Thursday night’s loss was a tough one for the Denver Nuggets and Nuggets fans. The Los Angeles Lakers are clearly the inferior team, but match-ups, bizarre performances, and LeBron James helped swing the game the other direction.
Nuggets fans were upset about this one, and it prompted some hot takes on Twitter. From calling for changes in the starting lineup to calling out the players and coaches, it’s time to play fact or fiction.
Trey Lyles should be getting more minutes than Paul Millsap right now. He was so bad tonight— Spencer Smith (@MrSpenster) October 26, 2018
Paul Millsap has struggled this season offensively, and it’s moving from concerning to alarming. Through five games, the Denver Nuggets starting power forward is averaging 10.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, and just 1.2 assists while shooting 37.2% from the field and a ghastly 12.5% from three-point range. Even more concerning is his assist total. Millsap is averaging the lowest assists per 36 minutes and assist rate of his career. When he receives the ball within the flow of the offense, defenses are daring him to beat them 1-on-1, and because his finishing at the rim has been so bad (46.2% from 0-3 feet, lowest of his career), teams don’t need to send help.
That being said, the defense is still exemplary, and Trey Lyles hasn’t exactly outperformed him offensively. The 23-year-old backup power forward is averaging 8.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 35.7% from the field and a more ghastly 8.3% from three-point range. Lyles plays worse defense than Millsap, so his advantage has to come on the offensive end. While Lyles is creating more opportunities for others within the flow of the offense, he has also been a turnover machine, averaging 2.8 turnovers per game in just 20.2 minutes.
There’s definitely an added element offensively when Lyles is in the starting lineup. Denver has to find a semblance of spacing around Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic if they want to reclaim a spot as a top five offense, they will have to become more creative creating shots for those three. It’s not at the point of a rotation shift yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Multiple efforts applies for the offensive end too... Nuggets stopped trying when the lakers applied pressure on DHOs... no back cuts when that pressure was applied...— Logan Wright (@Logan_JWright) October 26, 2018
There are some facts here, but it’s not just on Denver. Credit Los Angeles for applying an excellent game plan. As Adam Mares spoke about in his most recent episode of Locked On Nuggets, Jamal Murray struggled throughout the game to combat pressure applied by Lonzo Ball. The UCLA product showed exactly why he was a top defensive prospect in this game, and he took the Nuggets out of their rhythm by forcing Murray to take more time bringing the ball up the floor, even picking his pocket in the back court for an easy layup.
Once in the flow of the offense, the Lakers sat on the handoff when Nikola Jokic dribbled over to where Gary Harris or Torrey Craig stood parked in the corner while also shading the paint on the weak side. They loaded up to eliminate that portion of the playbook from Denver’s arsenal, and it worked. Denver guards couldn’t simply back cut or else they would be met by a rotating Lakers defender, most likely LeBron James or Kyle Kuzma.
Denver needs to add a wrinkle to their playbook to combat this if they are going to continue playing Torrey Craig and Paul Millsap at the same time. Both players could spend time as a weak side screener, so if Jokic and Harris are in the process of a DHO, Murray could curl around screens to free himself up on the other side of the floor, either in a cut to the basket or on the perimeter for a three.
Either way, there are some things Denver needs to improve. Finding a way to combat pressure without folding the integrity of their DHO scheme is one of them.
How is it that this NBA coaching staff can’t seem to come up with a strategy to defend the tall trees like McGee and Boban? Which assistant is coaching the bigs?— Tim James (@timoptix) October 26, 2018
The exact roles and qualities of the Denver Nuggets is unclear, but it is true that the Nuggets struggle with a specific big man player type: bigs who dominate around the rim.
Looking back at each game Denver has played so far, there are signs that the Nuggets have weaknesses defensively here. Against each of Denver’s first five opponents, backup centers and starting centers that rotate in against Denver’s bench units have had impressive performances thus far, culminating in Javale McGee’s 21 points and five offensive rebounds Thursday night.
Mason Plumlee is Denver’s backup center, but he can’t be blamed for all of this. Denver’s scheme relies heavily on help on the back side while Plumlee is hedging in the pick and roll. The scheme lends itself to this vulnerability by generally putting Denver’s bigs out of position when fighting in the paint and rebounding. That said, it’s something that the Nuggets haven’t figured out yet, and Plumlee must be better boxing out. Plumlee’s foul rate is also astronomical right now. He’s one of just five centers in the NBA to average over seven personal fouls per 36 minutes. These are important swings, and many fouls occur because of this poor positioning.
We will see what Denver does to combat this going forward.
Verdict: FACT that Denver struggles against these bigs
Malik Beasley should be getting more playing time than Torrey Craig.— JR (@JRspacelawyer) October 26, 2018
This is a tough one.
Malik Beasley hasn’t proven himself to be reliable as a perimeter shooter just yet. In the preseason, he shot the ball well, but through five games, he has only attempted seven threes, going 2/7. He also doesn’t have the size to handle opposing small forwards on most nights, which is something Craig excels at.
For the Nuggets to succeed offensively, they need shooters to space the floor. Beasley has as much of a chance as anyone to regain that shooting confidence and become a threat when left open. Still, it’s important for Denver to maintain defensive integrity, something Craig helps them do more than any other perimeter option, even Beasley. If Craig continues to struggle shooting the ball, that may change, but for now, he’s a better option than Beasley in the starting lineup.
Verdict: FICTION on Beasley
Should we try a new starting lineup? And also should we never play Torey Craig again?— t'sfor3'sdigorno (@denversportsfa1) October 26, 2018
That said, I think the correct player to fill the starting small forward spot is neither Malik Beasley nor Torrey Craig. I think it’s Juancho Hernangomez.
Juancho hasn’t started the season strongly from behind the three-point line either, going 4/12 for 33%. Despite that, his spacing and offensive IQ make him the best option to fill the gap between Murray, Harris, Millsap, and Jokic. He’s not a ball handler, and that would hurt Denver, but he goes hard on the offensive glass, cuts at the right time, and remains a major threat as a shooter.
Denver’s identity is that of an offensive team who must continue to exert multiple efforts defensively. Juancho never lacks effort on the defensive end, just execution. Still, the Spanish forward is just 23 years old and in his third season. He’s inexperienced, which means he has time to learn to play defense. What he needs most is opportunity and trust. He clearly has the ability to change games on both ends, helping beat the Golden State Warriors twice, once by offensive explosion and once by defensive execution.
Craig is a situational defender whose best role is to be deployed on an opponents best creator in short bursts. He frustrated Devin Booker and bothered Kevin Durant, but his defensive skills had relatively no impact against the Lakers because of LA’s (and LeBron’s) ability to create open shots without involving Craig. There will be nights like Thursday where Craig is neutralized in his value as a defender because the opposition willingly moves the ball. It doesn’t mean Craig isn’t a good option to have in the rotation, but perhaps the starting lineup isn’t always the best place for him.
The advantage Juancho brings offensively outweigh defensive concerns against most teams, and if he struggles to make an impact in this unit, Denver can always return to starting Craig.
Verdict: FACT on new starting lineup, FICTION on no minutes for Torrey Craig