Santa Claus decided that the Denver Nuggets and their fans deserved a little coal this Christmas season.

On Saturday afternoon, the eve of Denver’s Christmas Day matchup against the Phoenix Suns, the Nuggets announced that veteran power forward Jeff Green sustained a fracture to his left hand during Friday night’s victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. Green also sustained a finger sprain on his left hand.

Green has played 24 of the Nuggets 31 games so far this season, missing a stretch of seven games due to a minor injury. He returned and was dunking absolutely everything though, logging 18 total dunks this season despite playing limited minutes next to Nikola Jokić. Overall, Green averaged 19.3 minutes, 7.5 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game, finding ways to be impactful despite a flawed bench unit.

Now, without Green, the Nuggets will be forced to look at a variety of potential solutions. The bench minutes had been more productive in each of the last two games, so it’s unfortunate that the Nuggets will be forced to change things up again. Still, this leaves an opportunity for other players down the depth chart, and Michael Malone may be forced to rely on players he isn’t used to relying upon.

So, how will the Nuggets look to handle Jeff Green’s absence? Here’s who’s affected most by the injury:

Zeke Nnaji

Before the season, the Nuggets praised Zeke Nnaji over and over again. From his improvements during the summer to his performance during training camp and preseason, the Nuggets shouted the gospel of Nnaji from the rooftops. At just 21 years old, the expectations for Nnaji were to grow into a rotation player this season, one that could potentially affect Denver’s postseason expectations too.

Fast forward to December 25th, and the questions surrounding Nnaji’s role have produced little answers. Nnaji has played in 22 games but averaged just 9.5 minutes per game. His role has been anything but consistent, and the Nuggets fell into a rhythm by using Green and DeAndre Jordan as their backup frontcourt for a significant chunk of time.

Now, with Green out and Jordan playing several subpar games in a row up until Nnaji’s latest stints at backup center, it appears that Nnaji’s role will only continue to grow. Whether it be at power forward or center, the Nuggets have plenty of cause to give Nnaji opportunities to develop more confidence in his role on the team. His ability to switch defensively and offer a mobile big man option on the second unit should appeal to Malone, Ryan Saunders, and the rest of the Nuggets coaching staff.

Expect Nnaji to get a significant opportunity to play a chunk of the bench minutes behind Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon.

Vlatko Čančar

Čančar is in his fourth season with the Nuggets, and so far, he’s only ever become a fringe rotation player. During the first two seasons, Vlatko combined to average just 5.9 minutes per game. Last year, those minutes nearly doubled to 11.7 per game. Unfortunately, the 6’8″ forward suffered a foot injury in January of last season that required surgery. That held him out for basically the rest of the season, only coming back to play the final game of the regular season.

This year, Čančar is averaging 11.0 minutes in 21 games played, shooting 44.4% from three-point range (16-of-36). The Slovenian forward appears far more comfortable with his outside jumper, and he’s had some quality all-around moments as well. His defense on the road against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander helped the Nuggets steal a win in the clutch earlier this year.

Denver’s bench decisions with Čančar come down to a number of factors. Is Nnaji playing power forward or center? Is DeAndre Jordan involved in the rotation? Where does Christian Braun fit in? Are the Nuggets planning on staggering a starter? How does that change if the staggered starter is a guard like Jamal Murray or a forward like Michael Porter Jr.? There will be situations when Vlatko is the right answer to who would help the Nuggets bench. There will also be situations when Denver needs more oomph in that spot.

At this moment, I would expect the Nuggets to play Nnaji at power forward and Jordan at center, especially against a rim rolling center in Bismack Biyombo and the Suns on Christmas. After that, Vlatko may get an opportunity next to Jordan, or Nnaji may slide to center and vacate the backup power forward spot.

Count me among those that want to see a longer runway for Vlatko off the Nuggets bench.

Christian Braun

Right now, Christian Braun is the 10th man in a nine-man rotation. Michael Malone explained as much following Denver’s comfortable win on Friday night. Murray played a season high 39 minutes while Braun sat on the sideline, drawing some questions from fans that loved his effort and defensive instincts against the Memphis Grizzlies the prior game.

Now that Green is out for a chunk of time, Braun would be the natural player to receive more minutes. Unfortunately, Green plays power forward while Braun is mostly on the wing. Braun’s minutes are more closely tied to the statuses of Porter, Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Bruce Brown than they are with a forward like Green.

It’s not impossible to slide Braun into that rotation spot, but it involves some creativity from the Nuggets when it comes to staggering starters. Last game, Murray staggered next to Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown in the backup, forming a three-guard bench lineup. It worked, but would it work if Braun were to play the power forward spot? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Braun’s inclusion could also give way to a 10-man rotation that features a full bench lineup, depending on the opponent and situation.

Malone previously stated that he has to find opportunities to get Braun on the court. Though this isn’t the circumstance anyone would have wished for, there’s an opportunity here to get the rookie some consistent minutes. It’s not a clean fit like simply subbing in Nnaji or Čančar would be, but it gets one of Denver’s best perimeter defenders back on the court.

Staggering starters

So far this season, the Nuggets have staggered a member of the starting lineup to play with the bench unit in almost every single competitive minute they’ve played this season. According to my rotation charts that I’ve maintained for every single minute of the Nuggets season, they’ve played just 10 games utilizing a full bench lineup. The Nuggets have had a starter on the floor in all but roughly 46 minutes of non-garbage time this season.

The non-Jokić minutes are a crucial tension point for Denver’s success. They’ve been mostly negative to start this year, and the Nuggets have struggled to find a successful lineup for more than a game or two. Denver’s played a variety of lineups with no single lineup playing more than 57 non-garbage time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Nine of the ten most frequently played lineups have featured Jeff Green. Removing those from the equation, and the Nuggets have played just 353 possessions with neither Jokić nor Green on the court. The team is generating a -16.6 net rating in that span, which is horrible.

It’s clear that Michael Malone’s personal preference is to always have a starter out there, so let’s start there. The question is who the starter should be. At first, it was Porter who staggered. Lately, it’s been Murray. Before him, it was Bruce Brown, who’s moved back to the bench with Porter returning to the starting lineup. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has had the occasional bench stint too.

In this hypothetical rotation, the Nuggets stagger Aaron Gordon (who they haven’t really tried with the bench yet) and play four hustling, switchy defenders around Bones Hyland in the brief minutes without any other starter.

This allows Braun to stay in the rotation while keeping a defensive-minded starter on the floor at all times. A Bones, Brown, Braun, Gordon, and Nnaji lineup feels like it would be clunky offensively, but as long as the defense is good, there will be plenty of transition opportunities to balance things out. In addition, the Nuggets would be placing both Murray and Porter together to develop chemistry with Jokić, something the Nuggets must continue to push going forward.

The Nuggets could also flip Porter’s and Gordon’s minutes around if need be, using Porter as a floor spacer with the bench and pairing Jokić with Gordon instead.

Whatever the Nuggets decide to do, the next month is an exceedingly important stretch of the Nuggets season. 12 of the next 16 games are at home, many of them against teams vying for playoff position in the West. Removing Jeff Green from the rotation adds a wrinkle that the Nuggets certainly didn’t foresee. Green has been a steady contributor with the Nuggets since arriving in July of 2021.

Michael Malone will have to get creative with his rotation. It’s unlikely that the first thing the Nuggets try ends up working for the next month. They will have to experiment, come up with different ways to win games with a bench lineup in constant flux. Perhaps Denver can find some consistency in the coming weeks. In order to make that happen, somebody will have to step up in Jeff Green’s place.

The question is…who?