The 2018-19 NBA season is on the horizon, and the Denver Nuggets are gearing up for a playoff run.
After missing the playoffs every season since 2012-13, the Nuggets have made quite clear their intention is to break that streak this season. Coming close in each of the last two seasons has brought scrutiny to the roster, coaching, management, and ownership, and finally breaking into the top eight in the Western Conference would do a lot to rectify that.
Denver has done a few things to fix their roster, but there are holes on the wing defensively, and there are too many shooting forwards that don’t play enough regularly. By identifying points of weakness and inefficiency, Denver has a larger chance of winning games and maximizing their win total.
In looking through Denver’s roster, the starters appear set, at least for the 2018-19 season. There’s no reason to mess with Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic, Denver’s three pillars for the present and future. Since the team has yet to see Paul Millsap’s true effect defensively, it makes no sense moving him either. If Denver could acquire a player that’s better on the wing than Will Barton without giving up much, they probably should. That said, the number of solid starters or better at small forward is limited, and most of the below average starters are either off the table or simply don’t make sense for Denver right now.
So that leaves the bench, which has improved but still needs some help. Denver solidified their point guard rotation by adding Isaiah Thomas and re-negotiating Monte Morris’ contract. In the front court, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee both warrant heavy backup minutes, but with Millsap and Jokic set to each play 30+ minutes every night, it’s hard to see where both are maximized in the rotation. Finally, the backup wing position is a mess. Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig are the frontrunners, but neither has excelled to this point, and Denver could use additional defensive talent and outside shooting to complement their starters.
Denver probably won’t make a trade before the start of the season. It’s very rare; however, if the right deal presents itself, they should definitely be open to it. With that in mind, what are three trades that make sense for the Nuggets to solidify their bench rotation?
Trey Lyles + Malik Beasley to the Miami Heat for Justise Winslow + Rodney McGruder
If Denver decides that Mason Plumlee should receive more minutes than Trey Lyles this season, the Nuggets should seriously consider moving Lyles while his value is still high. After a solid season last year, as evidenced by his ranking in my value-based power forward rankings yesterday, Lyles can clearly be a starter in the right situation.
Enter Miami, who have exactly what Denver should be looking for in a trade partner: a short term addition at small forward defensively with long term potential. Justise Winslow isn’t going to be a dynamic offensive player in his career, but he shot 38.0% from distance last year on 128 attempts, and he plays stout defense, ranking 10th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus among small forwards last season. He also ranked 4th in my small forward rankings on defensive score.
Lyles profiles as a solid starter in Miami’s system. An athletic, floor-spacing forward that can take advantage of mismatches in the post, Lyles adds some scoring “oomph” to Miami’s lineup of Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Lyles, and Hassan Whiteside. James Johnson is still better than Lyles, but he can return to his sixth man position and dominate opposing benches next to Tyler Johnson and Kelly Olynyk. Bam Adebayo is pushed from the rotation in this scenario, but the Heat will surely use this season to determine if they’d rather build around Whiteside or trade him, so they might be okay with it.
For Denver, Winslow slots in as the defensive wing with the versatility to play shooting guard, power forward, handle the ball, and simply up the defensive pressure while the starters rest. In the future, Winslow would have an opportunity to start games will continued development to his game, based on excellent fit potential in between Murray, Harris, and Jokic. Juancho Hernangomez would replaces Lyles’ minutes at power forward, and a lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Torrey Craig, Justise Winslow, Juancho Hernangomez, and Mason Plumlee just makes sense off the bench.
Swapping Beasley and McGruder gives each player a fresh start. For Beasley, it comes in a place close to where he suited up for Florida State Seminoles’ games. For McGruder, he fell out of Miami’s rotation, and he would have the same or better chance to enter Denver’s if an injury occurred.
Mason Plumlee to the Milwaukee Bucks for John Henson + 2020 second round pick (via WAS)
If Denver decides Trey Lyles should receive more playing time than Mason Plumlee, then this is the sort of deal I see Denver making. Denver still needs a center in return to fill in 8-10 minutes when Jokic sits, but they could acquire someone cheaper and potentially add some draft capital.
Sending Plumlee to Milwaukee makes sense for that reason. The Bucks need to make the playoffs and be in good position this year. For all his warts, Plumlee is a better overall player than Henson, who has fallen in and out of favor in years past. With the signing of Brook Lopez, the Bucks have their potential starter at center, but he only averaged 23.4 minutes per game last year for the Los Angeles Lakers, meaning there are still minutes to fill. Sliding in Plumlee to a backup center role and forcing Thon Maker to earn minutes is the best thing the Bucks can do if they have playoff aspirations. Plumlee is far better than Maker or Tyler Zeller right now, and he’s a great fit next to the newly acquired Ersan Ilyasova and incumbent Malcolm Brogdon.
For the Nuggets, John Henson fits the mold of a rim protector who can play limited minutes next to Trey Lyles off the bench. He comes in when both Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic are off the floor, and he exits when one of them returns. If Denver wants to establish a clear hierarchy in their big man rotation, they can do so with this trade while only losing a little and adding an asset.
By my estimation, Denver’s minute per game averages at power forward and center with everyone healthy would look something like this:
- Nikola Jokic - 33 minutes per game
- Paul Millsap - 31 minutes per game
- Trey Lyles - 20 minutes per game
- John Henson - 12 minutes per game
In my opinion, that’s far more conducive to the continued development of Trey Lyles than forcing him to compete for minutes with Plumlee. If it’s Denver’s goal to keep Lyles long term, they should try and see what they have in him before giving him an extensive contract.
Malik Beasley + Tyler Lydon to the Chicago Bulls for Justin Holiday
Finally, another trade to simply shore up the bench rotation. In my shooting guard rankings, Holiday came in as the 40th ranked shooting guard in providing the most value to his team last season. Craig ranked 76th, and Beasley ranked 80th out of 85. Neither of those numbers are encouraging, and while it’s safe to say both will be better this year with more consistent playing time and an extra year of development, adding another 3 and D option on the wing is probably safer.
For the Bulls, Zach LaVine was just signed to be the future of the position, and Jabari Parker was just added to play primarily small forward. Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison are first round draft picks on the wing who would likely see less playing time than Holiday. For a rebuilding team, that’s a bad situation. While Holiday is on an expiring deal, Beasley and Lydon are both still very young and under team control for awhile. Beasley may be able to slide over and defend point guards at his ceiling, and Lydon would have more shooting potential than any Bulls player not named Markannen. Both could end up being useful down the line, while Holiday likely isn’t.
For the Nuggets however, Holiday could play a very central role as a backup wing. After shooting 35.4% from 3 over his last two years, he’s shown to be at least an average shooter from the perimeter, though he was forced to be more perimeter oriented on spacing-starved New York and Chicago squads in back-to-back seasons. In Denver, he would be left often far more frequently when playing alongside any combination of Jokic, Harris, Murray, Barton, Thomas, Lyles, and Hernangomez. He also contributes more defense than any Denver wing, placing 11th in DRPM on a Chicago Bulls roster that ranked 28th in defense. He clearly wasn’t the problem.
In Denver’s rotation, he’d be the first wing off the bench and form a primarily three wing rotation with him, Harris, and Barton. I’d expect something like this rotation consistently from Denver:
Point Guard: Murray - 24 minutes, Thomas - 24 minutes
Shooting Guard: Harris - 32 minutes, Murray - 8 minutes, Holiday - 8 minutes
Small Forward: Barton - 32 minutes, Holiday - 16 minutes
If someone else, namely Michael Porter Jr., proves to deserve minutes, then he can have some of Holiday’s minutes at that point. Until then, Denver gets a minor upgrade in the short term.
Again, these trades are minor. They aren’t trying to accomplish more than adding an extra win or two on the fringes of the rotation. That being said, as we could clearly see the last two seasons, a win or two for the Denver Nuggets could go a long way.