The Whiteboard: The Nuggets bench might be better than ever

The Denver Nuggets have looked like a juggernaut and their young bench is stepping up in a huge way.

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets
Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets / Justin Tafoya/GettyImages

No team has looked as dominant as the Denver Nuggets over the first week of the season. They've already grabbed wins over three WWestern Conference playoff contenders — the Lakers, Thunder and Grizzlies — outscoring opponents by an average of 17.8 points per 100 possessions.

Nikola Jokic picked up right where he left off from last season, Jamal Murray has been lights-out, the rest of the starters are defending and hitting open shots and, somewhat surprisingly, the Nuggets' rebuild bench has been a huge asset.

The Nuggets bench has been a point of strength

The Nuggets re-signed Reggie Jackson this summer but were otherwise counting on development from second-year wings Christian Braun and Peyton Watson, and lightly used, fourth-year big man Zeke Nnaji to fill the gaps left by Bruce Brown, Ish Smith, Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan.

Across their first three games, the Nuggets have had Watson, Braun, Jackson and Zeke Nnaji on the floor together for 26 minutes. They've outscored opponents by nine points in those 26 minutes, a rate of plus-19.6 points per 100 possessions.

The most frequent fifth-wheel with this group has been Jamal Murray (for 21 of the 26 minutes) giving a chance for Murray to feature as a primary offensive fulcrum without Jokic and an offensive safety net for these three raw young players and one past-prime veteran.

Braun's jumper is still a work in progress but Jackson and Murray are both established outside threats. Watson was a terrible outside shooter in his lone season at UCLA but seems to be trending towards reliability — he started the season 4-of-9 from beyond the arc after hitting 6-of-14 in limited minutes last year and 14-of-39 (35.9 percent) across the preseason.

That gives the Nuggets a lineup with a bouncy vertical spacer in the dunker spot, Nnaji, along with multiple shooters to keep the floor spaced, each of whom is comfortable working on the ball as a complementary creator. You could see all parts of this multi-pronged threat on this position in the fourth quarter against the Thunder.

A Murray-Nnaji pick-and-roll results in Murray turning the corner and getting right into the center of the floor. The threat of Braun driving draws a firm closeout plus a hard rotation from Chet Holmgren. Braun takes one dribble to draw his man away from Watson, who receives the ball and cleanly blows past the off-balance closeout from Holmgren for the dunk.

This fairly simple pick-and-roll and confident sequence of ball-movement afterward requires Holmgen, the lone rim protector for the Thunder to basically go from one side of the court to the other, flipping his attention between three different offensive players.

Murray ended up making three elbow jumpers during this stint, and you can see already how well he understands the way the defense is responding to the threats around him. The weakside defenders are going to stay glued to Nnaji on the baseline and Jackson in the corner. Watson cuts through from the strongside wing drawing his defender through. Braun, in the strongside corner, is initially getting a lot of space, but that defender also has to contend with the possibility of a Braun back cut and Murray freezes him before rising up.

This group has also made things easy on itself with a ton of open court opportunities. They've racked up six steals and 10 blocks in their 26 minutes, scoring 14 points off of turnovers and using their length and athletic advantages to create easy scoring opportunities before the defense is set.

We're still looking at a very small sample size but the structural elements are there for a very good two-way lineup and with budding chemistry. It's an opportunity for Murray to shine but he certainly doesn't have to all the time, simply putting his gravity and playmaking into this group is enough to scaffold things for everyone else.

And even if this group is overperforming so far, the Nuggets don't necessarily need them to be this good. A lineup with four bench players hammering opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions is incredible but even if they're merely outscoring opponents by a more modest single-digit margin it's an unbelievable asset for Denver, one that lightens the load on the starters and helps keep them near the top of the Western Conference during the regular season without needing to keep the gas pedal mashed to the floor.

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