Will Nuggets finally shore up backup C behind Nikola Jokic?


Editor’s note: The fifth of a five-part series previewing the Nuggets’ positional outlook heading into the June 23 NBA draft. Today: centers. Part 1: point guard. Part II: shooting guard. Part III: small forward. Part IV: power forwards. 

Among the indisputable truths of Nikola Jokic’s ascendance to NBA MVP is that finding a suitable backup has become an annual chore.

Mason Plumlee left when he didn’t have a big enough role two seasons ago, then Isaiah Hartenstein failed to establish himself in Michael Malone’s rotation. That was before the Nuggets traded for JaVale McGee, who barely got off the bench. This past season, the Nuggets tried to hold water by starting the season with the JaMychal Green-Jeff Green combo. When Michael Porter Jr. injured his back nine games into the season, that plan blew up, forcing Jeff Green into the starting lineup.

The small-ball archetype, one that didn’t necessarily need a true backup center, was tested.

Behind the scenes, Malone vouched for veteran DeMarcus Cousins. Trusting the rapport he’d established in Sacramento with Boogie, Malone endorsed the mercurial big man. Aside from the untimely technical fouls – some warranted, some not – Cousins flashed moments of productivity and, at least publicly seemed content with his role.

Asked in the wake of Denver’s first-round playoff ouster what he proved in the months he was with the Nuggets, Cousins made a compelling case to stay.

“I belong here,” he said. “I belong in this league. I was given the opportunity. I’m thankful for Mike Malone. A lot of doors closed for me. Mike looked out (and) gave me an opportunity. I just tried to take the best advantage of it as I could. That’s what I did.”

At that moment, Cousins, a free agent, said he couldn’t speak to what his future held.

It’s also fair to consider whether Calvin Booth, who’d been under former president Tim Connelly when Cousins was brought in, would’ve made the same move. With free agency approaching shortly after Thursday’s draft, we’re about to find out Booth’s opinion.

If he doesn’t retain Cousins, the Nuggets will need to address the glaring hole they’ve got in their second unit. No one will ever confuse Jokic for Dikembe Mutombo, but he’s not the traffic cone defender some made him out to be earlier in his career. As a team, the Nuggets allowed opponents to shoot over 66% from inside of five feet. That was the second-worst mark in the NBA. Part of that number was the result of dribble penetration. Another part of it was a lack of rim protection.

Though the Nuggets need to upgrade their perimeter defense, they also need to improve their interior resistance, too. With two first-round picks, they’ll have plenty of chances to do so. Here are their best options at center.

1. Mark Williams, 7-foot, Duke, 20: A huge interior presence with a keen sense of timing, Williams looks like he can be a menace defensively at the next level. Though his offense mostly revolves around the rim as a lob threat and on second-chance opportunities, Williams should be able to hold his own physically. To secure him, the Nuggets would probably need to trade up from No. 21.


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