The Denver Nuggets haven’t had much uncertainty regarding their starting lineup since Paul Millsap was signed and Emmanuel Mudiay was traded. Millsap was clearly brought in to start at power forward and the Mudiay trade signaled the Nuggets were all in on Jamal Murray and Gary Harris as the starting backcourt of the future. There are certainly no questions about who starts at center, that’s going to be first team All-NBA’er (NBA’r?) Nikola Jokic. Up until this year there has been relatively little question who was going to start at small forward as well. Danilo Gallinari was the clear starter, then Wilson Chandler and last year, after Chandler was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, perennial 6th man of the year candidate Will Barton was the natural fit to take over.

It didn’t work out quite as Denver hoped though. Barton went down with an injury and was replaced with Torrey Craig. Craig didn’t get off to a great start to the season himself, but Harris went down with an injury as well which forced Craig to the two guard position and Juancho Hernangomez took over small forward duties. He likewise had mixed results. Barton eventually made his return, but never really looked quite right and ultimately ended up losing his starting spot in the playoffs to Craig, who had re-discovered his shooting stroke. Though Craig, Hernangomez and Barton all had moments where they excelled, it felt a bit like a season of chair shuffling on the small forward Titanic. Now Denver heads into the 2019-2020 season and the position is even more muddled. Barton is fully healthy, Craig is coming off a hot end to the season, Juancho looked like he got a new bill of health at the FIBA World Cup. Oh yeah, there’s also this guy named Michael Porter Jr. who you might have heard about and is fully healthy for the first time in two years. To top it off, the one Nuggets rookie on a full NBA contract, Vlatko Cancar, also can play the three. What Denver does in their rotation at small forward is definitely one of the biggest questions going into the season.

Who will start?

If you were going to go out and poll most of those who cover the team on a daily basis I’d fathom a guess they would all tell you one of two players is going to be the starter at small forward to begin the year: Barton or Craig. Gordon Gross and I had just this discussion on the Pickaxe Pundits this week and lo and behold Gordon went Barton, and I went Craig. It’s simply the logical choice to go with one of those two guys given that they took the majority of the starts at SF last year and both appear to be in Denver’s plans going forward, though neither is what you would consider untouchable. Craig and Barton are different types of players and which one starts may in fact be more dependent on the growth of Murray than either of their own individual efforts. Barton provides the Nuggets with a second playmaking option from the perimeter. This was especially useful last year when teams focused on locking up Jokic and forcing Murray to initiate the majority of the offense. As Jamal was still growing in the role of playmaker and facilitator, Barton gave the Nuggets (and Murray) a safety valve for when things got bottled up. He’s probably the best player Denver has at creating his own shot opportunities, and often times that skill was called upon when the starting group was getting stagnant.

The unfortunate drawback to Barton is while he has no problem creating a shot opportunity for himself, he struggled with consistently cashing in those opportunities, particularly in the playoffs. Will is never going to be mistaken as a pillar of shooting efficiency but his 2017-2018 shooting percentage slash line of 45/37/80 was very solid for a guy who’s asked to create on his own a lot. That slash line dropped to 40/34/77 last year though, and was an even more abysmal 34/27/69 in the playoffs.

That inconsistency eventually forced Malone’s hand and he made the move to put Craig in the starting lineup. As mentioned, at the beginning of the season Craig struggled with shooting which made him nearly unplayable but he caught fire late in the year and shot 42.5% from three after the beginning of March. In many ways Craig is the perfect fit for the starting small forward position. The Nuggets struggle mightily defending the perimeter but Craig is their best wing defender. Pairing him with Harris in the starting lineup is what allowed the Nuggets to finally stop the onslaught of Derrick White in the first round of the playoffs and also was instrumental in keeping Damian Lillard in check during the second round. The one caveat is he’s not going to be able to do as much with the ball in his hands as Barton.

If Torrey is shooting above 40% from three consistently and with decent volume (Craig shot 2.5 attempts from three last season) then he is a no brainer starter in the NBA. 3 and D guys are valuable, particularly at the small forward position where there are a number of all world talents in the league. However, even with his stifling D and potential 40% three point shooting, Craig’s fit is a bit more muted for a team that runs through a point center. Jokic isn’t catching anyone by surprise anymore and containing him is always going to be the opposition’s number one motive. Teams will have varying levels of success with that and no one can stop Jokic completely but he’s much easier to contain if Murray is struggling to create and Denver lacks other options at the perimeter to do that. Craig’s much easier to contain if Denver is both struggling with secondary playmaking and has a player out on the court who the defense isn’t respecting from distance. We saw proof of that last season both when Craig struggled and when Millsap struggled. For my money, Craig fits the best if Murray is having the playmaking growth Denver expects him to. It might be Barton to start the season but I wouldn’t be surprised if, like last year, Craig ends up in the starter role by the time the year is done.

Who is going to be on the outside of the rotation looking in?

Beyond just the starting spot, coach Michael Malone is going to have to make some tough decisions regarding small forward minutes in his rotation in general. Craig and Barton both deserve minutes, whether it be in a starter or reserve role, and the Nuggets have Hernangomez, Porter Jr, Cancar, Harris and Malik Beasley who can also occupy time at the three. One has to assume Cancar, being a rookie, will not see much of the court outside of garbage time or a catastrophic case of the injury bug. The rest of the group though each have a strong claim for minutes. All things being equal (and healthy), it appears that Craig and Barton would eat up the majority of the minutes and Harris and Beasley would take whatever is left in some smaller lineups. That would leave two very tantalizing players on the outside looking in. If Juancho can play like he played in the World Cup, if he can get back to where he was coming off his rookie season, if he’s at full health, then his shooting stroke, size and versatility make him a valuable player. Guys who can play both forward spots, shoot above 40% from three, crash the boards with energy and have at the very least enough size to be bothersome on defense are guys who play regular minutes. There is also the contract situation to consider. Juancho is going into the final year of his rookie deal and it’s going to be difficult to figure out what role he has in this team’s future if he doesn’t play.

“Just as big minutes are deserved if MPJ can be what the Nuggets want him to be, they equally have to be earned”

MPJ of course has an entirely different and unique situation. Denver could be sitting on a gold mine, a generational talent who can potentially elevate them to perennial championship contender over night. They could likewise be sitting on a guy who has missed some very formative years of basketball development and will never be able to live up to what sometimes seem like impossible expectations. Certainly the coaching staff will be, and has been, figuring that out with their work with MPJ in practice and in the upcoming training camp and preseason. The reviews that we’ve been given from people who have seen Porter from behind closed doors have been pretty glowing so there’s reason to believe that perhaps he is closer to being the star than the bust, but the simple fact of the matter is that if MPJ is going to even come close to the hype that has surrounded him he’s going to have to play and play big minutes at that. In an ideal world it’s him who is the starter by season’s end. Barring injury to other players that would mean that Porter has thrust himself into a starting role by being exactly what Denver hopes he can be and, again, that would mean the Nuggets as a whole have been elevated to the next level of competition in the NBA.

Just as big minutes are deserved if MPJ can be what the Nuggets want him to be, they equally have to be earned. It would not be surprising to see Porter out of the rotation to start the season. Barton and Craig have experience being an everyday NBA player, they’ve proven themselves to coach in big moments during games that matter. Without a preseason explosion from Porter, it’s not that hard to see how coach might prefer Craig and Barton over him. Likewise, Juancho has put in his time at the NBA level as well. While like MPJ he’s struggled with health the past two years, he’s spent the entirety of that time, as well as the season prior, at the NBA level working with an NBA training and coaching staff and adjusting to the game at the NBA pace. If Juancho comes out of the gate strong while Porter is still knocking off the rust it’s easy to see how the Spaniard would get slotted ahead of MPJ for minutes.

Ironically, the person I think may have the best chance to start, Craig, could also be the person I think is most at risk of falling out of the rotation. Torrey is who he is at this point, so if he is the guy who shot sub 30% from three at the beginning of the season, and not the guy who shot above 40% at the end, then there’s not a lot of hope for his long term future in the NBA. Defense is a very valuable thing to have, but defense alone doesn’t get you minutes in the NBA.

Ultimately I think Barton and Craig will start the season getting the majority of the minutes at small forward assuming health and that one of those guys doesn’t completely implode (with a small chance that MPJ could just explode and force his way in the rotation regardless of what the other guys do). Juancho and Porter are most likely going to be fighting for some small forward scraps and then whatever they can get at the power forward position as well. I think both of those guys have a good chance of not being in the rotation to start the season. However, no team makes it through the season injury free. We saw last year how injuries to Barton and Harris opened the door for Craig and Beasley. With the Nuggets positional versatility at the forward and guard positions and the relatively thin depth behind Nikola at center, any injury could result in opening up time for one of these guys competing at the three. It’s going to be up to them to make the most of the opportunities when they come.