Analyzing the Denver Nuggets’ recent second-unit success
When discussing the Denver Nuggets in recent seasons, one of the first aspects of the team that would be brought up is the team’s depth. Through impressive drafting and key additions through free agency or trades, Denver has enjoyed quality depth at nearly every position for several years now.
Heading into the 2020-21 campaign, the Nuggets’ rotation was more of a question mark as a result of several departures in the offseason and the addition of seven new faces. Early in the season, the Nuggets’ second unit struggled to maintain leads or make comebacks if the starters fell in an early hole.
However, the return of JaMychal Green four games into the season coupled with the recent return of Michael Porter Jr. in a backup role has allowed head coach Michael Malone to find a five-man group that works on the second unit.
This group includes Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris, PJ Dozier, Porter Jr., and Green, and although it is a very small sample size, this lineup has dominated recently.
In Monday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks, Denver’s bench outscored its starters 63-54 and got it done on both ends of the floor, which followed the recent trend that has been established ever since Porter Jr.’s return at the start of this road trip in Phoenix.
This new second unit owns a staggering +27.4 net-rating so far, highlighted by dominance on both ends. Denver’s new-look bench lineup has posted a 129.4 offensive rating and 102 defensive rating, both of which would lead the league if translated over the course of a season.
Again, this is a very small sample size of just 51 non-garbage time possessions, but a closer look at the skill sets included in this lineup paints the picture of its recent success.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect behind this new second unit is that it allows Denver to take advantage of and make the most out of a guard-heavy roster. This new bench lineup plays three guards at one time, with Dozier being the closest to a wing player (on the defensive end) in this group.
Campazzo brings elite playmaking and flair to each offensive possession, but he has also competed well on the defensive end this season. While on/off numbers can be tricky at times, it should be noted Denver’s defense has been 11.4 points per 100 possessions better when the Argentinian guard has been on the floor.
Another key in this lineup’s success has been the connection that Campazzo has developed with Green. This is most clearly seen when the two run pick-and-roll (or most often, pick-and-pop), as Campazzo has a wide variety of passes and Green can torment slower bigs with his ability to hit from deep.
Morris is as steady as they come. Denver’s primary backup ball-handler has 55 assists to just 10 turnovers on the season. His offensive game has also continued to grow and improve. The 25-year-old is attempting a career-high 3.4 3-pointers per game while maintaining above-average efficiency on those shots (36.2 percent).
However, it’s Morris’ finishing around the rim (a staggering 84.4 percent from within three feet of the hoop) that has really impressed. Given his ability to run the offense without many mistakes and play off-ball alongside Campazzo as a result of his above-average 3-point shooting, Morris has continued to lead Denver’s second unit success. It’s no surprise to see Morris leading the entire team in net rating at +16.2 on the season.
Dozier exited Monday’s game with a right hamstring injury, which could stagnate the great strides he has made this season. Thrust into a primary bench role this season, the 24-year-old has responded with career-best shooting from deep while developing as a jack-of-all-trades player in Denver’s second unit.
Dozier has connected on 40.5 percent from beyond the arc, where he is taking a career-high 2.2 attempts per game. The 6’6” guard has also finished well around the basket and been a stabilizing force on the defensive end. Denver’s defense has been 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with the South Carolina native on the court this season.
Porter Jr.’s role in this new second unit is perhaps the most compelling. A starter to begin the season, Porter Jr. returned to the team in a backup role following an absence due to the league’s health and safety protocols. In the three games since his return, the 22-year-old has averaged 17 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in 27.3 minutes per contest while shooting a lights out 55.6 percent from deep.
"My whole mindset since I started playing [again] is to just contribute in any way I can," Porter Jr. said following Monday’s win. "I just wanted to come in and give a spark off the bench. Now, me and those guys have really developed chemistry.
There is an easy argument to be made that Porter Jr. is Denver’s best shooter, while he’s also up there with Jamal Murray as the team’s best tough shot maker, which is a needed skill set in this second unit. With Morris and Campazzo running the offense, there are plenty of hands to set up Porter Jr. for easy buckets.
Porter Jr.’s size and impact on the defensive glass is also key in this group, as it allows Malone to play Green at center and not worry about sacrificing on the defensive glass. In fact, this new second unit has dominated on the defensive boards recently, mainly a result of both Porter Jr. and Green being making positive impacts in that area.
Finally, Green has thrived as a small-ball center this season, where his ability to space the floor and hit from deep can present real challenges for slower backup centers. Lineups with Green at center this season have posted a +5.9 net-rating, as he is a positive defensive rebounder who has had an explosive start to the season from beyond the arc.
Green is fourth on the team in net rating this season at +9.6, and he and Morris are the only two players on the team to have a positive impact on both ends of the floor so far this season. Green knows his role, competes on the glass and on the defensive end, and has connected on 46.7 percent of his 4.6 attempts per game from deep (both of which are career-highs).
"I just love the energy he plays with," Porter Jr. recently said of Green. "He can shoot it, I can shoot it. We're pretty much interchangeable on the court...He's way better than I thought he was and I'm really excited to have him on the team."
Given how the modern NBA continues to prioritize smaller lineups in order to include additional playmaking and versatility on the floor, Green profiles as a great option for Malone and the Nuggets as the primary backup center.
What’s the next move?
The natural follow-up question to all this is how much longer will this group continue to run together?
As mentioned earlier, Porter Jr. began the season as a starter before his extended absence. In his place, Will Barton III has provided sparks (such as his 17-point performance in the first road win in Phoenix) but hasn’t been able to sustain consistent play as of late.
And yet, the starters with Barton III have posted a better net-rating (+4.0) than that same starting group with Porter Jr. (-7.7). Again, these are small sample sizes we’re dealing with, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
The right play might be to start Porter Jr. but sub him off early in order to both allow Barton III to get run with the starters and for Porter Jr. to play alongside Campazzo, Morris, Dozier, and Green. There could be concerns about the amount of size in a second unit that includes Barton III instead of Porter Jr., which could lead to Isaiah Hartenstein re-entering the rotation and sliding Green back to the four spot.
“Everybody gets caught up who starts,” Malone said Monday. “It’s such a big thing. For everybody. I don’t really understand it. If you have a chance to close the game, that’s more important than hearing your name before a game in an arena with no fans.”
In that sense, it might be more of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” with Denver’s recent success. The starting lineup with Barton III has been a positive group so far this season, while as discussed in length throughout this article, the new-look bench group has been a key spark in a 3-0 start to Denver’s longest road trip of the season.
It’s safe to say that for a Nuggets team that started 1-4, these are good problems to have.