This edition of Stat of the Week will revisit a graph I made about six weeks ago discussing Two-Man Net Ratings. At that point, the data visualized that the starting unit plus Will Barton was very effective, but substituting in Emmanuel Mudiay, Mason Plumlee, Kenneth Faried, and others were hurting the Nuggets in nearly every combination. Since writing that article on November 17th, Paul Millsap injured his wrist on November 19th and has been out ever since, leading to some drastic changes for this Nuggets team.
Has much changed? Nope.
First, a refresher. A Two-Man Net Rating for the Denver Nuggets is basically picking two players on the floor for the Nuggets at the same time. Then, when the Nuggets score and give up points, those numbers are charged to that two-man pairing after adjusting for the number of possessions. The difference between points scored and points given up is found to generate a Net Rating for that duo.
Second, Net Ratings aren’t perfect. So much of a player’s rating is determined by the actions of the other nine players on the court. The hope is that over time and with a large sample size, trends can be identified in the data, and outliers can either be dismissed or used at points of emphasis in a future matchup.
Here’s the Two-Man Net Ratings chart from November 17th, roughly a month into the season.
At this point, the top left quadrant was very successful, which reflected in the Five-Man lineup data. Denver’s most used lineup remains the original starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic, a unit that had played 224 minutes to the tune of a +12.0 Net Rating. This grouping was one of the very best units in the NBA to eclipse 200 minutes..
Of course, that all changed when Millsap injured his wrist. He hasn’t played more than 20 minutes since that lineup last saw the floor. Jokic has also missed time. Chandler was dealing with a bad back. Those were the three players who played the most minutes through the first month of the season. In their stead, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee stepped up, while Torrey Craig came up from the G League to prove on the big stage that he was an NBA caliber player. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris shouldered the scoring load, each guy averaging about 18 points per game during the month of December.
Despite the constant changes and waves, the Nuggets stayed afloat, and there’s a huge reason why: they’re playing the guys with the most positive impact on the score. Here are the Two-Man Net Ratings through January 4th:
Blank cells are due to a lack of sample size, but the illustration of Denver’s biggest problem is staggering: Emmanuel Mudiay is a negative across the board. With Jokic, with Harris, with Millsap, with Barton, it just doesn’t matter. The Nuggets have not performed well when Mudiay takes the floor.
WHY the Nuggets have performed poorly is a different question. My suggestion: Mudiay simply doesn’t fit well with what the Nuggets want to do offensively. It doesn’t mean he hasn’t improved certain aspects of his game, but it’s damning that he struggles with Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and Paul Millsap, not just Will Barton, Trey Lyles, and Mason Plumlee.
Mudiay has slightly improved his scoring and efficiency this year, mostly from developing a successful three-point shot. Unfortunately, the turnover rate, the assist rate, and the defensive efficiency leave much to be desired. There’s an argument that he has improved his defense, but whether he has or hasn’t is irrelevant. When he’s on the floor, the team posts the worst Defensive Rating - 111.6 - of any rotation player. And it’s independent of the players he plays with as well. When he was on the floor with Denver’s best defensive Three-Man unit (Harris, Chandler, and Jokic), the team still posted a 117.0 Defensive Rating, albeit in a small sample.
Regardless of who’s fault it is, the Nuggets play better without Emmanuel Mudiay, and the biggest reason that the Nuggets have stayed afloat is they shortened the rotation, cutting Mudiay out in the process.
Other observations from the chart:
- The order impact big men in my estimation: Nikola Jokic, then Paul Millsap, then Trey Lyles/Mason Plumlee, then Kenneth Faried. Both Jokic and Millsap are clearly the most positively impactful, while Lyles and Plumlee are dependent on the matchup. Faried has fallen out of the rotation, but with Michael Malone looking to expand the rotation again, playing with Murray, Harris, and Jokic seems to be his best fit.
- Both Jokic and Harris are positive with just about everyone. This was a trait that Jokic had last year, and it’s a trait that Harris now has this year thanks to another year of growth and development. Because of this, I would recommend that the Nuggets continue to stagger their two best healthy players right now. They can and should continue to start and finish games together, but in the middle of the game, having at least one of Harris or Jokic on the floor at all times could alleviate some the Nuggets’ bench concerns. When Jokic is off the floor, Harris and Plumlee can run two-man games. When Harris if off the floor, Jokic can orchestrate the offense. Murray and Barton can balance out each of those units with guard scoring, while Chandler and Lyles can balance each unit with two-way forward play.
- When Paul Millsap comes back, the problems may remain. The biggest culprit in Millsap-led bench lineups was Mudiay initially, but Barton struggled to adjust to Millsap as well. It will be a process to reintegrate Millsap back into the main rotation, but the Nuggets can fall back on the starting lineup that was so successful, with Millsap being a major reason why.
That will do it for Stat of the Week this week. Jokic and Harris have been extremely impactful, which should surprise no one. Plumlee isn’t the cause of all of the Nuggets’ problems. Mudiay has been eliminated from the rotation, and the Nuggets have played better. He wasn’t the only reason for lineup struggles, but the fact of the matter is that he’s not a solution either. There would be at least one positive Two-Man combo if that was the case.
Can Emmanuel Mudiay turn things around given the opportunity?
This poll is closed
He may not get another opportunity to prove it.