Malik Beasley posted a career high 23 points last night and sent the following message in doing so:
“I’m not going to the bench, coach. Not just yet.”
Okay, he didn’t actually say this to anyone in the media, but he might as well have. The 23 points came with five assists and six rebounds as well, showing exactly what the Denver Nuggets need coming off the bench when Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and eventually Will Barton return to the starting lineup. It shouldn’t be too long before Denver returns to the starting five they used in the first two games of the season, and while those five re-learn how to play together, they will need players like Beasley to pick up the slack.
The Nuggets rotation is about to receive a serious injection of talent again, and it comes at a time when most of the rotation is playing reasonably well. The Nuggets have been without Harris, Millsap, and Barton since December 8th, and in those 10 games, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and others have truly stepped up.
Highlighted in green are the top three in each category, while the bottom three are highlighted in red. It’s pretty clear that Denver’s top two players in the rotation have been Jokic and Murray, but the third best player is up for debate. Could it be Juancho Hernangomez? Monte Morris? Malik Beasley? All three deserve credit for stepping up and shouldering extra burden with the injuries Denver has sustained. The Nuggets are 7-3 in their last ten games, and while Jokic and Murray are the biggest reasons for the win, most of the rotation has proven to be helpful in these moments.
But as Millsap and Harris return to the starting lineup, a minutes crunch is about to occur. When Barton returns? It will be a a minutes stranglehold. So, how does Denver successfully integrate their returning players without sacrificing winning?
The best thing to do may be to change the starting lineup now.
Lineup and Rotation Alterations
1. Start Paul Millsap for Mason Plumlee
The one aspect of Denver’s game that has struggled most in the last ten games is defense. In the last 10 games, the Nuggets are 6th in the NBA in Offensive Rating, posting 111.8 points per 100 possessions. On defense? 18th in the NBA allowing 109.9 points per 100 possessions. Millsap is the best player to fix this because of his basketball IQ playing next to Jokic. Mason Plumlee is playing primarily power forward in these games, and it’s time to return him to center. Denver’s defensive numbers improve massively in the last ten games when those two are separated:
The Nuggets are at their best defensively when only one center plays minutes. Too often in the last ten games, Denver is caught out of position because one of their centers is closing out on a smaller player that can blow by them easily.
Millsap in the starting lineup alleviates some of these concerns. Even if he simply starts the first and third quarters while playing sparingly then after, he gains more chemistry with Nikola Jokic while the expectation of offensive brilliance is lessened. Millsap played 22 minutes against the New York Knicks. Expecting him to play 24 to 28 minutes as the starting power forward isn’t out of the question.
2. Start Malik Beasley for Torrey Craig until Gary Harris is ready to take over
While Craig’s individual defense has been useful against star ball handlers over the last 10 games, it hasn’t been game changing. Denver’s Defensive Rating has been a robust 7.3 points per 100 possessions better with Craig on the bench rather than playing. While it’s clear that he has a role when Denver’s wings are injured, it’s unclear what his playing time looks like when Denver gets healthy.
On the other hand, Malik Beasley has proven his worth as a scorer off the bench over the last few games, and rewarding him with some starts before Gary Harris returns to the starting lineup may capitalize on his current hot streak. Beasley is shooting 43.2 percent from behind the three-point line since December 1st, and his current scoring production may help make up for Paul Millsap’s transition as a starter offensively.
Furthermore, Gary Harris needs an opportunity to handle and shoot the ball while he’s returning to his best form. The best place for him to do that is next to Monte Morris, who will seamlessly transition between on ball and off ball responsibilities and help set the table for his teammate.
Either way, Denver’s two best options at shooting guard right now are Beasley and Harris. Craig is certainly shooting the ball better than earlier in the season, but including him in the starting lineup at shooting guard hasn’t helped Denver defensively the way Malone may have hoped. Denver should either go back to Gary Harris as the starter or give Malik Beasley some brief starts until Harris is fully comfortable.
3. Reduce Trey Lyles to spot minutes next to Mason Plumlee
It’s no secret that Lyles has struggled this season. As poorly as he was shooting in October (44.9 TS%) and though he improved in November (56.7 TS%), Lyles’ shooting performance in December (41.4 TS%) was absurdly bad. He knows that more that anyone, but as Will Barton edges closer to a return, Denver must prepare for life playing three guards at a time.
Murray, Harris, and Barton have obviously earned their place in the rotation, and I have just vouched for Morris and Beasley to be their backups. As Millsap slides into the starting power forward position and Juancho Hernangomez slides to the bench, a clear position battle for the ninth spot in the rotation between Juancho and Lyles emerges. It’s no contest who has performed better to this point, and Juancho deserves that time.
In the meantime though, Lyles still has a place as the primary backup at power forward. Six to eight minutes each half currently exist when Juancho needs to go to the bench and the Nuggets should avoid playing Jokic and Plumlee together. During that time, Lyles simply needs to be a body, move the ball to the right spots, and space the floor the right way.
No more post ups. No more apathetic movement on defense. If he wants to recover a full time spot in the rotation, he has to focus up and be better on both sides of the ball.
- If Paul Millsap needs to play less minutes due to healing from his broken, any of Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles, or Mason Plumlee can experience a bump in minutes based on the situation.
- Once Gary Harris feels comfortable in a starting role, he and Malik Beasley can basically switch spots in this rotation.
- Once Will Barton returns, he will absorb the majority of Craig’s and Lyles’ minutes while Hernangomez moves to a bench role.
Very soon, there will be too many cooks in the kitchen. Malone will have to make some hard choices that could completely cut players out of the rotation immediately. In order to ease the transition for all parties involved, the above changes provide a nice stepping stone rather than a sudden shift in playing time. The goal is for Denver to ease into their best rotation while winning as many games in the process, and I believe this rotation accomplishes that.