Things just got a lot harder, but also much more simple.
Michael Malone has had a tough time this season with lineup decisions due to the early injury of Paul Millsap. The interior enforcer and veteran presence that Denver paid a pretty penny for has only played 16 games this season. He’s missed the last 34 in a row, now over two-thirds of Nuggets games played. That makes things difficult.
The initial solution was to start Mason Plumlee next to Nikola Jokic, keeping the toughness component in the lineup and sacrificing some offensive flow for defensive grit. For all intents and purposes, it worked, in that it kept the Nuggets afloat. At this moment, Denver is 26-24, in the Western Conference playoffs as the 8 seed. They are only 1.5 games back of the 6 seed and a likely date with the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs, as opposed to the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets as a 7 or 8 seed.
Last night though, Plumlee was injured going after a rebound and initially diagnosed with a calf strain. Depending on the degree of the calf strain, this is the best possible news Denver could have received. Still, Plumlee will likely be out for at least a portion of the upcoming stretch of games, an unwelcome development given the stiff competition.
Jan 30 (today) @ San Antonio (33-19)
Feb 1 vs Oklahoma City (30-20)
Feb 3 vs Golden State (40-10)
Feb 5 vs Charlotte (20-29)
Feb 9 @ Houston (35-13)
Feb 10 @ Phoenix (17-34)
Feb 13 vs San Antonio (33-19)
Feb 15 @ Milwaukee (27-22)
Feb 23 vs San Antonio (33-19)
Feb 25 vs Houston (35-13)
Feb 27 vs LA Clippers (25-24)
Over the next 11 games, nine are against teams with a .500 record or better, including seven against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, and Golden State.
To this point, the Nuggets have been relatively consistent in how they have handled the rotation in search of a victory. The high minute guys have been Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, and Nikola Jokic, usually sitting in between 28-36 minutes every night. Mason Plumlee and Trey Lyles have been the other main rotation guys, averaging in between 18-28 minutes depending on the matchup and how they perform from game to game.
However, Trey Lyles has outperformed that role. Averaging 11.0 points and 5.2 rebounds per game so far this year, Lyles’ efficiency has helped keep Denver’s offense afloat during numerous rough patches. His 59.4 effective field goal percentage ranks 3rd among qualified bench players who attempt at least seven field goals per game.
Watch how Lyles spaces the floor effectively for Jokic to operate under the basket and then receives a kick out for a wide open three pointer:
The data provides some illuminating answers for how to best utilize these two players. When Jokic is on the floor without Lyles, the Nuggets are a pretty good team, posting a +4.9 Net Rating in over 1,000 minutes of action. When Lyles and Jokic share the court? That number drops to +1.2 in a 341 minute sample. When Lyles plays without Jokic? A -4.9 Net Rating in nearly 600 minutes, a weirdly parallel occurrence.
Strangely, both Lyles and Jokic are more efficient when they play separately. When Lyles is on the floor without the Joker, he posts a 64.6 TS%. With Jokic? 57.5 TS%. When Jokic is on the floor without Lyles, he posts a 56.8 TS%. With Lyles? 54.9 TS%. While they should be more successful on the floor together based on such complimentary skill sets, they just aren’t.
But right now, it doesn’t matter. Larger things are at work here. People aren’t happy, including Chandler, and it’s time to look forward. It’s time to start Trey Lyles and focus on the young guys until Paul Millsap returns.
Both Barton and Chandler have been polarizing figures for Denver this season. Barton’s skill set has generated a mostly positive impact. Chandler, despite effectiveness defensively, has done no such thing. Barton averages 31.7 minutes a night, while Chandler averages 30.6. Both guys have had their fair share of impact, but the future of the team isn’t Barton, and it’s certainly not Chandler after he made his intentions clear during the last calendar year.
The Nuggets have to prepare for life after the safety nets are taken away. Barton is an unrestricted free agent next summer, and Chandler has a player option. Both can choose to leave for greener pastures, and if the Nuggets aren’t ready to make up for that loss, it will be their own fault. Multiple young players on the roster have not seen significant playing time (Emmanuel Mudiay, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez) since December, and even if the Nuggets don’t care, both Barton and Chandler have extreme flaws in their games next to Denver’s mini-three of Murray, Harris, and Jokic.
Lyles is locked in for next season and is a restricted free agent the year after. By all accounts, the Nuggets have enjoyed having him and see him as part of the core moving forward. In order to figure out what he’s truly capable of, I believe the Nuggets should start him next to Jokic until Paul Millsap returns. That figures to only be until the end of this stretch of difficult games, but the prospect of seeing Jokic and Lyles together for a ten game stretch against some of the best competition in the NBA be valuable information for the team going forward. Jokic is obviously a huge part of the team’s future, but if Lyles and Jokic struggle to play together, it will be hard to justify paying to keep them together.
Moving Lyles to the starting lineup may create some bench scoring concerns, but that’s why teams stagger their starters. Playing All four of Murray, Harris, Lyles, and Jokic in the starting unit is made palatable if at least one of those players is on the floor at all times while the bench comes in.
What does that mean for Barton and Chandler? Both would come off the bench for the next ten games at least, while Lyles and Torrey Craig (or potentially a trade acquisition) slot in at the starting forward spots. Both Barton and Chandler would fill bench scoring roles with plays designed to get them each involved, and if they struggle, it doesn’t impact the individual play of Murray, Harris, or Jokic as greatly.
Most importantly though, it’s time for a clutch scorer to emerge in Denver. For the last few years, Barton has undoubtedly been the best option in those situations. Given his age, standing on the team, and contract situation, having Murray, Harris, Jokic, maybe even Lyles absorb that role would be better for the team’s collective health. The Nuggets cannot expect to keep Barton and also take the next step as an organization unless they change his role.
It’s time for the Nuggets to put the game in the hands of their young stars. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but the signs are already there. Jamal Murray wants to be a leader. Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic have already shown leadership tendencies. Remember when Jameer Nelson was a possibility to be the starting point guard? If he was still on the team, Murray may not have broken out in the same fashion.
Murray, Harris, Jokic, and Lyles. Those four should (hopefully) be around Denver for a very long time. Throw them into the fire. They are ready to thrive.