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Stat of the Week: two-man lineups show the bench rotations have struggled mightily

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How can you fix a rotation when only a few lineups work?

NBA: Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This edition of Stat of the Week will focus on identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the lineup combinations so far. The Denver Nuggets have played a total of 14 games: 672 minutes on the floor this year. In those minutes, lineup combinations are starting to form, some good and some bad. Trends in the data are starting to appear, and it’s time to take the first deep dive into understanding why the data is the way that it is so far.

Let’s start with the five most common lineups Denver has utilized so far.

It’s very clear what Michael Malone is trying to do in his rotations. The starters play the majority of the minutes together, and as reserves file into the game, Malone attempts to stagger the minutes of his best players to supplement weaknesses in the bench group. Three positives from these five lineups:

  • The starting unit having a positive Net Rating is huge. A +7.1 mark for nearly 200 minutes is no joke. Only eight five-man lineups in the NBA have crossed the 150 minute threshold so far. Denver’s lineup ranks 3rd in Net Rating among that group behind Washington’s starters and Houston’s starters, both of which have been absurd so far. So...don’t change that group up.
  • Will Barton has been an excellent sixth man thus far. He personally has a +1.2 Net Rating during his 414 minutes this year, which is amazing for a couple of reasons that I will detail more later. What’s important is that in three of the four lineups Barton appears in above, the Nuggets are performing well. Individually, Barton is shooting 41.2% from three on nearly five attempts per game. His True Shooting percentage is at a career high 56.4%, which factors in a dreadful start from the free throw line. His effective field goal percentage of 53.9% puts him in a special class of shooters at his position.
  • A Nikola Jokic + Kenneth Faried + three guard lineup is really good, but in my opinion, it’s not the right combination for the rest of the season. More on that later as well.

The two major negatives for me:

  • The Mason Plumlee-Nikola Jokic combination is a pretty glaring negative here. I have a couple of reasons for why this is, and a lot of it has to do with the three players surrounding the two big men, most notably Emmanuel Mudiay.
  • Jamal Murray isn’t playing against any bench lineups anymore. Almost all of his minutes have come against the opposing team’s best ball handler (Ricky Rubio, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and Stephen Curry to name a few) and a lot of great defenses as well. He isn’t being optimized in a lineup that features two subpar shooters in Wilson Chandler and Paul Millsap. While his defense has shown marked improvement, his offense is the most important indicator of his star potential.

Breaking things down further into two-man lineup combinations illustrates the scope of the problem. The Nuggets have a bench rotation issue.

It’s encouraging that the entire top left quadrant is green and frightening that the rest of the chart is filled with mostly ugly colors. As we saw in the five-man lineups above, the starters have had a mostly positive impact, in spite of some ugly shooting performances from three starters so far. We know that Barton has also excelled. Something is affecting the numbers, and from my perspective, the issue is either Emmanuel Mudiay or Mason Plumlee.

Now, Mudiay has been a part of some positive lineups for Denver. In the above five-man lineups, Mudiay is a part of two positive lineups and one negative lineup. He has also put up better numbers this season and has shot the three-pointer at an incredible rate. 46.9% from beyond the arc paces the team, albeit on low attempts.

Unfortunately, something just isn’t clicking with Mudiay lineups. When the 21-year-old is on the floor, the Nuggets generate just a 99.1 offensive rating, the second lowest among rotation players ahead of only Malik Beasley. The team has not been good with Beasley on the floor either, but his most common lineup comes with Kenneth Faried and Jokic on the floor as well. That quartet of Mudiay-Beasley-Faried-Jokic has posted a +20.2 net rating in 46 minutes, so that’s a lineup Denver should definitely keep around.

The odd thing is, it’s nothing that Mudiay is doing personally that is elevating that group. When that quartet shares the floor, Mudiay has a 30.3% usage rate and just 45.2% true shooting. The main thing with that group is the defense, holding opposing teams to just 81.7 points per 100 possessions. How much of that is Mudiay’s doing is difficult to say,

The other possibility is that Plumlee has been the major issue, and that’s fairly possible. When the team plays Paul Millsap and Jokic together (297 minutes so far), they generate a +7.1 Net Rating. In the other 375 minutes, the following combinations have played minutes in tandem:

The only non-starter combination that has worked so far is the Faried-Jokic lineup. All other lineups have struggled. Not just when Plumlee enters the game, but when Faried plays as well. A Faried-Millsap pairing should be interesting and dynamic on both ends, but to this point, it hasn’t worked.

Much has been made of the lack of success of the Plumlee-Jokic lineup, and it’s true. Statistically, that lineup has been bad. Let’s examine which players have been a part of that lineup’s 63 total minutes thus far:

  • Will Barton - 60/63 minutes
  • Emmanuel Mudiay - 56/63 minutes
  • Wilson Chandler - 43/63 minutes
  • Gary Harris - 18/63 minutes
  • Jamal Murray - 8/63 minutes
  • Malik Beasley - 4/63 minutes

So, the majority of the minutes have been filled by the Mudiay-Barton-Chandler trio. Barton performs well in this lineup, generating a 64.3 TS% according to the NBAwowy! database. The two players that perform abhorrently? Mudiay and Chandler, shooting a 42.9 TS% and 31.3 TS% respectively. Both Mudiay and Chandler need space to drive, and even though Mudiay has shot the three well so far, he’s only attempted two three pointers in this lineup configuration.

Denver has shooters that are shooting well, but they aren’t generating the gravity in these lineup rotations. A lot of it has to do with everyone re-learning how to perform in this offense, but the Plumlee-Jokic duo hasn’t generated the requisite three-point attempt rate to be a good offense.

Potential Solutions

Juancho Hernangomez or Trey Lyles as a floor spacer and occasional small ball option. Both guys would assume playing time at power forward, while Hernangomez could see some time at small forward in addition. Chandler hasn’t been the player he was last year, and while his chemistry with the starting unit leaves him playable as a starter, his presence in other lineups has negatively impacted the game. Adding in some minutes from shooters off the bench would allow the Nuggets to continue to use Jokic and Millsap in complementing groups.

Less minutes for both Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee. Neither guy has proved they should be on the floor for extended periods of time. The Faried-Jokic group should be a staple every game with three guards, but no other minutes for Faried should be guaranteed from game to game. Plumlee at this point is probably non-essential if the Nuggets do decide to go small. Millsap can handle minutes at center, and adding in minutes for Hernangomez or Lyles to complement him would provide the requisite space. Still, if Plumlee is part of the picture, they need to play him less with three slashers (Mudiay, Barton, and Chandler) and more with floor spacers (Murray, Harris, Beasley, Hernangomez). Also consider that in Plumlee’s minutes without Mudiay, the team has generated a +20 Net Rating. Which leads me to:

More minutes for Will Barton at point guard and less for Emmanuel Mudiay and Jamal Murray. There are very few lineups that have played 10 or more minutes that are positive with Mudiay in the mix. The ones that are? A Faried-Jokic lineup with two other guards, and a Millsap-Plumlee lineup with two other guards. Staggering Mudiay and Chandler will do wonders for the bench, which means not only playing Hernangomez or Lyles more, but also playing Barton at point guard. It wouldn’t surprise me if a Barton-Beasley-Hernangomez-Millsap-Plumlee lineup or a Barton-Beasley-Hernangomez-Faried-Jokic was successful in certain bench configurations. Shooting, a playmaking big man or two, and athleticism on the perimeter would certainly make things interesting. Heck, Mudiay would probably be successful in place of Hernangomez. He already is. The point is to add more shooting and reduce the playing time of low efficiency or low volume shooters.

I included Murray here as well because, well, he hasn’t been a great playmaker. Reducing his burden to make plays, against starters and/or bench players, would help him find his best role: scoring the basketball.

*All numbers come from NBA.com or NBAWowy! unless otherwise noted and are up to date as of November 16th.


That wraps up this edition of SOTW. Let us know in the comments section which lineup duos, trios, or any other groupings are intriguing for good or bad reasons.

Poll

Which potential lineup solution should be put into action?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    More Juancho Hernangomez and/or Trey Lyles
    (68 votes)
  • 19%
    Less Kenneth Faried and/or Mason Plumlee
    (23 votes)
  • 24%
    More Will Barton at point guard
    (30 votes)
121 votes total Vote Now