Today marks 39 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.
Question 10: Jeff Green vs DeAndre Jordan in the bench rotation?
Yesterday, I wrote in-depth about Zeke Nnaji and why he’s a pivotal member of the Denver Nuggets bench this season.
Today, let’s discuss the most likely big man partners for Nnaji during the 2022-23 season: Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan.
The Nuggets bench was a mess for much of last season. Deprived of the extra talent usually saved for staggered lineups with the Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. absences, the bench was mostly left to fend for itself. Head coach Michael Malone tried endless combinations of reserves to little or no avail.
It wasn’t until the benching of traditional point guard Facu Campazzo and the addition of traditional center DeMarcus Cousins that the unit saw some truth growth. The screens were better. The interior defense was better. The offensive talent was better. Going with a traditional big man saved the Nuggets bench last season, though most knew it to be a temporary salve for a persistent issue.
This offseason, the Nuggets surprised many with the signing of center DeAndre Jordan, a previously formidable defender and athlete whose athleticism has waned in the last few seasons. Jordan has yet to find a permanent home since leaving the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2018 offseason four years ago. His total minutes in each season have also been reduced, going from over 2,000 in 2018-19 to 1,200 in each of 2019-20 and 2020-21. Last season, his total minutes were reduced down to just 622 in 48 games, an average of 13.4 minutes a night.
It’s unlikely that Jordan is an every night solution for the Nuggets bench. He may not be a “most nights” solution either as the Nuggets look to become more athletic and switchable in their second unit. Jordan plays almost exclusively drop coverage at this stage of his career, and he’s a mostly static defender, preferring to protect the paint rather than contesting perimeter shots. There’s a time for drop coverage that gives up threes to centers, but most teams know how to attack drop coverage now and may take advantage of Jordan’s tendencies.
Enter Zeke Nnaji, who at 6’9″ and 240 pounds, represents Denver’s best small ball center option. Nnaji must improve his functional strength to handle more big man tasks, but he provides Denver with some variables defensively that neither Jordan nor Nikola Jokić offer. Expect Nnaji to see plenty of action at backup center this year.
If Nnaji moves to center, that leaves the backup power forward position open. The Nuggets have a variety of candidates to play power forward. Perhaps they stagger Porter or Aaron Gordon to the second unit. Perhaps Vlatko Čančar or even two-way contract player Jack White get opportunities.
The most likely option, though, is veteran Jeff Green. Green turned 36 at the end of August, but he hasn’t shown many signs of regression in a Nuggets uniform. Last season, Green started a whopping 63 games for the Nuggets, replacing Porter as Denver’s fifth starter and making an impact. He played 75 games and 1,849 total minutes, the 35th most minutes played by a player 35 or older in the last decade. Many of the players to exceed that total are or will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Now though, the Nuggets should strongly consider managing Green’s minutes in the regular season. He’s an impactful complementary player who knows where to be and has played in 83 playoff games. The Nuggets could of course use that veteran savvy when the time comes, especially for what is still a relatively inexperienced roster. From the day-to-day of the regular season though, the Nuggets would be wise to reduce Green’s minutes and games load, just like Jordan.
So, where does that leave the Nuggets?
Coach Malone has always been partial to set rotations while with the Nuggets. He’s at his most comfortable when he can identify the nine or ten players he wants to play and just rolls with those guys. He might be able to do that with Jeff Green (though I’d advise against playing Green every day). He certainly can’t do that with Jordan.
It’s more likely that the Nuggets play a more flexible rotation that alternates between, Green, Jordan, and possibly Čančar. Depending on the opponent and what the Nuggets need, any of those three players could be helpful against opposing benches. Green is the most versatile and allows Denver to switch at will defensively. Jordan is the biggest and allows the Nuggets to run traditional screen and roll with a true big man, pushing Nnaji to a floor spacing role instead. Čančar is the best shooter and passer of the three. He will likely help the Nuggets achieve the best offensive unit they can that features an all-bench unit.
The Nuggets don’t yet know the best configuration for their bench. With starters possibly staggering and no true answer for best lineup up front, this is an impossible question to answer. There’s even a chance that Green plays power forward and Jordan plays center, leaving the 21-year-old Nnaji out of the rotation entirely. That configuration would probably be my last choice though, as it takes Denver’s best switch defender and floor spacer off the floor and makes the Nuggets drastically more slow and predictable.
The backup frontcourt spots on Denver’s roster definitely feature the most pressing questions. It may take awhile for true answers to emerge, and Denver’s solution may end up featuring Porter or Gordon staggering with the second unit anyway. The solution may not even be on the roster right now.
But heading into training camp and likely into the season, expect the Nuggets first option to be Green and Nnaji getting the nod on the second unit. They will be focusing on playing faster, switching defensively, and spacing the floor for Bones Hyland to cook, Denver’s most potent bench scorer. If that doesn’t work, there will be plenty of opportunities to change things up throughout the season.