One of the takeaways from last night’s preseason victory over the Golden State Warriors was the notable absence of Kenneth Faried from the rotation. Yes, it’s the preseason and the mixing and matching of lineups is inevitable and probably getting scrutinized far too much, but for Faried to not even see the floor was a surprise, especially given the power forward’s rather direct comments on Media Day.
While Faried may see himself as a starting caliber player for this team, the reality is with Paul Millsap on board, the Manimal will certainly be reduced to the bench. This is simply situational. It’s not that all of a sudden Faried isn’t a good basketball player - his fit with Jokic is actually very well documented and he always brings an unparalleled hustle to the game. It’s just that Millsap, a four-time All-Star, is unarguably a better player and has the potential to do more as the starting power forward than can Faried. Millsap’s line yesterday of 22 points on 63.6% shooting (4-6 from three), 11 rebounds and two assists speaks for itself.
Faried off the bench is a given, but to not even crack the rotation could be a telltale sign of what coach Michael Malone thinks of Faried’s role on the new-look Nuggets. During practice this week, Malone was very upfront about what he’ll be looking for in the backup power forward: fit.
“The battle between Kenneth Faried and Trey Lyles is a great one to watch. Two completely different players.” Malone said after training camp on Thursday. “It’s not just the one person, it’s the fit on the floor with the players around them.”
Faried’s fit next to Jokic? Pretty good. His fit next to backup center Mason Plumlee? More questionable. Malone even hinted at where he’d be heading with the backup power forward position: “You put Trey Lyles next to Mason Plumlee. I think those guys compliment each other very well.”
And so, Lyles was the first one off the bench behind Paul Millsap while Faried remained sidelined all night long. On paper, Lyles’ ability to at least somewhat space the floor and rotate more on defense meshes better with Plumlee than does Faried. On the court in Oakland, the Lyles-Plumlee frontcourt showed flashes together on both ends of the floor for the Nuggets bench unit, which had some ups and downs but was ultimately able to help put away the Warriors. Lyles finished with six points, four rebounds and two assists but was -10 in his 22 minutes on the night. Plumlee finished +13 and posted a nice double-double, 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Add the versatility that Wilson Chandler brings as a stretch four and the strengths that Juancho Hernangomez can bring to that position and Faried’s hope for minutes gets even murkier. Malone even said on Media Day that he wants to get these two playing time behind Millsap this season.
There’s a chance that one preseason DNP-CD for Faried probably won’t amount to much and he could very well see the floor on Monday in Los Angeles as Malone continues to fine-tune the rotation. But a real concern exists for how this could play out down the road. Faried has been clear that he expects to play and that he will be doing all he can to compete for minutes. What if Malone decides that Faried’s unique style of play is no longer needed in Denver?
The worst thing that could happen for the Nuggets locker room is for Faried to pick up the void where Jusuf Nurkic left off. The Nuggets have made it a priority to surround their younger talent with locker room leaders who know what it takes to be a professional in this league. Any unnecessary drama could undermine the positive impact Darrell Arthur, Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller have had and potentially put a damper on what looks to be a special season for the Nuggets.
Faried has been a valuable part of the Nuggets for the past six seasons. He’s been a fan favorite since his debut and was a key component for a 57-win team. But his track record with the team isn’t 100% perfect, either. During the disastrous Brian Shaw years, Faried was one of the players who butted heads with the rookie coach the most, leading to a severe lack of trust and locker room discord. Shaw, who was ultimately fired, repeatedly questioned the team’s professionalism during his tenure.
I’m a firm believer that Faried is a talented player and that he deserves to be in the league and I’m certainly not going to blame him one bit for wanting to start and play - he’s started 365 of his 409 games in a Nuggets uniform and expects to compete every night. If he isn’t going to play, however, the onus is on Malone to communicate effectively about Faried’s role moving forward. There absolutely cannot be any miscommunication similar to the unclarity regarding Jusuf Nurkic (and Wilson Chandler, for that matter) last season. Any more players lashing out about role uncertainty again would be a disaster, and while I do think Faried is a professional it’s a lot harder to buy into the good of the team when you’re not on the court.
If Faried’s role on the team really has diminished, the greater challenge will be finding a trade partner willing to take on his contract without giving up an asset in order to do so. Tim Connelly has already done that twice, attaching a first-round pick to dump JaVale McGee in 2015 and sending a first-rounder to Portland with Jusuf Nurkic last year. Doing it again to offload Faried could be a mistake, but it could also be mistake keeping an unhappy player for too long. It’s unclear whether such a market for Faried actually does exist, but I’d like to think that if one did Faried indeed would have been traded by now.
For now, the Nuggets remain in a tough position regarding Faried. He is a valuable player next to Jokic, but off the bench his fit is far less certain. And try as he might, Connelly can’t force anyone to take Faried’s contract without overpaying. Many questions remain, but one thing is certain: the Nuggets can’t let this one spiral out of control.