Trey Lyles is struggling with his shot this season. He’s shooting a career-worst 41.9% from the field and 25% from the three-point line while posting career-lows in most catch-all metrics including box plus-minus, win shares, and value over replacement player. All of this in a year when the Denver Nuggets must make a decision on Lyles’s fit with the team long-term before he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
But Lyles is an interesting case. There are signs that he has a more valuable skillset than what he has shown this season and there are concerns that those skills might always be diminished when playing alongside Denver’s other skilled front court players.
When Trey Lyles and Nikola Jokic share the court
The Denver Nuggets have really struggled in the 167 minutes this season that both Nikola Jokic and Trey Lyles have shared the court. The team has been outscored by 26 points in those minutes with a net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possession) of -9. For reference, only the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns have an overall net rating of -9 or worse which means that when Jokic and Lyles share the court, the Nuggets are as bad as the two worst teams in the league.
More to the point, Lyles is the only player on the Denver Nuggets roster with a negative two-man net rating when paired alongside Jokic. A quick look at the stats below shows that Jokic paired with anybody but Trey Lyles has been effective so far this season.
Similar trends were true last season when Lyles was Jokic’s 3rd worst two-man pairing, ahead of Emmanuel Mudiay and Torrey Craig. And while lineups like the ones that feature Mason Plumlee in the front court next to Jokic lose a little on the offensive end, they make up for it on the boards and with some pretty stout defense. Lineups like the ones that feature Juancho Henrangomez struggle on the defensive end but make up for it by being dynamic on offense. With Jokic-Lyles lineups, the team seems to struggle with everything across the board.
When they each play without the other
But while the two players struggle to find their groove alongside each other, both players have been extremely productive without one another.
Jokic’s positive impact without Lyles on the court doesn’t come as a surprise. Jokic is the king of plus-minus, almost always having a positive impact on the game. If you remove both Lyles and Craig, the team’s net rating with Jokic on the court skyrockets to +16 in a 425 minutes sample size.
What is especially interesting is that Lyles has been solid in the minutes that he does not share the court with Jokic. Over the last four seasons, no player has looked so much better on the court without Jokic than Lyles has this season. Even Emmanuel Mudiay and Torrey Craig have looked better with Jokic than without him, even if both have been net negatives overall in their NBA careers. That isn’t the case with Lyles.
And Lyles‘s effectiveness in those minutes without Jokic have been especially important to Denver’s success this year. The Nuggets’ bench has been a huge reason why they have gotten off to a hot start so far this season. Denver’s starting lineup has been a positive for three seasons now, but their bench has been an anchor until this year.
And it’s not just team numbers. Lyles personally sees a huge dropoff in his efficiency when he’s on the court with Jokic. So what happens to him when he’s playing alongside Joker?
In addition to a noticeable dropoff in Lyles’s shooting percentages, his usage rate also plummets when he’s sharing the court with Jokic, a sign that he is much better in a role that requires more touches and more attention. Without Jokic on the floor, the ball is placed in Lyles’s hands more often and he is used more frequently as a screener in both PnR and pick-and-pop action. The Monte Morris-Lyles PnR has especially been deadly at creating open three-point attempts at the top of the key or opportunities for Lyles to attack the closeout, his best NBA skill.
Conversely, he ranks in the 30th percentile as a spot up shooter, a role he finds himself in much more frequently when he’s playing alongside Jokic.
The Nuggets should experiment with Lyles as a ball handler in 4-5 PnRs with Jokic, something that the team had success with in previous season with Danilo Gallinari. Both Lyles and Jokic are comfortable forcing switches and scoring against mismatched defenders. For Jokic, than means posting up undersized forwards. For Lyles, that means shooting over or blowing by slower, lumbering centers.
The 4-5 PnR also places bigs into defensive assignments that they are unfamiliar with. Most bigs prefer to protect the rim and contain PnRs by mucking up the back line of defense but by placing both bigs out above the free throw line for a PnR, the defense becomes inverted. Lyles isn’t as effective as Gallo at passing on the move but he’s shown flashes of being able to make basic reads as a lead play-maker and the reads in a 4-5 PnR are simple enough that Lyles should be able to keep his decision-making simple. According to Synergy, the Nuggets have run just two PnRs with Lyles as the ball handler and Jokic as the screener so far this season.
Lyles and the future of the Denver Nuggets
Larger questions loom for the Nuggets. The NBA trade deadline is just 7 weeks away and Denver may come to the conclusion that it is better to part ways with Lyles now rather than be put in the uncomfortable position of having to pay him over the summer or risk losing him for nothing. If the team feels that Lyles is not a good fit alongside Jokic, what value can he possibly bring to the team long-term, even if he is helping to elevate the bench? Players on long-term contracts must be able to play alongside the franchise’s star.
At the same time, it’s always tough to cut ties with a talented player who is still coming into his own. Lyles is just 23 years old. 6’10” prospects who can post up, rebound, and put the ball on the floor are hard to come by. Jarred Vanderbilt can do all of those things but he has yet to participate in a practice and has a two foot surgeries on his resume. Paul Millsap has been a near perfect front court running mate for Jokic but he’s 33 years old and coming off of two injuries in two seasons.
The Nuggets have less than two months to figure out Lyles’s value to the team, this year and going forward, and it’s a decision that will likely follow the team for years to come. For now, the reviews on his fit in Denver have been mixed.
*all data is current as of Tuesday, December 25th