At training camp last week, head coach Michael Malone said that he likes to experiment with a lot of different lineups in preseason to see which combinations work well together and which ones don't. While the Nuggets roster is missing a few key skill sets and offensive/defensive ingredients, the team still has a fair amount of versatility. Let's look at a few lineups that might be used this season.
Starting Lineup (likely): Emmanuel Mudiay - Randy Foye - Danilo Gallinari - Kenneth Faried - Jusuf Nurkic
Although Nurkic may miss an extended amount of time to begin the season, once he is healthy he will almost certainly grab the starting center spot since he is the only true center on the roster. His size, strength, and intimidation will be a huge boost to the Nuggets starting lineup, allowing the other players on the court a bit more freedom to pressure the ball and force turnovers. Offensively, he will also provide some much needed screening and physicality on the offensive boards.
One of Mudiay's biggest weaknesses at the moment is his ability to handle on-ball pressure. In summer league and in the first preseason game, Mudiay would get thrown out of rhythm whenever a defender crowded his space, forcing Mudiay to lose the position he would need to initiate the offense. Enter Randy Foye. Coach Malone would certainly love to get Gary Harris as many reps as possible but Mudiay's issues with handling pressure will almost certainly mean that he'll be forced to start the game with a 2nd reliable ball-handler who is capable of initiating the offense.
This lineup isn't overly exciting and some of Faried and Gallo's talents will get diminished early in the season as Mudiay is figuring things out, but I don't see too many scenarios where these five guys aren't starting. The most likely substitution is Jameer Nelson starting in Foye's place but that leaves the bench without a true point guard and I think Malone will prefer to bring Jameer in as one of the first guys off of the bench.
Run and Gun: Mudiay - Jameer - Will Barton - Wilson Chandler - Faried
One component of most run and gun lineups is the ability for any guy to snag the defensive rebound and bring the ball up the court. While Faried isn't an ideal point-forward, in certain lineups he can be very effective pushing the ball in transition, especially when he shares the court with other great transition players. Barton is a player that is at his best in transition and when the Nuggets can get stops, both Faried and Barton will almost always put the defense on their heels.
Two point guard lineups allow the Nuggets to run a lot of quick hitting, 4-out sets in which the point guards take turns attacking off of pick and rolls on either side of the court. The ability to spread the court and swing the ball from one side of the court to the other is a huge advantage and will make it difficult for teams to overload one side of the court with defenders. The Nuggets used ball reversals to go into pick and rolls out of secondary breaks a lot in their game against the Clippers and my guess is that the team will look for these types of quick hitting ball screens a lot when both Jameer and Mudiay are on the court together.
Small Ball: Jameer - Foye - Chandler - Gallo - Faried
The difference between the small ball lineup and the run and gun lineup is that the small ball lineup doesn't need to shoot quickly in transition in order to be effective. The spacing provided by having four three-point threats will allow for a lot of open lanes for drives to the hoop off of pick and roll.
This might be Faried's most effective lineup if he can force the defense to play high pick and roll. Last season, the Nuggets shot significantly better from 3-point range when Faried was on the court. By surrounding him with shooters, running high pick and roll, and rolling hard to the rim, this lineup can be deadly.
There aren't many traditional power forwards who can hang with Gallo from the outside and with three other shooters on the court, Gallo will have plenty of room to drive to the hoop. He'll also be a great candidate to run pick and roll with Faried since Faried will be guarded by the opponents center. If the team can force switches out on the perimeter, Gallo should get plenty of opportunities to do one of the things he does best; attack lumbering bigs from out on the perimeter.
The key for this lineup will be getting stops since the lineup is extremely small and vulnerable to allowing big scoring binges. This is also one of the oldest lineups possibly, featuring five of the team's seven oldest players. It's possible that Harris can slide into this small ball lineup as the shooting guard in order to take on some of the defensive burden guarding the opposing point guard.
Inside/Out: Mudiay - Chandler - Gallo - Joffrey Lauvergne - Nikola Jokic
At media day, Malone hinted that he didn't think Chandler would play shooting guard very frequently but that doesn't mean he won't go to a super big lineup on occasion. Joffrey and Jokic are both decent 3-point shooters and playing Gallo and Chandler at the shooting guard and small forward positions will allow both of them to enjoy a size advantage against almost any lineup. The Nuggets could look to put those two on the block and post up, using Joffrey and Jokic as off-ball screeners and spacers on post action.
Mudiay has also shown some post up chops and in his first preseason game, Mudiay made a nice pass inside after posting up Chris Paul and getting decent position. With his size, the post game should be an advantage for Mudiay as he develops. Large guards like Shaun Livingstone give their teams a unique wrinkle by operating out of the post and Mudiay has the size and feel for the game to become a very good post up guard.
It wouldn't be a very common lineup and I suspect that Faried will get the most minutes at power forward whenever the team goes with a big lineup like this since it gives the team more of an ability to switch pick and rolls, but it is still something to look out for.
Defense: Jameer - Gary Harris - Gallo - Darrel Arthur - Nurkic
This will likely be the team's best defensive lineup. Darrel had the team's best DRtg last season and Nurkic wasn't too far behind. Gallo had the best DRtg of guys who got significant minutes and Gary Harris is probably the team's best on-ball perimeter defender. Jameer is the go-to guy for point guard defense here, as Mudiay will need at least a season to pick up on some of the nuances of the game. Chandler may snag a few of either Gallo's minutes or Darrel's minutes in this lineup but the absolute best defensive lineup will likely be this five.
The Young Guys: Mudiay - Harris - Barton - Joffrey - Jokic
This lineup won't be very effective, especially since there isn't very much rim protection or shooting, but this lineup will still provide plenty of opportunities for the young guys to show what they can do. That's the nice thing about garbage time this year for the Nuggets, even in the (hopefully) rare instances when the game is out of reach, the team still has an end of bench unit that is exciting to watch, if only to monitor their individual development.
The SMH lineup - No Shooting - Faried - Hickson
The dreaded Hickson/Faried combo has already become a topic of discussion in the Nuggets twittersphere after Malone started the two players together in last week's game against the Clippers. That duo got an alarming amount of court time together under Brian Shaw last season despite giving up 112.9 DRtg and a -8.3 Net Rtg. The negative impact of that defensive duo is compounded when they are paired with players who cannot shoot efficiently on the offensive end.
It was unfortunate that Mudiay had to make his preseason debut on national television against one of the league's best point guards. It was even worse that he had to attempt to run an efficient offense with two horribly inefficient front court players. Mudiay should almost never play alongside the Faried/Hickson combo, especially as a starting lineup.