Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate Denver nuggets Community!

Can the Nuggets’ second unit be this year’s version of the 2017-18 Raptors’ bench mob?

Harrison Wind Avatar
October 11, 2018

The Denver Nuggets were on the verge of one of their most impressive win of the 2017-18 season, leading the Toronto Raptors by eight points with only 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. A victory on the road over the mighty Raptors with just two weeks left in the regular season would have gone a long ways towards a postseason appearance. But just as Toronto did time and time again on its way to 59 wins last year, its bench mob eventually took over.

Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl bulldozed Denver’s second unit and then its starters, playing the entire fourth quarter while outscoring the Nuggets 32-25 over the game’s final 12 minutes for a 114-110 win.

While Toronto’s starting lineup featuring Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas was one of the best five-man units in the league last season, outscoring its opponent by an average of 9.4 points per 100 possessions, the Raptors’ bench was even better. Toronto’s second unit outscored its opponent by an average of 19.2 points per 100 possessions last year and more than held its own on the defensive end. Simply put, the Raptor’s bench scored more efficiently than the Warriors’ Hamptons 5 lineup and defended as well as the Celtics’ starters, who led Boston to the second-best defense in the league last year.

This preseason, the Nuggets’ bench unit is putting on their best Raptors’ impression.

Through four preseason games, Denver has looked like a different team with its bench on the floor. Denver’s starting lineup, which debuted in the Nuggets’ third preseason matchup against the Perth Wildcats, only outscored the Australian side by one point in 19 minutes of action. Tuesday night against the Clippers, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic were outscored 30-26 in 12 minutes.

Denver’s bench of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee outscored Perth by 14 points when it was on the floor, and the Nuggets’ second unit was mostly in the positives again versus the Clippers. Lyles (+4), Morris (+4), and Beasley (+3) led the Nuggets’ bench while Juancho Hernangomez scored 11 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and was a +6 in 22 second-half minutes. Denver’s second unit held the Clippers to under 50 percent shooting in the second quarter, and Los Angeles hit just 35 percent of its field goals in the third quarter, again against the Nuggets’ bench.

Through four preseason games, Denver’s bench has displayed the type of chemistry and synergy that was expected from the Nuggets’ starters.

“We have so many guys that are young, hungry, hardworking and ready for the opportunity,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

The Nuggets are running their second-team offense through Lyles, and for good reason. The 22-year-old has hit double-figures in all four of Denver’s preseason matchups. He’s also shooting over 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from three.

Lyles is scoring with ease, but he’s also displaying a playmaking ability that he didn’t showcase a year ago. Lyles has registered four or more assists on three separate occasions this preseason, equaling the number of times he reached that threshold across 73 games last year.

“The guy can do it all,” Malone said.

If a smaller guard switches onto Lyles, Denver quickly recalibrates its offense to get its 6-foot-10 forward the ball and lets him go to work. Lyles came into training camp in the best shape of his career and stronger than ever. So far, it’s shown.

If the defense brings help, Lyles has the vision to turn, face and find a cutting teammate.

A consistent and defined role in Denver’s rotation has Lyles’ confidence at an all-time high. He’s shown no hesitation in letting his jumper fly from anywhere on the floor, which sometimes wasn’t the case last season when his minutes weren’t guaranteed on a night-to-night basis.

Lyles’ frontcourt partner Plumlee looks more athletic following offseason surgery to repair a core muscle injury that he played through last season. The 7-footer has been a force at the rim so far this preseason, skying for lobs from Morris or Beasley like Randy Moss at the goal line. Plumlee is shooting 22-30 (73.3 percent) from the field through four preseason games. Eleven of his 22 field goals have been dunks.

Beasley looks like an improved shooter, having hit 12 of his 18 three-point attempts this preseason and is playing within himself, something Malone challenged him to do after last season. Beasley on the wing alongside Craig, a modern-day NBA garbage man comfortable in a low-usage three-and-D role, should be able to keep opposing bench scorers in check. Hernangomez, who looks like Denver’s 11th man, is an added bonus.

The entire Nuggets’ bench is playing winning basketball. Denver has outscored its opponent by 53 points with Beasley on the floor, by 52 with Lyles and by 43 with Plumlee so far this preseason. Hernangomez is a plus-41 in 76 minutes. Denver’s only bench player who’s in the negatives is Craig, who started two of the Nuggets’ four games so far in place of Harris.

Even after losing backup point guard Devin Harris this summer and moving Barton from a sixth-man role into the starting lineup, the Nuggets have confidence in their second unit.

“Our depth is still among the best in the league,” president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said.

The glue to the Nuggets’ bench is Morris, who’s a plus-46 in 102 preseason minutes. The second-year point guard commands Denver’s second unit with the moxie of a 15-year veteran. Morris only logged 25 minutes last season for the Nuggets but looks ready to assume a 15-20 minute roll off the bench as Denver’s backup point guard. In four preseason games, Morris has handed out 23 assists to just seven turnovers.

Throughout the summer, Morris and the Nuggets’ second unit have developed a strong chemistry. The Iowa State product expertly uses angles in the pick-and-roll to lead Lyles into wide-open threes and set Plumlee up for alley-oops. 

He’s also enough of a threat on offense to keep his defender honest.

Ironically, the Nuggets told Morris over the summer that they wanted him to be their version of VanVleet this year. Following team orders, the stringy 175-pound point guard is picking up full court on defense, getting up into opposing guards and doing everything in his power to make the opponent uncomfortable. Denver is hoping Morris can change the momentum and flow of the game when he’s subbed in, just like VanVleet did for Toronto last year. 

If the rest of the Nuggets’ bench mob can replicate the Raptors’ second unit from a year ago, Denver will boast a rotation that’s 10-deep and arguably one of the league’s best from top to bottom. 

The Nuggets’ starting lineup was the most efficient five-man unit in basketball last season that played at least 50 minutes. That group was expected to carry Denver throughout the regular season and to the franchise’s first playoff berth in six years but has started the preseason slow.

The Nuggets’ starters should be fine. Denver’s read-and-react offense is too unpredictable for defenses to effectively scheme for over an 82-game regular season. In the 414 minutes Jokic, Harris, Murray and Paul Millsap logged together last season the Nuggets allowed 102.5 points per 100 possessions. That mark was the equivalent of a top-five defense.

If Denver’s bench maintains this level of play throughout the season, the Nuggets won’t be staring at one of the Western Conference’s final playoff spots come April.

They’ll be jockeying for homecourt advantage in the first round.


Share your thoughts

Join the conversation

The Comment section is only for diehard members

Open comments +

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?