It took the entire season, but the Bruce Brown absence finally showed up at the end of their playoff run.

Last offseason, Brown signed a contract with the Indiana Pacers, getting the bag for his work as the Nuggets sixth man during a 2022-23 championship run. This was a contract the Nuggets simply couldn’t match due to salary cap rules, not an unwillingness to pay the one-year fan favorite. Brown went on to start for the Pacers for half a season before being unceremoniously traded to the Toronto Raptors for Pascal Siakam, an acquisition that helped the Pacers reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

After watching the 2023-24 Denver Nuggets regular season, one could fairly wonder whether the departure of Brown actually made a difference in the team’s rotation. Incumbent second year wing Christian Braun assumed more responsibility, but it was the emergence early in the season of veteran Reggie Jackson and (basically) rookie Peyton Watson that solidified things in Brown’s absence. The Nuggets knew they couldn’t replace Brown with any one individual, but they used Jackson’s playmaking in the pick and roll, Braun’s steadiness defensively, and Watson’s explosiveness to piece things together.

Ultimately, a strong performance from the Nuggets starting lineup and a surprise contribution from incoming veteran Justin Holiday helped the Nuggets survive the regular season, winning four more games than they did with Brown on board the previous year.

Then, the playoffs began. Minutes were cut down, and more pressure was added to the starting five of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. As a unit, the starters broke down, and there was no Bruce Brown to swoop in and save the day this time around.

See, the greatest value from Brown wasn’t his contributions as a bench player. It was his metamorphosis as a piece of Denver’s starting group. He found ways to add to Denver’s starting five and was trusted by Michael Malone to handle a variety of pressure packed situations.

Bruce Brown filled many roles for the Denver Nuggets in the regular season and playoffs. Data via PBP Stats

The Nuggets were able to use Brown in a variety of lineup combinations without losing effectiveness. His role would change on the fly from backup point guard, to off-ball slasher, to spot up shooter, to ace defender. Brown was able to always contribute something which allowed Malone the flexibility to deploy him in advantageous ways.

Compare those numbers to Denver’s lineup numbers in 2023-24, and it paints a far different picture.

The team has always been dependent on their starting lineup under Malone, dating back several years. It’s where he’s always at his most comfortable, and it’s the group that has the most trust and chemistry.

Unfortunately, the underutilization of other lineups left the Nuggets without a good plan heading into these playoffs. Denver’s most common regular season lineups that featured their top eight in minutes played (the five starters, Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun, and Peyton Watson) didn’t really show up in the playoffs. The Nuggets decided to turn to Braun and Justin Holiday most frequently, reducing the minutes for Jackson and Watson. Denver’s five most played lineups among their top eight in regular season minutes were their 4th, 13th, 23rd, and 11th most played units in the playoffs, along with a group that didn’t play at all.

If the 959 minutes played by the starters and 444 minutes played by the next most unit look abnormal, it’s because they are. The 1,403 minutes played between Denver’s top two units were the most in the NBA by far, over 450 minutes more than the next closest team. That over-reliance on one specific grouping emphasizes how much the Nuggets relied on their starters in comparison to other teams.

Now, that’s not to say that the bench was the problem. Murray’s struggles throughout the playoffs with poor play and injury are well documented. Porter got clamped in the second round by Jaden McDaniels after being spectacular in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The issue was that the bench was never the solution to Denver’s issues in their starting five either. That quintet each averaged 35+ minutes per game in Denver’s 12 playoff games this year. In 2022-23? Jokic, Murray, and Gordon all played heavy minutes, but Porter and Caldwell-Pope sometimes didn’t finish games because Brown was the right guy for the job.

In the end, the Nuggets lacked the versatility to solve the problem of “What happens if the starting lineup gets figured out?” Christian Braun was adequate as a 7th or 8th man but wasn’t a true sixth man this year. Jackson’s lack of size and inability to fit next to Murray meant the Nuggets never had a real secondary ball handler on the floor. Watson struggled in the first round and never really appeared in the second. Only Justin Holiday figured some things out, but he wasn’t a real solution to Denver’s problem.

So, the Nuggets need to find someone who can fill that void more adequately. HOW they can accomplish that is of course the issue. There are only so many players that can fill the gap left by Brown.

Here are some players from this year that are listed 6’4″ or taller and matched Brown’s regular season points, rebounds, and assists per 36 minutes from his 2022-23 Nuggets season:

  • Caris LeVert
  • Jordan Clarkson
  • Malik Monk
  • Russell Westbrook
  • Gordon Hayward

Salary cap rules limit Denver’s flexibility in trades and free agency additions, so it’s important to know which players are even gettable. Monk is off the table entirely because he will cost too much. Ditto for LeVert whose $16.6 million cap figure is too large for the Nuggets to effectively match. Clarkson’s slightly more affordable $14.1 million is within reach, but it would involve the Utah Jazz doing a deal on draft night they might not want to do. The other two players, Westbrook and Hayward, are free agents and may simply not want to go to Denver.

Here are some other players that could do Brown’s job a bit differently but still be just as helpful:

  • Alex Caruso
  • Ayo Dosunmu
  • Cole Anthony
  • De’Anthony Melton
  • Nicolas Batum/Kelly Oubre

Caruso and Dosunmu would be pricy trade candidates with the Chicago Bulls, but their salaries are affordable enough that Denver could trade for them if the Bulls were willing to make a deal. Cole Anthony is in the same boat with the Orlando Magic where he might not fit as well in the long term plans for a team seeking additional guard help. Melton is a free agent who would likely cost more than the minimum, and the Nuggets would have to shift things around in order to create money to sign him. Another two Philadelphia 76ers free agents in Batum and Oubre would be incredible additions for Denver, but how viable/affordable they are remains to be seen.

Here are some minimum salary guys that the Nuggets might consider to fill part of the void still left by Brown:

  • Delon Wright
  • Gary Harris
  • Patrick Beverley
  • Kris Dunn

Wright fills the playmaking and defensive role but isn’t a great scorer. Harris is more of a 3&D option rather than a playmaker like Brown was. Beverley can handle some responsibilities but can be volatile rather than dynamic. Dunn is the best defender of the bench but isn’t as reliable offensively.

That’s a lot of different names to throw out there. 15 to be exact. Is it possible for the Nuggets to add one or two of those names to an intact starting five and some young players off the bench? Absolutely. Which of those names is actually available? It’s hard to tell. There are limitations to what the Nuggets can do, but if they are serious about getting better, they will find a way to get it done.

The Nuggets can try to add a solution through the draft, but it’s unlikely that they find the right player at the 28th overall pick. Perhaps the Nuggets consider trading up to go get the correct name: Dalton Knecht, Devin Carter, Jared McCain, and Isaiah Collier seem like players that could contribute right away at the guard/wing spots. The draft remains an inexact science though, and the uncertainty of whoever Denver could pick most likely outweigh the immediate results.

Denver has to find their Bruce Brown replacement. They delayed doing so for a year, and in the process, they discovered different strengths and weaknesses for Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, and Julian Strawther. Unless one of those guys pops as a true secondary ball handler that can run some point guard if necessary, then it’s likely Denver’s solution to this problem isn’t on the roster.

Whether they can identify and bring in the correct solution remains to be seen.