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The Denver Nuggets are onto something with their “big ball” lineups

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The Nuggets have a rare combination of size and skill

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

We are only a month into the Mason Plumlee era in Denver and it’s probably too early to draw any conclusions about his fit with the rest of the roster just yet. Tim Connelly and the Nuggets front office team still has another month to evaluate how well Plumlee and Nikola Jokic fit together on the court before they make what could be a sink or swim decision on whether or not Plumlee can be a part of the foundation of this team and how much they can afford to pay him. By all accounts, the Nuggets made the trade with the plan to re-sign him this offseason to a long-term deal and there really isn’t any reason to believe that they have changed their minds. Plumlee has been solid.

Bot one possible reason that he has been solid is because he allows the Nuggets to play a fairly unique brand of basketball: big ball. Small ball is the buzz word around the NBA over the last few seasons as more and more teams choose playmaking and shooting over size and post ups but with Jokic and Plumlee, the Nuggets have two center-sized players that can space the floor and make plays like most small ball fours while maintaining the size inside to rebound and post up.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the “big ball” lineups that have worked and a few that have not.

The Honey-Plum lineup

The most important question surrounding Plumlee’s fit here in Denver is can he play alongside Nikola Jokic. That pair has played 103 minutes together so far this season, just five fewer minutes than Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic did before Nurkic was traded to Portland. While the “Balkan Buddy Ball” lineup did not work in their limited time together, the “Honey-Plum” lineup (a mixture of Big Honey and Plumlee) has produced a slightly positive net rating having outscored opponents by a total of five points in 210 possessions.

Looking even closer, there is an interesting trend that is beginning to emerge with that duo. Roughly half of those 103 minutes have been played with either Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler on the court at small forward. In the 46 minutes that either of those two guys have been on the court with the Honey-Plum lineup, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 18 points. In the 58 minutes that neither Gallo nor Chandler were on the court, the Honey Plum lineup has been outscored by 13 points.

First, an important caveat. These are ridiculously small sample sizes and it’s important not to draw any conclusions from these stats alone. Half of the good minutes with Gallo came against the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that makes almost every lineup look good. So with just 23 minutes to go off of, it’s best to use these stats as a basis for asking questions rather than providing any answers.

Looking at the tape, in the minutes he’s played with both Plumlee and Jokic on the floor, the 6’ 10” Gallinari gets matched up against undersized small forwards since few teams have three players 6”10” or taller and few teams can risk putting an undersized wing on either of Denver’s centers for fear of giving up offensive rebounds or post ups. In the clip below, watch how easily he posts up over smaller defenders and how difficult it is to provide help with Jokic at the top of the key and Plumlee in the short corner.

The natural adjustment is to have the help defense over-pursue Gallo inside to take away easy plays like that but Jokic is the perfect center to take advantage of the extra room to operate. He’s automatic from that mid-range zone, ranking 2nd in the NBA in FG% between 8-16 feet among players to take at least one per game. He’s also a threat to run into a dribble handoff at the top of the key, opening up a guard for a three point shot.

Other big ball lineups

While the Plumlee-Jokic duo hasn’t fared well with any other small forward on the Nuggets roster in their limited minutes, other big ball combinations have worked out very nicely for the Nuggets all season long. Most notably, the trio of Jokic, Gallo, and Kenneth Faried has been absolutely unstoppable. In 194 minutes this season, that trio has a scorching +23.2 Net Rating. They’ve nearly outscored opponents by 100 points!

The same principles that apply to the Honey Plum and Gallo lineup apply to the lineup with Faried instead of Plumlee. Teams can’t risk putting a smaller defender on Faried since he is an offensive rebounding juggernaut which means they have to either match Denver’s size at small forward or stick an undersized defender on Gallo. Either way, Gallo is designed to exploit those situations. He’s too quick and crafty for most big men and he’s too strong for most traditional small forwards. Perhaps the most underrated aspect of the season is that those three have only shared the court together in 24 games since both Gallo and Faried have missed extended periods of time this season.

Mason Plumlee has only played seven minutes with that pair so it is impossible to say whether that efficiency carries over but for what it’s worth, the Nuggets scored 21 points on 14 possessions.

Another big ball lineup is the Jokic-Gallo-Chandler lineup. It’s smaller than the Honey-Plum or Jokic-Faried lineups but it still works as a big ball lineup since all three guys are big enough to over-power traditional power forwards. When those three guys share the court, someone usually has a size advantage on the wing while on the other end, at 6’ 10”, Gallo is big enough to contain most power forwards. The Nuggets have played 515 minutes with those three on the court together and have a +9.3 Net Rating.

Plumlee has played just 36 minutes with that trio and the team has a 0.0 Net Rating in those minutes.

Curiously enough, the one tall player that does not have a positive net rating with any of the big ball lineups is Darrell Arthur. The Nuggets are in the negative with every three-man combination involving Arthur and two of Jokic, Plumlee, Gallo, or Chandler. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Arthur that doesn’t work in these types of lineups but my initial guess would be that teams can guard Arthur with a smaller defender since he does most of his damage offensively from outside of the paint and isn’t a huge threat to kill you on the offensive glass.

These stats are worth monitoring over the final month of the season since the Nuggets will likely be making decisions on whether to re-up with both Plumlee and Gallo. It’ll also factor in to how they field trade calls for Chandler and Faried. The Nuggets might be on to something with their skilled big ball lineups. All four seem to be fairly interchangeable in terms of putting together combinations. And the most important combination, the Honey-Plum combo, might be a bit more dependent on having a tall and skilled scorer on the wing.

Its awfully far from conclusive. But it’s worth tracking throughout the final month of the season.

*All stats courtesy of NBAwowy.com