The Denver Nuggets are NBA Champions after a dominant playoff run- a postseason that the Chicago Bulls watch entirely from their couches at home. As a fan of the Bulls, I hope every single person involved with the franchise watched and studied the playoffs to help figure out how to move forward. One aspect of the Nuggets’ dominant playoff run that stood out to me was how two members of their supporting cast fit so perfectly into the way the Nuggets want to play and how their skill sets are pretty similar to two of the Bulls’ young players. The two Nuggets players are Bruce Brown and Aaron Gordon.
Ayo Dosumnu and Patrick Williams have both shown flashes early in their NBA careers but it’s clear that they probably don’t have superstar upside. They both also thrive much more on the defensive side of the court than they do offensively at the moment. For those couple of reasons, it’s clear to me that they will probably have to be in the supporting cast for a team with the potential to go deep in the playoffs and not be headliners. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be productive players and earn a lot of money in their careers. It just means they have to figure out ways to fit into a system and how to play with star-caliber players. Let’s look at these two comparisons I’m making more closely.
Ayo Dosumnu and Bruce Brown
Two guys that played point guard in college but don’t fully fit the bill skills-wise as starting point guards in the NBA. Bruce Brown, like Ayo, is a versatile and scrappy defender that can guard 1-3 effectively. Ayo is good at on-ball defense but has struggled some off-ball with rotations. Brown is a much more solid all-around defensive player. What mostly drew me to Bruce Brown when thinking about Ayo is on the offensive side of the ball though. The role Brown played on the Nuggets is one that I think would fit Ayo really well.
Brown would essentially play backup point guard for the Nuggets and would play with the ball in his hands more when the Nuggets’ stars sat. He would thrive at pushing the pace in these situations and getting to the rim before the defense could set itself. Ayo has shown the ability to do this in flashes, though he wasn’t as good at pushing the pace as Lonzo Ball was the previous season.
When he could play with Jokic and Murray more, he would find ways to contribute without having the ball in his hands. He would do that by making big plays such as an offensive rebound at the perfect time, which is something Ayo has been able to do from time to time.
A big improvement that Brown made to help make this happen was the work he put in as a spot-up 3-point shooter. I fully believe in Ayo’s potential to push the pace and his potential to make hustle plays such as grabbing an offensive rebound in a crucial moment. The lack of improvement Ayo made as a 3-point shooter last season was concerning. He doesn’t need to get to logo range like Dame Lillard, but he needs to be more of an off-ball threat as a shooter, especially for a team that is desperate for 3-point shooting.
Ayo is a free agent this offseason and there isn’t a guarantee he will be back on the team. I do hope that he is back on the team next season (for a reasonable price) and that he will be better prepared to play off the ball when playing with LaVine, DeRozan, and Vučević, and better prepared to play with the ball in his hands more when he is out there with bench units.
Patrick Williams and Aaron Gordon
I’ve made this comparison in the past and it’s one that I hope comes to fruition. I hope Patrick Williams can be a better jump-shooting version of Gordon who can also hold up at small ball center for longer stretches than Gordon. Is that the apex predator big forward outcome many were hoping for with Williams? No, but that is still a hell of a player. Gordon probably was the 3rd most valuable player on a championship team. Those guys don’t grow on trees.
Gordon’s offensive role was similar to Brown’s on the Nuggets. When he’s out there with Jokic and Murray, his job is just to stay active. Cut to the basket, get out in transition, and attack the offense glass. The only plays that really called for Gordon when he was out there with the other starters were using him as the roller in pick-and-roll action. He’d get more opportunities to create when playing with bench units. Especially when he got to play some small ball center with Jokic on the bench when the rotation shrunk in the playoffs.
What really intrigued me by Gordon in the Finals is something I’d LOVE to see Williams add to his game. I’m alluding to the ability to post up smaller defenders to prevent teams from hiding small and/or less capable defenders on him. Gordon would get these defenders deep in the paint on his back before even receiving the ball. This aggression without the ball is a great way to contribute while playing with ball-dominant players while not being a high-volume 3-point shooter.
Patrick Williams took a major and underrated leap defensively last season. He went from a player that defensively was pretty theoretical at best, to a player that was probably the 2nd best defender on a team that finished 5th in defensive rating according to NBA.com. Williams played a similar role to Gordon defensively. Williams would guard the best player on the other team unless they were a true point guard or a true center, very similar to Gordon. This versatility is very valuable. Especially when playing next to offensive-focused players who are better suited in a supporting role on defense.
As I wrote about before, the Bulls don’t have a great path to improving. They need their young guys to get better to improve as a team. Ayo Dosumnu and Patrick Williams don’t need to turn into Jrue Holiday and Kawhi Leonard for that to happen. High-quality role guys can be a big help, and those kinds of players would help the Bulls a lot.