With some new additions to the roster and some players returning from injury, there are plenty of options for head coach Michael Malone and the 2022-23 Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets have gone out of their way to add two-way wings in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown to the new rotation this offseason. Both players haven’t played a minute in a Nuggets uniform yet, but their presence adds something the Nuggets haven’t had in a long time: versatility. There are limitless combinations and roster setups the Nuggets can try this season, anchored by the returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to the starting lineup. Both players expect to be limited to start the season, but they add new (or old) wrinkles that the Nuggets will use to their advantage.
But which lineups will Malone decide deserve the most time? Which lineups will be the go-to groups in a playoff series?
Here are some of my favorites:
Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić
If all goes according to plan, the Denver Nuggets could have the best starting unit in the entire NBA. Health permitting, the Nuggets are poised to present the most ideal Jokić-centric lineup of his career. Three of the four players are sniper perimeter shooters while two of the four are big targets on back cuts and offensive rebounds. Jokić also reunites with Murray to form one of the NBA’s top pairings. Their chemistry is second to none and Murray’s dynamic talent will take the pressure off Jokić’s shoulders.
Caldwell-Pope and Gordon should tie the defense together, but for this unit to be the best it can be, the Nuggets will need a better defense from the Jokić-Murray-Porter trio. If that happens, they could generate the highest net rating for a five-man unit in the entire NBA.
The top-level execution unit
Jamal Murray, Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić
Denver’s most important swing factor of the season is the health of Michael Porter Jr. The second most important may be his willingness to contribute defensively.
Offensively, there are few questions. He went through a tough time in his first playoff run outside the bubble as Denver’s leading perimeter scorer in place of Jamal Murray. That pressure will be taken away from him now, and he should be a better attacking player with some experience in his 24-year-old season.
Defensively, that’s where he can struggle to keep up with the best teams in the NBA. He struggled against the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns in the 2021 playoffs, and the Nuggets as a whole struggled against the Golden State Warriors last year. The Nuggets have to factor in the possibility that Porter may not be on the court for some of those important possessions.
The good news: Bruce Brown should be a great replacement for those times. His versatility on the defensive side of point guards, shooting guards and small forwards is excellent in a playoff context, and he’s had some great moments throughout his young career harassing opposing point guards. Add that to Denver’s other four starters, and it’s likely to be Michael Malone’s most reliable lineup in what the Nuggets are hoping will be a deep playoff run.
The best bet on the bench
Bones Hyland, Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Michael Porter Jr., Zeke Nnaji
While Porter may not be the right candidate in all of Denver’s closing lineups, he’s the team’s best candidate in the top five to ladder with the second unit. The Nuggets struggled with their bench rosters last year. Much of the offensive responsibility fell to rookie Bones Hyland, an unfair task for a freshman. Porter and Bones leading the scoring charge off the bench seem tenable, and while he’s not perfect and a high-variance formation, he has strong potential for success.
Adding three more players to the bench formation is tough. Bruce Brown is a shoo-in for these groups, likely serving as a secondary ball handler and primary guard defenseman. Malone will likely want to trust Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan to anchor the formation in the frontcourt. However, to be the best bench formation possible, the Nuggets should look to Zeke Nnaji. The 6’9″ forward is entering his third season. He may already be Denver’s best defensive big man, and he’s shot 43.9 percent from three-pointers in his career (albeit on limited volume). Pairing him with Porter in the frontcourt would maximize Denver’s bench spacing while allowing their defense to execute a switching system due to Nnaji’s mobility.
This leaves one more place, and for now, it goes to Christian Braun. The 6’7″ wing didn’t shoot the ball well in the Summer League, but he showed a lot of good traits as a defender and attacking connector. If the hit happens, it makes the most sense for a fast-paced bench unit. Davon Reed is also a great candidate here.
Bones Hyland, Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić
If the Nuggets are looking to take advantage of an opponent with shoddy defense, this is the lineup to deploy there. Two ball guards in Bones and Murray performing pick and rolls and dribbling with Jokić while Caldwell-Pope and Porter space the ground and cut through the paint. There are no players the defense can leave open in this unit, and the worst shooter could be Jokić. He can, however, go to the position or make an intermediate choice with Murray. Either case would lead to open plans for somebody.
Malone will be hesitant to deploy that unit there due to the lack of defensive personnel, but it includes five of Denver’s top seven players in their rotation. The Nuggets will have to play this formation at some point, and they might end up loving the occasional 15-5 runs he generates in three minutes. This is a situational composition that forces the opposition to line up with Denver because if the teams try to outplay this five-man unit, I wish them good luck.
The kitchen sink
Jamal Murray, Bruce Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon
This formation represents the minutes when Jokić gets a well-deserved rest in a playoff series where he plays the entire third quarter of a tight game. The Nuggets usually have bleeding points when Jokić falls off the ground in most situations, and the best way to counter that is to throw the kitchen sink in those minutes. AKA: The next five best players after Jokić.
Murray and Porter will be the first and second options here, but the real kicker is Aaron Gordon at small center ball. The Nuggets have avoided this roster since Gordon arrived in Denver, but it has serious merits in a playoff context. Gordon is one of Denver’s best defensemen, but he was rarely able to show that skill with the amount of time he played small forward last year. Using him as a blitz defender or a switch defender in pick and rolls would give Denver a unique defensive look that just hasn’t been seen in the minutes without Jokić. Gordon can also be the roll man in pick and rolls with Jamal Murray with his ability to finish level and over the edge in traffic. Playing in the center would also give him more space to operate offensively.
Bones has the ability to join this unit at some point during the season, but the guard trio of Murray, Brown and Caldwell-Pope represent Denver’s best two-way guard trio. Maybe he replaces Brown or Caldwell-Pope in those situations, depending on the game.
There will come a time in a playoff next year when Jokić has dominated but needs a four-minute rest between quarters. Depending on how many players Malone trusts to play in a playoff context, a roster like the one above might be the best option for Denver. A series against the Warriors or the Los Angeles Clippers comes to mind here along with the small ball options these teams have. The Nuggets have the personnel to match small for small, and the best option involves Porter at 4 and Gordon at 5.