Over the next two weeks, the Denver Stiffs staff will preview the 2020-21 Denver Nuggets season in an alternative way. Rather than preview every single player on the roster, Denver Stiffs will ask and answer the 10 most pressing Nuggets questions in the two weeks prior to the season opener on December 23rd.

We hope you enjoy!

“I have no plans on being the sixth man. I have no desire to be that at all.”

That was Will Barton, fresh off an excellent debut in his return to the court from knee soreness that nearly kept him out of the Orlando bubble altogether. Barton scored nine points, dished out three assists, and finished a plus-11 in his 18 minutes off the bench in a blowout win against the Portland Trail Blazers. The versatile wing was dynamic with the ball in his hands, made plays for himself and others, and brought some extra “oomph” to a second unit that appeared lacking without him against the Golden State Warriors last Saturday.

It was unclear just how healthy Barton was heading into the season, and to see him play some minutes of the bench was an encouraging first step. And yet, the story is now about the starting unit rather than the bench. Barton has laid down the gauntlet in multiple press conferences, saying that he sees himself as a starter and doesn’t want to come off the bench in any way, shape, or form.

This is an interesting stance for Barton to take because there are a limited number of starting spots. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić are obviously starters. Gary Harris and Paul Millsap have each started every game for the Nuggets when healthy. Michael Porter Jr. is on the rise in the rotation and needs to start to facilitate his development into a star in the NBA. That’s five names right there, and it doesn’t include Barton himself.

Barton is right though; he is a starting caliber player. The unfortunate part of the process is that on a championship caliber team, there are a lot of good players, sometimes more than five starter level options. Sacrifice is the name of the game when it comes to a championship, and what’s best for the team begins to take precedence over individual desires.

Does it make Barton selfish that he sees himself and wants to be a starter? Of course not. It does mean that he might have to settle for less than what he hopes for though.

It’s reasonably clear that the Nuggets have 11, 12, maybe even 13 players that deserve to play full-time rotation minutes. In addition to the starting caliber players already listed, Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Facundo Campazzo, JaMychal Green, Bol Bol, Isaiah Hartenstein, and Zeke Nnaji have all shown significant skills in the preseason that would be useful in a regular role. Nnaji is a rookie though, and Bol is classified as a rookie despite playing bubble games a few months ago. Even knocking those guys off, it means that Denver has 11 players to fill nine or ten spots in the every day rotation. Campazzo, who is carrying the weight of an entire country’s expectations (Argentina) sat out the first half rotation last night, signifying that he was the 11th man in that scenario.

Whichever of Harris, Barton, or Millsap that doesn’t start, they won’t be the only player on the roster to sacrifice a larger role to help carry the burdens of a championship contender. Bench players will sacrifice, Denver’s two-way contract guys will sacrifice. Hell, even Porter will be sacrificing. Based on his talent level and what he showed in the bubble, he would be the focal point of several rebuilding teams, the player around which a roster would be crafted and built. On the Nuggets, he is fighting for every chance he can get to flash that potential and justify the starting role he is likely to be granted heading into the regular season.

With the addition of Porter, the importance of defense and stability has become even more important to the Nuggets. More so than talent, it’s in Denver’s best interest to surround Jokić, Murray, and Porter with players that will accentuate the strengths of those three while covering up for the weaknesses. Harris and Millsap will afford the starters the opportunity to grow into larger roles, as going forward, it’s unlikely either of those two will be a significant playmaker for others and need the ball to be effective.

Barton, on the other hand, is a unique, versatile weapon. In a vacuum, he’s probably better than both Harris and Millsap, with a comprehensive offensive game that allows him the opportunity to fill different roles within the same offense. Secondary playmaker? Check. Scoring threat? Check. Floor spacer? Check. Surprisingly good defender and rebounder? Check.

Michael Malone knows the value that Barton offers every single night, too.

“What does Will [Barton] bring to the table? He is so versatile, he can rebound, he can push, he can create for himself and his teammates. He can knock down the three, and he’s going to battle on the defensive end of the floor.”

That versatility is why his best fit is with the bench unit though. Barton is the only player among he, Harris, and Millsap that can seamlessly move to the bench and have a strong impact with his ability to scale up as a scoring and playmaking threat. The Nuggets would be too big to craft competent second units with Millsap, Green, Hartenstein, and Bol all on the bench unit. They would be too small with Campazzo, Morris, Dozier, and Harris as well. Barton is the bridge player that makes sense in all scenarios. He can play small forward, especially next to Dozier who can handle some tough defensive assignments, and do the things he’s best at while leading the second group.

Shifting to the bench doesn’t mean that Barton wouldn’t play a ton of minutes either. Barton would most likely finish games for the Nuggets with Porter sliding to power forward in place of Millsap. If Barton were to play 12 minutes in the first half and 16 in the second half as part of the closing unit, he would finish the game with 28 minutes played, a similar total to what he would have as a starter. It’s unfortunate for Barton, who clearly sees himself as a starter and wants that role, but I don’t foresee that being what helps the Nuggets to succeed this season.

This year is going to be fun. The Nuggets have a lot of quality players, two legitimate stars, and a burgeoning third star on the way. The offense is going to absolutely cook, and it’s possible that the defense is better than anticipated if all goes according to plan.

I hope decisions with the starting lineup don’t hang over the team like a dark cloud for the entire year. Whoever isn’t selected will be asked to make a sacrifice. If it’s Barton, that sacrifice will clearly be a tough one.

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