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Trey Lyles and his quest for playing time with the Denver Nuggets

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Has he spent his offseason tilting at windmills or is there something to this multi-position flexibility?

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA may be trending toward the idealistic virtues of positionless basketball, making tweeners of years past into stars in the modern era, but playing multiple positions is not an easy task. It requires length, versatility, athleticism and - when including the term “stretch big” on one’s resume - shooting prowess in order to pull it off. For Trey Lyles, remaking himself from a static distance shooter into a more athletic, multi-position threat is the greatest challenge of his career, and crucial to his continuing success with this Nuggets team.

Lyles had both a breakout year and an overshadowed one during the 2017-18 season. His trade on draft day brought the Denver Nuggets a good bench player at a crowded position while preventing them from taking a good one at a position of need when Denver passed on OG Anunoby while also sending Donovan Mitchell to Utah. That set the table for Lyles, who was admired by President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly before he even got to the NBA but has had trouble getting his footing in the NBA. Connelly thought Lyles had more to offer than he was able to show in Utah and Lyles concurred, especially about his own growth potential on defense. That defensive prowess didn’t really make an appearance last year, but Lyles has worked hard to bring it to fruition after this offseason.

Everyone comes into training camp in “the best shape of their lives” every year - it’s a running joke in every sport after every offseason. Lyles may have actually taken that old chestnut and made it true, though, showing up notably more muscled and stating he is both stronger and quicker after some hard work with trainers this summer.

Lyles has to be hoping to set himself apart, and just two days into camp, he’s getting extra notice:

Taking advantage of mismatches is something that Danilo Gallinari used to do. He could drive past bigger, slower defenders and shoot over smaller ones. Nikola Jokic does the same thing with the Nuggets now, to great success. Lyles is attempting to find similar results. He has a 7’1 wingspan and has put on extra muscle, and if he can repeat or improve on his 38.1% from behind the arc it will take care of scoring at all levels of the defense. His body has come a long way from his time at Kentucky but the real question Denver has is whether that will translate to defense as well.

But Lyles has talent and can fill the role of stretch big. The reason he gets thrown into trade talks and gets discounted as a long-term roster fixture is that Denver has three guys in one mold: Juancho Hernangomez, Tyler Lydon and Lyles himself. Only Lyles has his contract up after this year, which means this is the year he absolutely has to stand out from the others. He played a bit of small-ball center last year and struggled with some of the required footwork and positioning but kept Denver’s spacing correct as he has range out to the three point line. Instead of focusing on being a better small-ball center, though, it looks like Lyles has gone the other way and wants to compete against smaller players rather than bigger ones.

That too is reminiscent of Gallo, who liked to bully and drive from the perimeter rather than bang inside at Lyles’s age. A combo forward who can play some small-ball center is a versatile piece deserving of both minutes and money - assuming he can defend. And that’s what Lyles has spent his entire summer’s work on proving he can actually do.

Denver’s big decision this year is whether they want to pay Lyles. If they don’t pay him their payroll next year could accommodate an All-Star addition (assuming Millsap’s $30 million team option is declined). Can Lydon or Juancho do the same thing that Lyles does for less money, or is Lyles a significant step above those guys?

The Nuggets aren’t just looking at this year as they decide how to build a legitimate contender around Jokic. Ideally someone like Draymond Green would be a great fit there, as they need a rebounder (which Lyles is okay at) and a passer who can defend and take 8 or 9 shots a game max. There aren’t enough shots to go around the starting lineup otherwise. Defensively fewer teams are concerned with having bully ball played inside these days and more with all the switching and perimeter defense required to survive the three-ball era. Denver can have a large backup 4/5 on the cheap who can help when Enes Kanter comes to town. It’s finding a Draymond that’s tough.

But perhaps Lyles already knows he’s not a Draymond type and never will be, and can see how he would struggle as an interior defender next to Jokic as a long-term Millsap replacement down the line. If closing out to the three-point line (which he is already good at with his length) and increasing his lateral mobility to take advantage of his wingspan is easier than mastering the paint footwork and switching necessary to defeat guys who have already gotten past the perimeter defense, then perhaps Lyles is onto something. He can always fall back to being a stretch four and a small-ball five, but this is his year to prove he can draw minutes at the three as well and get Denver to extend that contract instead of replace him with a similar version.

Trey Lyles looked at the roster that stole his playing time early in the season and closed him out of the rotation down the stretch despite his good play over the course of the season and decided to get in the gym like never before. He’s thrown his hat in the mix at three different positions to make sure he’s not excluded from the conversation or the rotation, and through a couple of days his versatility has been noticeable. Playing small forward is a tall order, no pun intended for the 6’10 Lyles, but with Denver’s starting 3 Will Barton and defensive backup Torrey Craig both clocking in several inches shorter and dozens of pounds lighter than Lyles, there is a place for his size and skills if he can defend the position even adequately. Michael Porter Jr. is not yet ready to lay claim to the long term small forward role - Lyles is as good an option as any other healthy one one the roster.

If it doesn’t work, Denver will have some decisions to make. That’s not a reflection on Lyles and his talent or ability to be a rotation player. It’s just the constant roster refinement that will continue to happen around Jokic for the next few years as Denver looks for the right mix of talent at the right prices to let them truly compete in the West.

Lyles is going to make Denver prove he can’t play multiple roles for this team though. He could have come in to camp expecting a bench role similar to last year and instead wants to kick some other players out of Denver by taking every role he can get his hands on. That’s the sort of greed Denver could use as it tries to wrest a playoff position in the stubborn Western Conference.