The Denver Nuggets lost a lot of their depth from their NBA championship team during the offseason. Still, Denver is in the thick of the race for a top seed in the Western Conference and is considered one of the favorites to win the 2023-24 NBA title.
Nuggets Looking To Add Frontcourt Depth and Bench Scoring
Denver (34-16) owns the second most wins in the NBA following their 120-108 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers last night, behind another sterling triple-double performance from Nikola Jokic. Jokic finished with 27 points on 11 of 16 shooting from the field, 22 rebounds and 12 assists. It was Jokic’s 15th triple-double of the campaign and 120th of his career.
The 28-year-old Serbian has 18 triple-doubles from tying Magic Johnson on the NBA’s all-time list.
Nikola Jokic is getting closer & closer to overtaking Magic Johnson in all-time triple-doubles recorded 👀
🇺🇸 Russell Westbrook | 198
🇺🇸 Oscar Robertson | 181
🇺🇸 Magic Johnson | 138
🇷🇸 Nikola Jokic | 120 pic.twitter.com/jIR2TVoCX6
— BasketNews (@BasketNews_com) February 3, 2024
While Jokic was his usual self, he got a lot of help, as customary, from his fellow starters against the Trail Blazers. Jamal Murray posted a double-double (13 points, 10 assists) as he just missed a triple-double with nine rebounds despite a poor shooting night. Aaron Gordon finished with 18 points, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (16) and Michael Porter Jr. (13) also reached double-figures.
The Nuggets starters outscored the Trail Blazers’ first unit 87-65 and had a combined plus/minus rating of +15.8. This is not surprising, as the Nuggets have one of the best starting lineups in the game.
What is surprising is the Nuggets got production off the bench from someone other than Reggie Jackson, who contributed 13 points and three assists. Peyton Watson was also solid last night with 14 points on 6 of 8 shooting and five rebounds in 22 minutes. It was his 11th double-figure game of the season.
While Denver’s reserves played pretty well offensively, they finished with a plus/minus of -3.8 last night.
Nuggets Have Limited Ability To Address Needs
Denver sits fourth in the West, albeit they are just a half-game behind the leaders, thanks to their starters’ work and overall health. Murray is the only Nugget regular to miss more than 10 games.
Denver’s reserves have struggled for most of the season, which has caused coach Mike Malone to use just eight players regularly. Jackson, who has carried the second unit, Watson, and Christian Braun are the players Malone has trusted. However, Braun has struggled since the calendar turned to 2024, and he saw only five minutes of action versus the Blazers.
Another reason for the Nuggets’ second unit woes is that Malone has elected to go with a small ball lineup for the majority of the time when Jokic is on the bench. When Jokic has been off the court this season, the Nuggets are a minus-3.2 per 100 possessions. Conversely, they are +15.7 when he is on the floor.
Denver’s reserves rank 25th in scoring and 26th in defensive rating.
As a result, the Nugets are expected to explore the market for frontcourt depth and bench scoring, per Bennett Durando of the Denver Post. However, Durando said the Nuggets’ options are limited because they are well over the luxury tax and a few million from being hard capped. The Nuggets also have a league-maximum 15 players on standard contracts.
Denver’s starting lineup is one of the two or three best units in the league. Meddling with it during the season presents more risks than rewards. Packaging multiple team-friendly contracts (especially young players) to trade for a major upgrade doesn’t exactly make sense either, in addition to being an abandonment of the organization’s fundamental roster-building principles.
As for frontcourt depth, the question the Nuggets must ask themselves is similar: Is there an affordable backup big available who will be better than Zeke Nnaji, both short-term and long-term? Nnaji signed a four-year, $32 million extension before the season that goes into effect in 2024-25. He has struggled in limited minutes this season, but he just turned 23 in January. An optimistic view is that he’s still early in his development, and now the Nuggets have him locked up on a relatively team-friendly, mutually beneficial deal that helps them navigate the cap in upcoming seasons.
Durando added that Denver could trade a future draft pick for a depth player, aided by trade exceptions ($2.2 million and $1.9 million, but they would have to waive someone.