The Denver Nuggets’ bench unit has evolved.
No longer are Denver’s reserves entering games and rapidly blowing leads. They are now the reason why the Nuggets’ winning ways have returned.
Well, in addition to Nikola Jokic playing like the best basketball player in the known universe.
In Denver’s last 10 games, the Nuggets’ reserves are averaging 42.8 points per game. That ranks as the fourth-best scoring output of any bench unit over that span.
It certainly hasn’t been lost on NBA bettors in Colorado.
The biggest reason for the reserves’ growth and improved impact comes down to a few key aspects.
Jokic’s all-world play sets tone
First, let’s just take a second to admire the divine play of Jokic.
The reigning MVP is averaging a completely absurd 25.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game — all of which are in the top 10 of individual players across the NBA.
Oh, and he is doing so while shooting a blistering 57.1% from the floor. And that’s despite playing without Denver’s second and third best players in Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray.
There is simply no answer right now for Jokic, who has led the Nuggets to a 9-1 record in their last 10 games and a 39-26 mark overall.
Colorado online sportsbooks have taken notice.
Jokic has reached a level of inevitability that is truly miraculous.
So few players will ever have the control of any given game the way the Serbian big man does.
He has been taken an additional step forward as a scorer. He no longer has the games where he refuses to shoot the ball or take control of his team.
Seemingly every night he has another triple-double or a 30-plus point outing.
In the last 48 hours, Jokic has done both.
He has put up back-to-back 30-point triple-doubles while shooting over 70% from the field against the New Orleans Pelicans (46 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists on 16-of-22 shooting) and Golden State Warriors (32 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists on 12-of-17 shooting).
Bench no longer a liability
When Jokic is on the court, Denver has the best offensive rating and fourth-best defensive rating in the league.
But when Jokic leaves for a needed rest, that is when things have tended to go awry.
However, that is no longer the case.
In Denver’s last 10 games, its bench unit has been fantastic.
Without Jokic on the floor during that span, the Nuggets have had a +11.8 net rating which is nearly 20 points better than their -7.5 net rating without Jokic on the floor over the course of the whole season.
It is rare that the Nuggets lose in the minutes Jokic plays. So when they also get the bench outscoring the opposition, winning streaks begin to take shape.
Denver is 9-1 in its last 10 games and looking like it is finding a rhythm at the ideal time.
So what has allowed the bench to thrive?
The first reason is the addition of big man DeMarcus Cousins, who has allowed everyone off the bench to fall into their correct positions.
No longer is JaMychal Green being asked to play as a small-ball center. Green has slid back into his natural power forward role and much success that immediately followed.
A well-blended, versatile reserve unit
That front line of Cousins and Green has given Denver the flexibility to play Bones Hyland and Bryn Forbes together with Austin Rivers filling in on the wing.
While once undersized and lacking creators, the Nuggets’ bench now has Cousins and Hyland creating shots along with two strong finishers in Forbes and Green. A do-it-all wing in Rivers blends the unit together.
That group has significantly more versatility on both ends of the floor, and more gravity going towards the rim with Boogie rolling and Green in the dunker’s spot.
It also has the ability to contain the opposing offense enough to come out on top.
Even if Denver suffers more bad injury luck — as it did in the last two games when they lost starter Will Barton to an ankle issue and Hyland to right knee soreness — the Nuggets still have the players to stay afloat now that Cousins is in the fold.
Denver started Rivers for the injured Barton on Monday night, and Davon Reed stepped up in his bench place to the tune of 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
If guard Facu Campazzo is unable to help the Nuggets, they still have flame throwing Markus Howard to stretch the floor.
Oh, and this is all without mentioning Zeke Nnaji.
If Denver continues to get inspired play from its bench, it has the means to win a lot of games. And that’s regardless of when Murray or Porter return.
So much of it comes back to Cousins allowing the Nuggets bench players to slide back into their natural positions.
Deciding on who to cut from the rotation if one or both of Murray or Porter return won’t be easy.
But that is a very good problem to have.
The Nuggets are deep when they are not banged up.
And having so many players ready to fill in if needed will be very helpful when Denver (hopefully) is healthy and the playoffs roll around.