Reinforcements are finally arriving for the Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets have had four starters miss time over the past few weeks and all four have returned to action. In addition, a couple of key reserves have been activated as well making Denver a significantly more dangerous team when entering a very home-heavy stretch of the season.
Aaron Gordon played through left hamstring soreness as well as a non-COVID illness, but still ultimately missed three games. Now, he is now back and playing great basketball. While his three-point shooting has fallen off a cliff — he is shooting just 18.2% from beyond the arc since returning to action — his production around the rim is elite. Gordon is shooting 19-25 within the restricted circle since returning which makes up just under 60% of his total attempted shots. Even without his outside shooting being even remotely threatening, he is putting pressure on opposing defenses which is taking pressure off of Nikola Jokic, collapsing defenses, and opening up better looks from three-point range.
Nuggets look to avoid being too predictable
When discussing putting pressure on the rim, Jeff Green has to be mentioned; especially after his multiple-poster-dunk game against the Sacramento Kings despite missing the prior three games while being in health and safety protocols. Green finished with 18 points on 7-9 shooting against the Kings. Having Green back in the lineup allows the Nuggets to shore up their questionable rebounding while giving them the flexibility to play small or big. His inclusion in the lineup is paramount to keep the Nuggets from being too predictable.
Monte Morris found himself stuck in the health and safety protocols like so many other players and ended up missing three games which dramatically hurt the Nuggets betting odds of winning. They were already without Bones Hyland, Markus Howard, Jamal Murray and P.J. Dozier so when Morris was ruled out, Denver was simply out of guards other than Will Barton III, but more on him later. With the backcourt so thin, the loss of Morris was felt for all 48 minutes of each of those three games.
Campazzo Denver’s stabilizer at point guard
Facu Campazzo did an admirable job of stepping into the starting point guard role, but the Nuggets still suffered. Off the bench, Denver was relying on Davon Reed and the now-injured Vlatko Cancar to soak up minutes playing on the perimeter while one of the starting guards would be staggered with the bench to provide a lift. With Morris back, Campazzo can slide back with the bench unit to give Denver a stabilizer at point guard no matter if the starters or bench is on the court. With Morris back, the Nuggets roster makes significantly more sense.
Barton also missed games earlier in December due to a non-COVID illness that hit him hard and it seems he is still feeling the ramifications of that illness. After his two missed games, Barton returned on December 15th, but since that time, his scoring and shooting efficiency has fallen across the board. In Denver’s last 10 games, Barton is scoring just 12.3 points per game on a putrid 36.9% from the field and 28.3% from three-point range. He is still giving Denver the secondary playmaking they need, but with Murray and Porter out, Denver is relying on Barton to carry a heavier scoring burden than expected. Ever since his illness, Barton has fallen short of that expectation, but with so many other starters also returning, Barton may be less burdened than he has been over the last couple weeks allowing his game to blossom once again.
Nuggets starting lineup finally back together
Now that all of Barton, Green, Gordon, and Morris are activated, the Nuggets starting lineup for the foreseeable future is all back together, but the good news for fans betting on the NBA does not end there. Denver is also getting two key reserves back as well.
After missing seven of Denver’s last 18 games due to an ankle sprain as well as time in health and safety protocols, Bones Hyland is finally back producing off the bench that needs him so badly. It may seem problematic to rely so heavily on a rookie lead guard, but his combination of three-point shooting range, ball-handling ability, and bag of finishing moves around the rim puts constant pressure on opposing defenses regardless of if he is on or off the ball. Playing Hyland alongside Campazzo gives the Nuggets more playmaking and much more shooting off the bench than they had over their past few games before the reinforcements arrived which should hopefully raise the floor of the bench unit’s production.
Lastly, Zeke Nnaji is back after a stint in health and safety protocols as well. While his nearly six points and three rebounds a game may seem inconsequential, Nnaji provides the Nuggets with production that does not always show up on the stat sheet. Nnaji is a fundamentally sound roller in the pick and roll and he has shown good chemistry with Hyland handling the ball utilizing his screens. Nnaji also is shooting 46.5% from three-point range this season giving the Denver bench unit some badly needed outside shooting and scoring pop. Oh, and he is an underrated defender as well.
No update on Jamal Murray
Finally, the Nuggets are as healthy as they can hope at this juncture. No, there’s not an update on Jamal Murray’s return from his ACL tear. Michael Porter Jr. continues to be out after having lumbar spine surgery with no timetable for his return. Dozier will miss the rest of the year, and part of next season, with his own ACL tear. Markus Howard is still a few weeks away from being reevaluated after spraining his knee. Vlatko Cancar just had surgery on his fifth metatarsal in his right foot and he will be reevaluated in just under 12 weeks. Denver is still dealing with injuries, but it finally has the roster it needs to get back to its winning ways.
Now the question is this. Can the Nuggets finally find a rhythm and put together a strong month of January? If they can, they might have an outside shot of the fourth seed in the Western Conference which is currently occupied by the Memphis Grizzlies who have four-less losses than Denver as of Saturday night.
The opportunity is in front of Denver. They just need to capitalize.