For the first time this season the Denver Nuggets are healthy. Gary Harris has returned from a foot injury, Darrell Arthur is recovered from knee surgery and various other ankle tweaks and wrist sprains are at least tolerable enough that everyone is able to gut through their ailments. For the first time this season coach Michael Malone has his full complement of players and along with that he had to spend the first quarter of the season mixing and matching lineups to overcome all the injuries that it appears he’s also now found an effective combination of starters. Two games into what is the Nuggets eleventh starting lineup combination they seem to have discovered the proper combination to get games started right. In both their contests against the Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks Denver was able to capture the lead early and would wind up never surrendering it. This is no coincidence. While Emmanuel Mudiay and Danilo Gallinari have been relative mainstays in the starting lineup, inserting Wilson Chandler and Nikola Jokic while simultaneously returning Harris from injury has made a significant impact to Denver’s early game success and along with it has come some impressive play from their struggling but dynamic point guard.
Harris’ addition to the starting lineup is of course the least surprising. He was the Nuggets starting two guard last season and despite selecting Jamal Murray seventh overall in the 2016 NBA draft, general manager Tim Connelly was emphatic on draft night that Harris was still the starting two guard. However a groin issue which was followed by a foot issue kept Gary on the injured list for almost the entire first quarter of the season. In his place the Nuggets have had to use a combination of Jameer Nelson and Will Barton to fill the starting two guard role and while each has been serviceable in that spot, there are noticeable shotcomings with each in comparison to Gary. First and foremost is the defense. At thirty-four years of age and generous height listing of 6’0”, Nelson physically is unable to stay in front of athletic wings, or even wings with marginal athleticism and while a small sample size right now would bear statistically that there is little difference defensively between Barton and Harris, their performance would say otherwise. Not to say that Barton is bad, but take a look at the play below. Harris fights through the screen and still trails Damian Lillard but he doesn’t give up on the play, rather he uses his quick hands to strip Lillard from behind and create a fast break opportunity for the Nuggets. That’s elite defense and as good as Barton is, he just doesn’t have that in his skill set.
Clip via 3ball.io
With the defensive ability of Harris back in the starting lineup the Nuggets present a difficult back court to face offensively. Mudiay’s size gives him a natural advantage as a defender and while the twenty year old is still learning how to be a lock down defender, he’s not a slouch by any measure and is a positive contributor on that end of the court. Additionally, beyond just the advantageous defensive pairing, Mudiay has more chemistry with Harris than any other player on the team and coach Malone has basically said that makes a major impact on Mudiay’s play. What the stats have shown this season is that while Mudiay scores less frequently when Harris is on the court, he also shoots a better percentage from beyond the arc and earns more trips to the free throw line, meaning that while scoring is down, efficiency is up.
There’s more to Mudiay’s improvement than just having his buddy in the backcourt of course, and there’s more to the Nuggets recent early game success than just improved play from Mudiay. However, there’s also no doubt that it behooves the team to put him in the best place to succeed and the other two additions to the starting lineup help do exactly that. Chandler’s addition is the most warranted. He’s been the most consistent and outright best player on the team so far this year and while he’s a bit undersized to play power forward, injuries forced coach Malone to play him there regardless and he’s shined in the role. With Chandler the Nuggets have another scoring option as well as another playmaker with the ball. This is especially key when considering how to make Mudiay more successful. Chandler replaces Faried in the lineup and there is a stark contrast between the two players. Where Chandler provides spacing and playmaking, Faried provides hustle and energy along with excellent fast break ability. These are valuable traits but they are more in-tune with a bench player where those bursts of energy and running can be utilized against tiring starters before they rotate out. Furthermore, Faried is weak in terms of shooting ability and playmaking which allowed teams to clog the lane and leave Kenneth unguarded whenever he was more than a few feet outside the lane, leaving Mudiay to tangle with an extra big in the paint while Faried stood unguarded in the corner.
Just like Chandler, Jokic provides similar help to Mudiay in floor spacing and playmaking ability. However, unlike Chandler, Jokic is extremely effective at setting up his teammates for scoring opportunities and is also capable of being the primary decision maker when running the offense. Never has this been more prevalent than in the first half of Saturday’s game against the Knicks where beyond just Jokic running the offense from the elbow, there were also numerous occasions where he brought the ball up the court and ran sort of a pseudo fast break. Probably not something Denver wants to throw in their regular arsenal but it does highlight how Jokic can help alleviate the ball handling and distributing responsibilities that fall on Mudiay’s shoulders, which is something Mudiay has said he was happy to have Nelson in the lineup for in the past. Additionally, an underrated portion of Mudiay’s game is his ability to cut to the basket off ball or in a give and go situation, with Jokic at the high post distributing this strength of Mudiay’s game can be maximized in ways that were at the very least not as fluid with Jusuf Nurkic as the starting center.
Clip via 3ball.io
It’s an incredibly small sample size, just two games, but there’s no arguing the returns have been positive on the new starting lineup. There have been sacrifices as well. Juancho Hernangomez will likely see more minutes in the D-league than the NBA now that Chandler and Faried occupy virtually all of the power forward minutes (Gallinari will get some burn there too) and Arthur who likewise plays the four appears to be have pushed out of the rotation. Harris’ return means an ascension to the starting lineup for Jamal Murray is on hold as well, but perhaps in comparison to the way the team handled Mudiay, slowing the rook’s inevitable plunge into the fire could be a good thing. Time will bear out if a Mudiay-Harris-Chandler-Gallinari-Jokic starting lineup is the difference between another trip to the lottery versus a post season birth, but for now at least it appears this unit has the team headed in the right direction and a lot of that has to do with how it sets up Denver’s point guard to succeed.