Silver Lining: The absence of Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. discovered answers in Zeke Nnaji and Bones Hyland

Nov 10, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Zeke Nnaji (22) reacts after making a basket as guard Austin Rivers (25) and forward Aaron Gordon (50) run up court in the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There’s plenty of basketball to be played between now and April. Anything can happen en route to the NBA playoffs. Just one week ago, it felt as if the Denver Nuggets had some serious issues to resolve if they were to become a serious contender by spring.

Michael Porter Jr. couldn’t shoot. The Nuggets bench couldn’t do much of anything. And if Michael Malone wanted any chance of winning, Nikola Jokic would likely have more mileage than an Uber driver’s Toyota Prius by playoff time.

But in one week, because of an injury and a suspension, the Nuggets may have begun to solve some problems. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

There’s no denying that fully healthy, fully functioning Michael Porter Jr. is ideal for the Nuggets – now or in the future. Despite his horrific start to the season, there’s a reason Tim Connelly decided to pull the trigger on giving Porter Jr. a max contract heading into the season. Getting MPJ back healthy, both physically and mentally, is “best case scenario” – let’s get that out of the way.

In the meantime, however, his absence following a bizarre, blown-layup back injury last Saturday agasint the Rockets forced Malone to get creative. Obviously, Will Barton was more than willing and capable of picking up some of the scoring load. In fact, he’s needed to do this all along this season, as Porter Jr. generally hasn’t been able to throw it in the ocean from a peer – but in his absence, the role of Denver’s No. 2 scorer is Barton’s and Barton’s alone. In the three games without Porter Jr. (including the Houston game in which he departed just with just seven minutes played), Barton has averaged 23.3 points. In the last two – without MPJ at all – he’s poured in 25 and 30 respectively. But to some degree, we knew Barton was capable and willing to step up.

The emergence of Bones Hyland, and to a lesser degree, P.J. Dozier, however could prove to be more than beneficial as the Nuggets continue to evolve during Jamal Murray’s recovery. With Barton playing big minutes as the Nuggets scorer, it appears as if most of Porter Jr.’s minutes are going to Hyland and Dozier. While neither player’s stats jump off the boxscore, both are contributing in ways that have helped the Nuggets to three straight wins. Dozier provides great size defensively, while proving capable of scoring if and when called upon. Hyland has plenty of room to grow, but the energy he brings to the floor can’t be overstated. Hyland plays respectable defense, pushes the pace and creates in traffic. His mistakes are honest ones and, in theory, should be viewed as valuable lessons once March rolls around.

Add the fact that both players are long, and can add size to an otherwise small lineup south of Nikola Jokic, there’s also been a noticable drop in minutes for Facu Compazzo. While everyone can appreciate the gritty, hustling nature of Campazzo, his decreased role looks to be somewhat of an addition by subtraction situation. Campazzo certainly plays a role; it could be, however, that the smaller that role is in terms of minutes, the better off the Nuggets might be.

The other, somewhat subtle, benefit of Porter Jr.’s absence has been a “deconstruction” of Malone’s traditional substitution patterns. When healthy, the Nuggets had fallen into a robotic, “five-for-five” type of rotation, one that saw five starters start, then five bench players inserted, then back to the starters, and back again. It had become a predictable pattern that felt like an “all or none” approach. Since Porter Jr.’s injury, however, Malone has been forced to experiment, a mix-and match approach that finds starters and reserves sharing the floor. As such, the dropoff from starters to bench has felt less significant.

All of this, of course, if fine and well assuming Nikola Jokic is playing. No team can afford to lose a reigning MVP, so when a suspension loomed large following Jokic’s (justified) shove to the back of Markieff Morris, Nuggets Nation held its collective breath. When the news arrived that the Joker’s stint in timeout would only be a single game, there was a sigh of relief, but still, one game without the Joker? What, pray tell, would the smaller than small Nuggets do?

Zeke Nnaji. That’s what.

In just one game against the Pacers, Nnaji showed that he belonged. Logging 20 minutes off the bench, Nnaji scored 19 points on 7-10 shooting and swiped five rebounds. Perhaps more importantly, the 6-foot-9 second-year Nugget proved to be a physical presence in Denver’s defensive interior. In just one game, Malone may have come up with at least one answer as to how to better pace Jokic, whose minutes would have inevitably become taxing late in the season. Nnaji is a completely different type of player, but what he brings to the lineup should allow Jokic to find more opportunities to rest. Prior to the Joker’s suspension, Nnaji had only found his way into three games, logging a total of just 12 combined minutes. Expect that number to spike as there’s no doubt he’s more than capable of eating up valuable minutes coming off the Nuggets bench.

An injury and a one-game suspension. Perhaps that was just what the doctor ordered for Michael Malone and the Denver Nuggets. Presumable a negative, the absence of Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic just turned into a positive. As is so often the case, there’s a silver lining behind every dark cloud.

Tonight, against the Atlanta Hawks, the Nuggets look to win their fourth in a row – with a new set of solutions.

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