There is no shortage of talent on the Denver Nuggets roster. When the Nuggets report back for training camp in late September, head coach Michael Malone will be handed a roster as gifted from top to bottom as any Nuggets team over the last decade. Defense might be a challenge but the Nuggets have shooters at every position, play-makers at every position, and a style of play that has been forged over three seasons of continuity and chemistry.
As with any team with roster depth, each regularly used lineup will take on their own roles and identities. Let’s take a closer look at five lineups that will be especially important for the Nuggets next season.
The 2018-19 Denver Nuggets will have an incredible starting lineup. This was true last season when Denver’s starters outscored opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions, the 10th best mark of any 5-man lineup in the NBA. It’s possible that unit even under-performed since nearly half of their minutes came after Paul Millsap returned from a wrist injury that sidelined him for 44 games, Millsap’s wrist never appearing fully recovered. The injury fragmented the season for the starting unit and made it difficult for the team to gel on the court. The lineup started just 14 games together before Millsap’s injury and then played just 7 games together after Millsap’s return, thanks to an injury to Gary Harris that kept him out of the lineup for most of the final month of the season.
This season, with Wilson Chandler gone, Will Barton is set to replace him at small forward and all signs point toward it being an upgrade. The five man lineup of Barton, Harris, Millsap, Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray played just 65 minutes together last season but outscored opponents by 47 points, a ridiculous number that has to be chalked up to small sample size theater.
Or does it?
The Nuggets played 1,267 minutes last season with four of next year’s starting five on the court and one of the starting five off of the court. In each instance but one (Jokic off), the Nuggets were absolutely dominant. In 330 minutes without Harris on the court, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 71 points. In 569 minutes without Millsap on the court, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 128 points. And so on.
With Chandler gone, Denver’s starting lineup will probably take a step back defensively, even with individual improvements from Jokic, Harris, and Murray. But the offense was so consistently brilliant last season with almost every combination of players who will make up the main rotation for Denver that the trade-off should be a positive one, especially when hosting teams inside the high altitude of Pepsi Center.
Isaiah Thomas without Jokic
Last season the Nuggets ranked 6th in the NBA in offensive efficiency, just 2.9 points per 100 possessions worse than the league-leading Golden State Warriors. But if you look even closer, the team’s offense was unbelievably good with Jokic on the court and really fell apart when Jokic went to the bench.
Isaiah Thomas can fix that. It was only a season ago but it feels like it’s been a half decade when Thomas was leading a starless Boston Celtics team to 53 wins behind an all-time great individual offensive season. Only 11 players have ever registered 1000 or more minutes and an Offensive Box Plus-Minus (OBPM) of 8 or greater. Isaiah Thomas is one of those players and he achieved such a standout season largely behind one action: the pick-and-roll (PnR).
According to Synergy, Thomas ran PnR on 34% of his possessions in Boston and ranked in the 94th percentile on those possessions. Just look at how crafty he is at sneaking the ball through, over, and around defenders.
Thomas running the bench allows Plumlee to go back to his more natural role on offense, as a pick-and-roll diver and a secondary playmaker. Every other bench player in the rotation - Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez - projects to be an above average floor spacer. In other words, scoring should no longer be an issue for Denver’s bench.
Thomas with Jokic
Where Thomas is an elite PnR ball handler, Jokic is the best playmaking roll guy in the league. The potential for the Nuggets on the offensive end is off of the charts when they are able to spread the floor around the Thomas-Jokic PnR. Show too hard on the ball and Thomas will hit Jokic on the short roll where he is his most deadly. Stick to Jokic for too long and Thomas will turn the corner and score.
And when teams try to switch that screen...good luck. Jokic is among the best bigs in the league at punishing undersized defenders in the post. Thomas is one of the best guards in the league at isolating slow-footed bigs, ranking in the 95th percentile in the league in isolation possessions in 2016-17. Not to mention the times when easy post entry passes like this one will present themselves following a switch.
Still, one major question arises when looking at Thomas’s preferred style of play and that is his need for the ball to be in his hands as much as possible. As good as Thomas is in the PnR, Denver is at their best when the ball is popping and everyone is playing off of each other. Last season, Jamal Murray led the Nuggets in average time of possession, having the ball in his hands for an average of 5.2 minutes per game. In 2016-17, Thomas led the Celtics with 6.9 minutes of possession per game.
That’s a large enough gap that one has to at least wonder if there will be a conflict between Jokic and Thomas’s preferred styles of play.
Michael Malone took a lot of heat from fans and analysts last season for sliding Jokic to power forward alongside Mason Plumlee but statistically the pairing wasn’t as bad as advertised. The duo played 465 minutes together and outscored opponents by 7.6 points per 100 possessions (+7.6 net rating). That’s a great mark for any duo but the numbers become even more promising when you remove the two players from those lineups who will not be on the Nuggets roster next season: Wilson Chandler and Emmanuel Mudiay.
Jokic and Plumlee played 175 minutes together without Wilson Chandler on the court, holding a +9.5 net rating and a jaw-dropping 119.3 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions). Spacing is at a premium when Denver plays two centers together and Chandler was a more reluctant three-point shooter than Will Barton and Juancho Hernangomez, the two players most likely to take Chandler’s minutes in the rotation next season. Swapping Mudiay for Thomas should also improve the team’s ability to play both centers, even if Plumlee’s defensive responsibilities become even more pronounced playing alongside both Thomas and Jokic.
The effectiveness of Jokic-Plumlee lineups is heavily dependent on the spacing that you put around them at the wing and back court positions. Fortunately, Denver has more options than ever for players to place around that duo.
As good as Denver’s offense was last season, they ranked 23rd in 4th quarter offense. Perhaps unsurprisingly, closing games was an issue for a team that featured three players 23 years old or young in their go-to closing lineup.
In contrast, two seasons ago in Boston, Isaiah Thomas ranked 2nd in the NBA in 4th quarter points per game. It was sort of IT’s calling card as a Celtic. Part of his bid as an MVP candidate was just how clutch he was in tight moments in the 4th quarter and how well he orchestrated Boston’s offense down the stretch.
So therein lies the dilemma for Nuggets head coach Michael Malone. Would Murray be content watching the end of close games from the bench after earning those minutes throughout most of last season? Would Thomas? Teams also targeted Murray and Jokic in the PnR on the defensive end in 4th quarters last season but even as a third year player, Murray projects to be a much more solid defender than Thomas, especially in the PnR. So will Malone stick with Jokic and Murray down the stretch or will he have games where he prefers Thomas and a center more capable of covering for Thomas on the defensive end?
How Malone handles that situation is going to be one of the major storylines of next season and one that doesn’t have a clear answer. Denver is much more committed to Murray long-term but Malone is entering the final year of his contract with a presumably unspoken understanding that a playoff birth would earn him an extension, anything less would cost him his job.
Those are the stakes for some of the toughest decisions the team will face next season. Having too many players worthy of being on the court in the 4th quarter is a sign of a team flush with talent, even if figuring out who to divvy up minutes to will be a headache for the coach. In the end, that’s one of those good problems.