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Five key lineups for the Denver Nuggets next season

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Isaiah Thomas should elevate the Denver Nuggets bench

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

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 Starters

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.

2017-18 Statistics for lineups featuring four of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic. Per NBAwowy.com

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.

per NBAwowy.com

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).

Query Results Table
Criteria Totals Shooting
Rk Player
Season Age Tm Lg OBPM MP WS G GS FG FGA 2P 2PA 3P 3PA FT FTA ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS FG% 2P% 3P% eFG% FT% TS%
1 Charles Barkley 1990-91 27 PHI NBA 9.0 2498 13.4 67 67 665 1167 621 1012 44 155 475 658 258 422 680 284 110 33 210 173 1849 .570 .614 .284 .589 .722 .635
2 Charles Barkley 1988-89 25 PHI NBA 8.5 3088 16.1 79 79 700 1208 665 1046 35 162 602 799 403 583 986 325 126 67 254 262 2037 .579 .636 .216 .594 .753 .653
3 Charles Barkley 1987-88 24 PHI NBA 8.3 3170 16.7 80 80 753 1283 709 1126 44 157 714 951 385 566 951 254 100 103 304 278 2264 .587 .630 .280 .604 .751 .665
4 Charles Barkley 1989-90 26 PHI NBA 8.0 3085 17.3 79 79 706 1177 686 1085 20 92 557 744 361 548 909 307 148 50 243 250 1989 .600 .632 .217 .608 .749 .661
5 Stephen Curry 2017-18 29 GSW NBA 9.9 1631 9.1 51 51 428 864 216 363 212 501 278 302 36 225 261 310 80 8 153 114 1346 .495 .595 .423 .618 .921 .675
6 Stephen Curry 2014-15 26 GSW NBA 9.6 2613 15.7 80 80 653 1341 367 695 286 646 308 337 56 285 341 619 163 16 249 158 1900 .487 .528 .443 .594 .914 .638
7 Stephen Curry 2015-16 27 GSW NBA 12.4 2700 17.9 79 79 805 1598 403 712 402 886 363 400 68 362 430 527 169 15 262 161 2375 .504 .566 .454 .630 .908 .669
8 Kevin Durant 2013-14 25 OKC NBA 8.4 3122 19.2 81 81 849 1688 657 1197 192 491 703 805 58 540 598 445 103 59 285 174 2593 .503 .549 .391 .560 .873 .635
9 James Harden 2016-17 27 HOU NBA 8.7 2947 15.0 81 81 674 1533 412 777 262 756 746 881 95 564 659 907 121 38 464 215 2356 .440 .530 .347 .525 .847 .613
10 James Harden 2017-18 28 HOU NBA 9.6 2551 15.4 72 72 651 1449 386 727 265 722 624 727 41 348 389 630 126 50 315 169 2191 .449 .531 .367 .541 .858 .619
11 LeBron James 2011-12 27 MIA NBA 8.3 2326 14.5 62 62 621 1169 567 1020 54 149 387 502 94 398 492 387 115 50 213 96 1683 .531 .556 .362 .554 .771 .605
12 LeBron James 2007-08 23 CLE NBA 9.0 3027 15.2 75 74 794 1642 681 1283 113 359 549 771 133 459 592 539 138 81 255 165 2250 .484 .531 .315 .518 .712 .568
13 LeBron James 2013-14 29 MIA NBA 8.0 2902 15.9 77 77 767 1353 651 1047 116 306 439 585 81 452 533 488 121 26 270 126 2089 .567 .622 .379 .610 .750 .649
14 LeBron James 2009-10 25 CLE NBA 9.7 2966 18.5 76 76 768 1528 639 1141 129 387 593 773 71 483 554 651 125 77 261 119 2258 .503 .560 .333 .545 .767 .604
15 LeBron James 2012-13 28 MIA NBA 9.2 2877 19.3 76 76 765 1354 662 1100 103 254 403 535 97 513 610 551 129 67 226 110 2036 .565 .602 .406 .603 .753 .640
16 LeBron James 2008-09 24 CLE NBA 9.4 3054 20.3 81 81 789 1613 657 1229 132 384 594 762 106 507 613 587 137 93 241 139 2304 .489 .535 .344 .530 .780 .591
17 Magic Johnson 1989-90 30 LAL NBA 8.6 2937 16.5 79 79 546 1138 440 862 106 276 567 637 128 394 522 907 132 34 289 167 1765 .480 .510 .384 .526 .890 .622
18 Michael Jordan 1992-93 29 CHI NBA 8.3 3067 17.2 78 78 992 2003 911 1773 81 230 476 569 135 387 522 428 221 61 207 188 2541 .495 .514 .352 .515 .837 .564
19 Michael Jordan 1989-90 26 CHI NBA 9.7 3197 19.0 82 82 1034 1964 942 1719 92 245 593 699 143 422 565 519 227 54 247 241 2753 .526 .548 .376 .550 .848 .606
20 Michael Jordan 1988-89 25 CHI NBA 9.8 3255 19.8 81 81 966 1795 939 1697 27 98 674 793 149 503 652 650 234 65 290 247 2633 .538 .553 .276 .546 .850 .614
21 Michael Jordan 1990-91 27 CHI NBA 8.9 3034 20.3 82 82 990 1837 961 1744 29 93 571 671 118 374 492 453 223 83 202 229 2580 .539 .551 .312 .547 .851 .605
22 Michael Jordan 1987-88 24 CHI NBA 9.8 3311 21.2 82 82 1069 1998 1062 1945 7 53 723 860 139 310 449 485 259 131 252 270 2868 .535 .546 .132 .537 .841 .603
23 Tracy McGrady 2002-03 23 ORL NBA 9.8 2954 16.1 75 74 829 1813 656 1365 173 448 576 726 121 367 488 411 124 59 195 156 2407 .457 .481 .386 .505 .793 .564
24 Chris Paul 2011-12 26 LAC NBA 8.0 2181 12.7 60 60 425 890 346 677 79 213 260 302 42 171 213 543 152 4 124 138 1189 .478 .511 .371 .522 .861 .581
25 Chris Paul 2007-08 22 NOH NBA 8.3 3006 17.8 80 80 630 1291 538 1042 92 249 332 390 62 259 321 925 217 4 201 185 1684 .488 .516 .369 .524 .851 .576
26 Chris Paul 2008-09 23 NOH NBA 9.1 3002 18.3 78 78 631 1255 567 1079 64 176 455 524 69 363 432 861 216 10 231 212 1781 .503 .525 .364 .528 .868 .599
27 Isaiah Thomas 2016-17 27 BOS NBA 8.7 2569 12.5 76 76 682 1473 437 827 245 646 590 649 43 162 205 448 70 13 210 167 2199 .463 .528 .379 .546 .909 .625
28 Dwyane Wade 2008-09 27 MIA NBA 8.7 3048 14.7 79 79 854 1739 766 1461 88 278 590 771 89 309 398 589 173 106 272 178 2386 .491 .524 .317 .516 .765 .574
29 Russell Westbrook 2014-15 26 OKC NBA 8.8 2302 10.6 67 67 627 1471 541 1183 86 288 546 654 124 364 488 574 140 14 293 184 1886 .426 .457 .299 .455 .835 .536
30 Russell Westbrook 2016-17 28 OKC NBA 10.9 2802 13.1 81 81 824 1941 624 1358 200 583 710 840 137 727 864 840 132 31 438 190 2558 .425 .459 .343 .476 .845 .554
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/16/2018.

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.

Jokic-Plumlee

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.

The Closers

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.