A professional sports club striving for a championship repeat cannot simply “run it back.” Standing pat between seasons is almost hard anymore, given free agency and usual roster turnover. Astute front office management is always preparing for many scenarios.
When the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets embarked on their quest to repeat, they knew they’d have to make roster adjustments, particularly those involving crucial reserve players. They were depending on young and inexperienced players to replace important veterans and hoped for a low drop-off.
That has not occurred as of yet.
The Nuggets bench is still failing to score, which means very few leads are secure, even when the anointed “best starting five in basketball” gives the backups a sizable lead before taking a collective breather. This has been such a lingering problem that Nuggets coach Michael Malone has forced to stagger his units, leaving players like Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon on the court while star Nikola Jokic is given an all-too-brief rest break.
Let’s face it: The Nuggets won’t “run it back” until they find a scorer to enter games halfway between the first and third quarters, enabling them to maintain any momentum. A large trade? Not likely. Given their salary cap predicament, they won’t be able to make any significant moves before the impending deadline. The answer to the bench issues must come from inside.
So, why not convert scoring option No. 3 among starters to scoring option No. 1 off the bench?
After being forced to mix and match his lineups, Malone should take a big step: insert youthful Peyton Watson into the starting lineup and bring Michael Porter Jr. off the bench.
It would work.
Begin with this: The Nuggets starters often seem bored on the defensive end early in games, converting games they should dominate into second-half struggles. Better defense early on would result in fewer tense situations down the stretch.
Watson has shown the ability to play decent to occasionally excellent defense, which the starting lineup requires. However, expecting the youthful, second-year forward to be a constant scoring threat without Joker on the floor is unrealistic at this moment. Instead, Watson may be the person who gets the starting unit to worry about defense sooner on most nights, but he could also play a supporting role on offense.
Meanwhile, MPJ would be able to do his thing (hopefully with more consistency) against the opposing bench players, allowing Denver to retain momentum and double-digit leads that are evaporating when Joker isn’t on the court.
Reggie Jackson, DeAndre Jordan, and Michael Porter Jr. would make for a formidable bench.
Other great championship teams haven’t been hesitant to start a role player and pull one of their proven scorers off the bench. Kurt Rambis previously started games for some of the greatest Los Angeles Lakers teams of all time in the 1980s. Rambis began, while defensive veteran Micheal Cooper (eight times named to the NBA All-Defensive Team) came off the bench.
The 1983 Philadelphia 76ers’ starting frontcourt included future Hall of Famers Moses Malone, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and Marc Iavaroni. They summoned Bobby Jones, a future Hall of Famer, off the bench. Philadelphia won 65 games, swept the Lakers, and captured the NBA championship.
The trick, of course, is to encourage everyone, particularly MPJ, to accept this kind of structure and continue to prioritize the requirements of the team. Fortunately, one of Malone’s biggest assets has been maintaining his team’s “team-first” approach.
This kind of shakeup may be exactly what the Nuggets need to get going.