Hello everyone! Welcome into Mailbag Monday. This is a series I used to do, though that used to be every week which probably isn’t viable. Every month feels too spaced out though, but I will find some sort of happy medium. That way, every Nuggets fan will get an opportunity to ask a question (I often ask questions on Twitter, so follow me there).

In the meantime, there’s plenty of Nuggets content to discuss. The healthy returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are exciting. The new additions have been impactful in preseason. Nikola Jokić remains incredible. There are real expectations for the team, which should excite people rather than make them nervous.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the mailbag. Awesome questions came through, and I’m looking forward to answering as many as is reasonable here:


It’s true that you usually spot it early with teams that are serious about winning a championship. For reigning title holders, there can often be a malaise that they work through early on, but for first time title contenders, you see it early on. Two examples of that come from the 2014-15 and 2021-22 Golden State Warriors. In their first 20 games, the Warriors began the first title run with an 18-2 record. This last year, they also went 18-2 while playing strong defense, holding nine teams out of 20 under 100 points.

You could tell with the Warriors, and fans should be able to tell with the Nuggets too. They don’t have to go 18-2 to prove it, but jumping out to 14-6 or 15-5 while showcasing improved attention to detail on the defensive end would go a long way. If there’s any reason to be skeptical of Denver, it’s that they haven’t proven themselves defensively yet. That has to happen if they’re serious about a championship.

And if Murray or Porter score 40 points in a game early in the year, that would go a long way too.

All reports out of camp are that Michael Porter Jr. is…well…healthy. Michael Malone discussed being cautious with Porter in the return-to-play phase, noting that it was his goal to get each starter at least one game of rest during the preseason. Porter opted out of that, noting to Malone and the training staff that he felt good and wanted to stay in rhythm.

To the naked eye, he looks healthy. There haven’t been as many explosive cuts to the basket or high flying dunks, but he’s generating elevation on his jumper, creating space off-ball, and moving reasonably well defensively. He’s probably not all the way back just yet, but he seems far closer than Murray at this stage.

In the first 20 games, if he could play at least 15 to 18 of those while staying locked in on both ends, there’s no reason he can’t average around 20 points and seven rebounds per game while shooting around 45% from three-point range. Those numbers are borderline All-Star caliber if he could maintain them throughout the year. More important than the stats though is how he reads the court, flows from action to action, and stays locked into what the Nuggets are asking him to do. If he can stay locked in, good things are on the horizon for everybody involved.

This is an interesting one because I initially read it as if some of the top level guys are out rather than all of them.

If it were just some, let’s just say Murray and Porter, then I like the idea of running Bones, Denver’s three top defenders in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Aaron Gordon, and Jokić together. Denver can play a similar two-man game with Jokić and Bones to what they play with Jokić and Murray. The insulation that duo will get defensively too is also top notch.

If Denver happens to miss all four of Jokić, Murray, Porter, and Gordon though, then the funky lineups will definitely come out. One I know Malone would be curious to play features Bones, Brown, Caldwell-Pope, Christian Braun, and Zeke Nnaji. It’s a fast paced group with switchable wings that would be undersized but still be pretty good defensively in many cases. Perhaps it’s not the best lineup to play against bigger teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves. Against the Portland Trail Blazers or another team with small guards and few scoring wings though, why not give it a shot?

Another variation of would be Bones, Brown, KCP, Jeff Green, and Nnaji to go against slightly bigger teams.

This is a fascinating Rorschach test for NBA fandom: who’s the more impactful player between Bruce Brown and Bones Hyland? The Utah Jazz faced this same question when both Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson had serious cases for the Sixth Man of the Year award during the 2020-21 season. Clarkson won because yay people love points, but Ingles was the better player that year and deserved more consideration.

Brown is going to be invaluable for the Nuggets this year. He’s going to be a fire extinguisher for the defense in a lot of ways. He has versatility to match up with a variety of players and did an excellent job in the preseason against both Devin Booker and Stephen Curry. Offensively, he’s going to be part of some of Denver’s best groups because of his cutting, transition play, and improved outside jumper.

Bones is also going to be invaluable for the Nuggets, just in a different way. The Nuggets have three strong scorers in the starting unit but only one scorer on the second unit that can carry a high usage. Unless Ish Smith is playing next to him, Bones will also be the only true facilitator on the floor in many bench lineups. Bench offense will often come down to whether Bones can do his thing. That’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also something Bones has proven he can do.

Bones’ responsibilities will be different from Brown’s, but they will each have moments throughout the game when Malone will say in his internal monologue “I need that guy on the floor right now.” Malone will probably think that more frequently about Brown, but with Murray limited to begin the season, Bones will get plenty of opportunities to impact the game himself.

The short answer is yes. Backup center isn’t an essential position in most rotations. When Jokić needs to be on the floor for the team, he will likely be out there for around 35 minutes a night. That means the backup spot will only be out there for 13 minutes. Denver can accomplish that by committee.

It is interesting that Denver will likely enter the season without a clear winner of the backup center job. Malone noted that he believes both DeAndre Jordan and Zeke Nnaji are capable of playing the position and will be used in different matchups. Jordan will likely match up against bigger centers, while Nnaji will likely match up against quicker centers and fast paced teams in general. If the Nuggets tailor those matchups to the correct center on the correct night, they should theoretically be okay.

In the end though, Denver may not play either guy in the playoffs. Small ball lineups featuring a combination of Porter, Gordon, and Jeff Green should also give Denver matchup options they need against most other teams that go small. Jokić will play his 35+ minutes. The other 13 or so minutes will likely be matchup based, rather than Denver building their lineups around one guy or the other.

I would have liked to see Christian Braun get some run with Jokić. It can be a challenge for new players (especially young players) to play minutes with Jokić at first because he’s so drastically different than any center. Braun is no exception. Though he’s a rookie, he’s a guy the Nuggets drafted with the intention of playing sooner than later.

Braun showed some stuff on both ends of the floor that I liked. His defense is incredibly disciplined already, his transition game is aggressive, and he started hitting some outside shots. He’s the type of player that makes sense next to Jokić, and there’s no doubt that Jokić could use Braun in a Torrey Craig-esque role as soon as this season. That will likely be a slower transition in the regular season as a result.

Bruce Brown truly is an excellent fit. His defense is exactly what most teams need on the floor in important moments. His versatility and IQ allow him to cover different assignments and stay connected to whoever he’s guarding. He’s also a great hustler, which often makes up for him only being 6’4″ when guarding taller players.

Unfortunately (or fortunately given Denver’s strong roster) there just isn’t a starting spot available to him at the moment. Jokić, Murray, and Porter will be starters in Denver from now on as long as they’re healthy. Gordon is also a perfect fit with that unit himself, taking on tougher big wing assignments that Porter may struggle with and doing some of the dirty work on the interior. He’s essential to what the Nuggets do.

That leaves Caldwell-Pope. The Nuggets extended KCP this offseason after trading for him. They know how important having a 3&D role player is, and Caldwell-Pope does many of the connector things that Brown does while also being a more potent outside shooter.

Perhaps there are matchups where Brown makes more sense and thus will play more. Perhaps the Nuggets will go smaller and insert Brown for either Porter or Gordon at times. Maybe Murray needs some extra recovery time, allowing Brown to see the floor at point guard instead. In all of those instances though, in-game rotations would suffice, rather than just starting Brown. Breaking up Denver’s planned starting five likely isn’t necessary. It’s going to be extremely potent in its own right.

Malone discussed the possibility of staggering starters with the bench following Sunday’s practice. He definitely isn’t against it and has staggered Murray and Porter both in past seasons. There wasn’t a great way for Denver to stagger last year without either Murray or Porter available. Now, they’re back (at least most nights) which means Malone will have more options at his disposal.

Initially though, as both guys come back and get adjusted to playing games regularly, I suspect Malone will try to play a 10-man rotation with a five-man bench unit. Depending on the combinations, it isn’t a bad idea either, especially so early in the year. Denver’s starters will mostly play together, at least for the first 10 or so games. The bench will mostly play together, and if it’s closer to a net neutral than a complete negative like it was early last season, then staggering may not be necessary. If Denver wins the starter minutes by six points and loses the bench minutes by four points, they still win the game.

Eventually though, I suspect both Murray and Porter will see individual time on the second unit. Each guy provides a different layer the Nuggets can use to prop up lineups without Jokić, and they will be needed more often than not.

I’ve thought about this for awhile and have settled on ninth in defensive rating.

My reasoning: they ranked 15th last year with a starting lineup that featured Monte Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, and Nikola Jokić. Simply adding back Murray, Caldwell-Pope, and Porter into the mix makes Denver’s offense and defense better. Add in Brown off the bench playing major minutes, and the lineups will simply be more talented defensively.

In addition, there’s more urgency this year. So much of defense is effort and focus. Denver couldn’t often tell left from right last year while missing so much offensive talent. They had to compensate for that and lost a lot of willpower for the other end of the floor. This year, they have refocused and should be more locked in consistently.

More importantly, there’s belief. The Nuggets are placing expectations on themselves this year. They’re shooting for top five defensively (at least that’s the early narrative). Even if they don’t make it there, they’re going to be closer than they were last year because they know they have to be. Championship teams defend. That’s the expectation. The Nuggets know that and should act accordingly.

Last year, the difference between ninth and 15th in defensive rating was 1.6 points per 100 possessions. The Nuggets can certainly make up that difference. They might be able to go higher than that as long as they stay focused.

https://twitter.com/theblucasthe/status/1581702293941932033?s=20&t=KCs63PqqJttPPJgqZt2H0Q

It’s so difficult to seriously evaluate Denver’s playoff resumé. Some of their matchups occurred when the team was so much younger and different. Some of the matchups occurred in the bubble. Some of the matchups occurred without Jamal Murray and/or Michael Porter Jr., meaning they could have been different outcomes if those players had played.

What we have is the data in front of us, and it says the Nuggets struggle with spread pick and roll against quick, shifty guards that can shoot. The examples are countless, and the teams with that exact setup are numerous. The Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns immediately jump to mind because they’re the two most recent teams Denver lost to that feature spread pick and roll. The Los Angeles Clippers aren’t like that. The Memphis Grizzlies are if Ja Morant hits his outside shots.

The East has one team that stands out above the others though: the Boston Celtics. With several bigs in Robert Williams, Al Horford, and Grant Williams that can match up with Jokić, they’re the one team in the NBA most equipped to give Denver’s offense some issues. They can also run spread pick and roll with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They might be the best team in the NBA after acquiring Malcolm Brogdon. If they can make it to the NBA Finals, the Celtics would be favored over the Nuggets in my opinion.

The honest ceiling is championship. That’s not me just giving the boilerplate message from the team. That’s real.

The process to hit that ceiling remains long and arduous, but certainly not impossible. Nuggets fans have seen Murray’s capabilities in a playoff environment. By the time the 2023 playoffs roll around, Murray will be a full two years removed from his ACL tear. If the Nuggets can ramp him up to playing like he’s capable of playing, he could be the best player in any playoff series. Just ask the Utah Jazz.

Porter’s injury rehab appears more simpler, at least if he stays available. The integration is a bit more challenging, but if the preseason is any indication, Porter’s willing to do what it takes to get there. He also has the talent to do crazy things, and the Nuggets need that variable in a playoff environment. He could take over and win a quarter, a half, or a game at any point.

Add in the newly minted perimeter defenders, Aaron Gordon doing glue guy things, Bones Hyland changing the bench tempo, and a whole host of veterans with playoff experience. The hunger to prove themselves. The anger of losing in embarrassing fashion in previous years. The desire to take advantage of a healthy moment. It’s all there.

If you believe in Nikola Jokić, then this is easy. The Nuggets have a championship ceiling, there’s no doubt about it.