How The Denver Nuggets Consolidated Their Roster To Build A Better Playoff Team

As the Denver Nuggets got ready for this past offseason, they faced the hardest question in professional sports: How do we make the leap from good to great?

They had their core, with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic at the center, paired with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., both returning from injuries. They had a high-level fourth starter in Aaron Gordon, who had embraced his tertiary role and thrived alongside Jokic in the frontcourt. But the rest of the roster was murky, a collection of fine regular season players who weren’t necessarily reliable in a 16-game setting.

General manager Calvin Booth — who ascended to the position after Tim Connelly went to Minnesota — decided to consolidate the roster, stripping a bit of regular season depth away in favor of a stronger playoff rotation. It was a gamble on his stars staying healthy, but then again, there wasn’t a path to a title without that, anyway. His first big move was trading Monte Morris and Will Barton, two longtime cogs in the Denver machine, for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith. The latter was a downgrade at backup point guard, but the former was a proven postseason commodity and the exact sort of two-way wing Denver needed to complete its starting five, a player capable of spacing the floor and knocking down shots while also being a solid perimeter defender. From there, he made one of the best value signings of the summer, bringing in Bruce Brown to reprise his role from two seasons ago in Brooklyn as a jack-of-all trades defender who could, at times, become a small-ball big.

Along with trading Morris and Barton (who started 155 combined games a year ago, including all 10 playoff games), the Nuggets let JaMychal Green, Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes, DeMarcus Cousins, and Facu Campazzo leave in free agency. All of these players averaged more than 10 minutes per game in the playoffs. Bones Hyland was traded at the deadline for Reggie Jackson, who has barely seen the rotation. In all, Denver entered this postseason without seven players from last year’s 10-man playoff rotation, and have trimmed this year’s postseason rotation down to eight players.

Murray and Porter’s returns were the headliners, and for good reason. Murray showed in Game 1 how he can go toe-to-toe with the best scorers in the world when he’s rolling, while MPJ is capable of becoming a flamethrower at any moment. However, what’s different about this year’s Nuggets squad is that they are not dependent on having their top-3 play at their best to win playoff games. Murray was, for 44 minutes of Game 2, dreadful. Porter was a non-factor, scoring five points. And yet, they beat the Suns by 10 because they finally have “others” capable of filling the gaps.

Jokic’s 39 points carried them, but he got help in the form of KCP scoring 14, including a trio of threes in the fourth quarter to help Denver take control of the game. Brown was able to step in for MPJ and provide a defensive lift, most notably blocking a Kevin Durant jumper with three minutes to play. Jeff Green and Christian Braun fill out the eight-man rotation, but it’s the ability to lean on Caldwell-Pope (33.4 minutes per game) and Brown (26.3 minutes per game) in these playoffs that has made all the difference for this year’s Nuggets team.

For a great example of what happens when you can’t round out your roster beyond your stars, look no farther than Denver’s current opponents. Depth in the playoffs is a wholly different thing than depth in the regular season, and the Suns have been desperate to find anyone who can complement their top-4 guys while praying those dudes stay healthy, which is currently coming back to bite them in a big way. The 82-game schedule is a war of attrition, requiring a team to go 10-12 deep in order to just keep the wear and tear off their stars.

Those players are playable because game plans in the regular season are skeletons compared to what teams face in the postseason, where opponents will hone in on a weakness and exploit it over and over until you make the correct adjustment. We have seen so many teams in these playoffs, like Phoenix and Cleveland, that have the top-end talent but have struggled to find those fifth, sixth, and seventh guys that can be trusted in a rotation. Denver was once one of those teams, but by valuing quality over quantity in terms of depth, there are fewer weaknesses for opponents to exploit.

There is always spacing on offense, in part because Jokic is a freak, but also because five of the other seven in the rotation are shooting above 38 percent from three in the playoffs. Brown and Green are the weak links in the shooting realm, but they almost never share the floor together, are willing to let an open look fly, and are good connectors and passers. Defensively, MPJ is the weak link on the wing, but Caldwell-Pope, Gordon, and Brown are all good enough that they can either leave MPJ on the bench when he’s cold, as they did in Game 2, or keep him paired with at least two strong wing defenders and hide him on a non-threat in the corner. As a unit, they all are active (MPJ aside when he’s not engaged) and have length at each position, which makes up for some of their individual deficiencies.

Their biggest issue is a lack of rim protection, as they don’t have a functional backup center behind Jokic. In this series, that’s a non-factor because the Suns almost never go to the rim, but even against Minnesota’s two-big lineups, they were able to mitigate that issue by putting in work early with their activity and disrupting passing and driving lanes. Squads like the Celtics, Lakers, or Sixers would represent the biggest test of their defense’s weak point, but that’s a bridge to cross if they run into those teams.

In the past, the Nuggets had to make the difficult decisions so many teams face in the playoffs, which is whether to sacrifice defense for offense or vice versa. With the additions of Brown and Caldwell-Pope, Michael Malone has better players at his disposal to run out there for high minute loads, without having to do what Monty Williams is about to in Game 3, which is start throwing things at the wall in hopes they stick. For Booth, their performance is proof positive that his approach this summer in sacrificing some regular season depth in order to gain playoff depth was worthwhile and done with a keen eye for filling the needs of this team in the postseason.