fans and team last season; as well as still being a great locker room presence.
With all that context being given and assuming that Michael Porter Jr and Jamal Murray don’t come back, I think the Nuggets should roll out a bench lineup of Bones at the point, Rivers as a wing, Jamychal as the four, and Demarcus as the center of the lineup. With that lineup there are two guards who can drive and create rim pressure, as well as shoot the ball well. Rivers provides defensive upside to cover for Bones’ struggles on that end, and Bones provides the passing and playmaking that Rivers lacks. Jamychal can serve as a floor spacer and pick and roll partner while also holding it down on the defensive end with Boogie. Both have been solid defensively in the games since the trade deadline and if they can bolster the team’s lackluster perimeter defense it’ll be necessary to play them both in the playoffs. Now as for why I left out Bryn Forbes, I simply just don’t think you can play both him and Bones in the playoffs and get away with that at the point of attack nor contain people on the perimeter. Someone was ought to get left off, as rotations shorten in the playoffs and players get targeted more as there more refined game plans. He’s a good player, but just barely misses the mark.
That bench should be able to hold it down in the playoffs for brief stints, which is what is going to be expected of them. Depending on who Malone would choose to stagger with that unit, it might even give other teams a lot of issues. The Nuggets don’t need perfection from their bench, they just need good enough. With those four and a starter I’d feel that that lineup is more than good enough.