Last year, Nikola Jokić played a total of 2,476 minutes en route to his second consecutive MVP title. In each of the last five seasons, Jokić has exceeded 2,300 regular season minutes. No other NBA player has achieved this feat. Jokić has now played 17,847 minutes in his career and seen just about everything he needs to be ready for a championship run.
The same cannot be said for several Denver bench players.
In the past two seasons combined, Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji, Denver’s two youngest rotational players, have played 2,405 minutes. Davon Reed played 957 total minutes in the NBA during his career despite already having 27. Vlatko Čančar himself only played 502 minutes. Christian Braun and Peyton Watson haven’t even bounced a basketball at the NBA level yet.
Denver’s bench is a mix of young, inexperienced but talented players as well as some veterans who had marquee years but outgrew their best. Jeff Green, Ish Smith and DeAndre Jordan will all be at least 34 at the start of the season. It’s also possible (although unlikely) that all three players will start the season outside of Michael Malone’s regular season rotation.
There just aren’t a ton of certified options off the Denver bench that the Nuggets can trust.
Apart from Bruce Brown, of course.
Before the Nuggets signed Brown on Friday morning, Denver’s offseason at this point looked extremely fragile. Two trades of three rotational players yielded only one in return: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Draft Braun and Watson, although they can both become well, he is unlikely to move the needle to compete this season.
Then free agency began and the Nuggets signed Jordan, closing the door on a possible DeMarcus Cousins reunion. Combine that with the losses of Facu Campazzo, Bryn Forbes and especially Austin Rivers, and the Nuggets were definitely losing more talent than they were bringing in.
When Brown signed, the gears started to fall into place on what the Nuggets expect next season. At 25 and playing more than 6,700 minutes between the regular season and the playoffs, Brown is about to enter his prime. Michael Malone is going to play him a lot of minutes, maybe borderline starting minutes if he can manage them throughout the year.
The Nuggets needed reliability, and they found a unique candidate in Brown willing to take less money to effectively serve as Denver’s sixth man. Whenever Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr. or Aaron Gordon are scheduled to sit out games in the upcoming season, Brown will effectively replace all three. His combination of size (even at 6’4″ he has a 6’9″ wingspan), strength, athleticism, and versatility will make him malleable in any situation. His experience with the Brooklyn Nets made him an excellent candidate to connect the stars of Denver in unique ways as a cutter, playmaker, defender and surprising scorer.
The same utility will be applied to Brown’s bench passages. While one of Jokić, Porter or Jamal Murray will likely falter with second unit most nights, Brown will still have a very important role in tying the bench. Bones will most likely have the highest usage rate (he was at 23.9% USG for the 2021-22 season as a rookie) because that’s what his role is supposed to entail. Brown may be second in the pecking order. Denver’s other bench options at the moment are Davon Reed (12.1 USG%), Jeff Green (16.3 USG%) and Zeke Nnaji (14.9 USG%). That’s not a lot of volume notation.
If all these utilization rates were added together, they would equal 67.2%. That leaves 32.8% for the fifth player. Brown’s career utilization rate of 14.7% doesn’t even come close to half that remaining number. So the Nuggets bench will need some players to step up offensively and help Bones Hyland take on the offensive load.
There may be an opportunity for Bones to grow even more in these situations. Perhaps Brown is making a substantial leap as a goalscorer (or at least his role is increasing significantly). Maybe the Nuggets can unlock a little Nnaji as an option on pick and pops as well as pick and rolls. The most likely solution is of course to spread out the stars.
Regardless of how the score is handled, the Nuggets are going to need Bruce Brown to be a big factor as a defender. Playing alongside Bones, the now second-year player will need some isolation against top offensive backcourts. Teams like the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies will have plenty of guards to defend for Brown. It’s easy to see Brown defending Chris Paul or Devin Booker in the second unit, while he can also run around Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Ja Morant or Desmond Bane in a bid to round up some of the most dynamic goalscorers in the game. ‘West. .
Michael Malone also spoke about wanting to be more aggressive as a switch defense when Nikola Jokić sits. Brown and Nnaji are likely the mainstays of such a system, as Brown will be the main defender for the ball and Nnaji will be the main defender for the big man. Both have the ability to switch against most units, and it will be up to these guys to contain on the perimeter and fight on the inside accordingly. It’s unclear if the Nuggets can handle such a pattern, but it’s clear Brown will be a catalyst for whatever direction they choose.
If the Nuggets hadn’t signed Brown when they did, the bench would be in for a world of trouble. It’s possible that Denver had some unlikely contributions from expected spots, but for a team with legitimate championship aspirations, it’s best to trust the known merchandise. Brown is exactly that.
While Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji are the two players who can tell if Denver’s bench will be any good in 2022-23, it will be Brown who anchors the unit. If he continues to show what he showed in Brooklyn, Brown will be a mainstay in Denver’s playoff rotation for the 2022-23 season and hopefully long after.