The Denver Nuggets are in familiar territory. With just twenty-four games to go they find themselves in position to pick up a lower seed in the playoffs, but they also have teams just outside of the playoffs nipping at their heels. This was no different than the situation last year. The Nuggets floundered in crucial games down the stretch and ultimately would miss the post season by two games in 2017 and desperately want to avoid a repeat of that. This isn’t to say that this year’s team isn’t better than last years. Despite being slotted in the eighth seed on February 22, 2017, the Nuggets were six games under .500 through 56 games. This year’s team is six games above .500 through 58 games. No matter how you slice it, a 10 game swing is improvement. However, Denver’s not the only team who has improved.
The race for the playoffs this year in the West couldn’t be any different with seeds 3-10 separated by just four games in the loss column and every single one of them above .500. The New Orleans Pelicans remain in the playoff picture despite Demarcus Cousins being injured for the remainder of the season. The Los Angeles Clippers remain in the hunt despite shipping out everyone not named Lou Williams, and the demises of the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers were vastly exaggerated. Denver also faces one of the heaviest road schedules to close out the year, including a brutal March that features just four home games. Indeed, despite the improvement, the Nuggets find themselves in very real danger of missing the postseason again.
Unlike last year where the plan was simply to play the best they could and hopefully it will be enough, this years Nuggets has a much more tangible hurdle to clear in order to stay on track for the playoffs: integrating two of their key rotation pieces. After just 16 games Paul Millsap suffered a torn ligament in his wrist after a routine play by Julius Randle resulted in the injury. Millsap is far and away the best defender on the team and also arguably the best player on the team, but the Nuggets survived through a mixture of improved guard play and leaning on Mason Plumlee to shore up the defensive woes, particularly in the post and at the rim. The sacrifice of course was the offensive efficiency, particularly with Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets stumbled through January, what was supposed to be the easiest part of their schedule, and briefly fell to the outside looking in on the playoff race, but then something that didn’t count on happened. Plumlee went down with a calf strain on January 30th that sidelined him for three weeks. Denver has gone 6-2 in that stretch with one of the losses being a half inch away from a Will Barton buzzer beating victory. Denver’s found their offensive rhythm as well, averaging over 118 points per game behind a resurgent Nikola Jokic who also has three triple-doubles over the same period of time. However, the defense has suffered, giving up an average 114.6 points per game.
With Plumlee set to return tonight, and Millsap just a couple weeks later, coach Michael Malone faces a task that very well may make or break his career in Denver. The Nuggets don’t have the liberty to wait while these guys get comfortable, the standings won’t allow it. Coach Malone has to figure out how to re-insert two of his rotation pieces without disrupting the Nuggets recent success. While integrating Plumlee shouldn’t be too tough with him missing 8 games, it’s complicated by the fact that the team is playing better, at least offensively, without him being on the court next to Jokic. There’s also the fact that Millsap is without a doubt the starting power forward of this team so if the Nuggets were to bring back Plumlee as a starter, they’d be faced with shuffling their rotation again in a matter of weeks.
So what’s the answer? Well, it’s complicated. Bringing Plumlee back as the starting center and sliding Jokic to the four seems like the most natural thing for coach to do. He’s a big believer in Plumlee’s defense, as he should be, and he recognizes the boost Mase gives the team on that end. Plumlee is also a very good player who deserves to play more than just a 15 minute a game backup center. However, it’s foolish to think that utilizing him on offense in similar ways as the Nuggets did in January will be the best course. In that system Plumlee operated in the post with the ball in his hands often, while Jokic spent most of his time operating as a stretch four, giving some DHOs and pick and pop opportunities around the perimeter while otherwise spacing the floor from the corner. It’s not a terrible thing, Jokic has the skills to perform those roles, but it handicaps his ability and limits his involvement on offense which causes the team to suffer.
As our own Adam Mares has pointed out, Plumlee can be successful playing next to Jokic if he operates under a Kenneth Faried type role on offense. Essentially getting zero plays drawn up for him and working the offensive glass while also being the easy dump man for Jokic when he gets double teamed by the opposing center and power forward. It sounds simple enough but it really isn’t. Working off ball with a pass first center who is best facilitating from the high post takes time to learn, we’ve seen that over and over again with this team. It’s also not a role that Mason has played very much this season and the question remains whether he is capable of filling that role consistently and if he can adapt to it quick enough to not hurt the team in this crucial period.
What may be more concerning though is how quickly Millsap can adapt to just being back with the team. When asked on Wednesday about how quickly he thinks he’ll get back in rhythm, Millsap’s answer was somewhat alarming:
I have no idea, I don’t what to expect. Pretty much a deer in the headlights. You know, my first game will probably be like today’s practice...not knowing any of the plays. You know things moving pretty fast but, I’ve been around a long time so hopefully I’ll be able to pick it up very fast
One of the issues with integrating Millsap is the Nuggets don’t have a fairly synonymous player for his skill set. Right now Wilson Chandler has been operating as the starting power forward which is as close to Millsap as the Nuggets can probably get. However, one of the reasons Chandler is so effective at the four is because of his ability to drive to the rim from the perimeter against slower fours, whereas Millsap operates almost exclusively as a catch and shoot player at the perimeter. No matter what, the Nuggets system will have to adjust some for Millsap’s return. It also means moving Chandler back to the SF position where he’s less effective (though he did look good from that spot right beofre Millsap got injured). The Nuggets could elect to keep Will Barton starting at SF but that would mean changing Wilson’s role entirely (something that’s not likely to sit well with him) and would put a pinch on Trey Lyles minutes with Chandler and Plumlee eating up the time at the backup four.
No matter which way coach slices it, he’s got a tough task ahead of him and no room for error. As has been pointed out, the Nuggets could very easily fall out of the playoffs in the final two months of the season and one has to believe that would have consequences, particularly for coach. The Nuggets notably dodged the idea that the playoffs were the expectations for the season at the start of the year, but with the team staying in playoff position throughout the entire season thus far (just like last season), tumbling to the 9th or 10th seed would sting, a lot. Josh Kroenke has given this team time to grow and thus far has exercised patience, but this season has been the first one of the Michael Malone era with real expectations regarding wins and losses, whether stated or not. We also know Josh is willing to make a move, even if it’s controversial, if the team isn’t progressing to his liking. Kroenke fired George Karl after he won coach of the year and a team record 57 wins because he couldn’t get out of the 1st round without his best player. Results matter, make no mistake, and it will be up to coach Malone to get them and get them quickly.