Last season, the Denver Nuggets had one of the deepest rotations in the NBA. They had 11 players that were in the rotation as long as they were healthy. If Isaiah Thomas had produced at a higher level, he would have given the team 12 rotation players. The only positions they didn’t go three-deep at were center and point guard. In 2019-20, how many guys is Michael Malone going to be trotting out on a nightly basis?
This year, their depth chart is about the same at each spot, but they’ve added even better players in each spot. Jerami Grant, who was a starter on a good Oklahoma City Thunder team last year, is the new backup power forward, and they were able to get a developmental center in the draft with Bol Bol out of Oregon. This team has a lot of potential, and Malone can go several ways with it.
It will be interesting to see how he wants to handle the regular season. He could take a page out of the Toronto Raptors book from last season where they let their depth carry them to the playoffs without having the top seed, and they were able to win later because their starters had less mileage on them. He has the pieces that will allow him to get creative this year.
All of the starters will factor heavily into the rotation minutes. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray will likely clear 30 minutes per game again this year, although Malone could even look to limit their minutes with the depth that they have. Jokic played a career-high 2,504 minutes during the regular season, but Malone could look to limit that to save him for the playoffs as Jokic added another 557 during the team’s two playoff series.
Paul Millsap, who averaged just 27.1 minutes per game last season, could see that number fall to 25 per or below. Malone likes to lean on Millsap’s leadership and experience late in games, as evidenced by the 111 clutch-time minutes he played last season that put him third on the team behind Jokic and Murray. Among Nuggets with at least 50 clutch minutes and 15 total shot attempts, only Malik Beasley and Jokic had a higher shooting percentage than Millsap’s 48.6. His regular-season workload will likely fall, but the can will just be kicked down the road.
The small forward spot is where things could get interesting. Torrey Craig and Will Barton have both made a case to be the starter. Barton brings more on the offensive end with his volume shooting while Craig brings more hustle and grit for the defensive end of the floor. Malone could change this up on a nightly basis due to a hot hand, or he may ride with one as the starter while rotating in the other frequently. The main argument Craig has is how effective the team was with him as the fifth during the playoffs once he became the starter.
Murray and Gary Harris remain one of the more intriguing NBA backcourts. Both have had stretches where they can take over games, as Harris did during the playoffs, while Murray has a 48-point game on his resume. The key for both this year will be to stay healthy and maintain some consistency. Specifically for Harris, his numbers have dropped in both field goal and 3-point percentage while playing less than 70 games in each year. Those numbers need to change this season.
Off The Bench Locks
During the Nuggets’ media day, Monte Morris discussed that it doesn’t matter if he’s starting or coming off the bench or anything else. What matters to him is fitting in with his lineups that he’s on the floor with. Morris averaged 24.0 minutes per game last season, which was good enough for sixth on the team, and that number won’t go down much if at all. As for fitting in with his lineups, during the playoffs, he was a part of the fourth and fifth-best five-man lineups.
Malik Beasley could very possibly be starting for other NBA teams if he wasn’t in Denver. He’s a great shooter with the athleticism to develop into a solid defender. Unfortunately for him, he’s behind Harris, though Beasley’s 23.2 minutes per game from last season could increase this year depending on Malone’s lineup choices. Through three seasons, Beasley is a 38.8 percent 3-point shooter which blends well with Malone’s increased emphasis on 3-point shooting for this season.
Death. Taxes. Mason Plumlee averaging at least 18 minutes per game off the bench. Malone likes to keep his lineups with a true center on the floor at all times. Unless that thought process drastically shifts, it’s unlikely that Plumlee will see his role dramatically reduced this season compared to last.
Jerami Grant is going to be coming off the bench, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him play as many or more minutes as Millsap during the regular season. Malone will work to conserve Millsap for the end of the year when they make their championship push. Grant has been a positive player on defense in every season of his career, and he’ll likely be the best bench defender that Malone has.
Juancho Hernangomez is the final lock for this rotation. Malone said that he’s a possible starter at the small forward spot, but he’s likely just going to be a reserve player for them. Juan gives the team versatility to play him at small and power forward. Despite being only 6’9” and 230 pounds, he’s an effective rebounder. For his career, per-36 minutes, he averages 7.4 rebounds, and that’s a skill you need when the majority of your guards are undersized.
The Wild Cards
As things stand right now, we’re at 11 players being in the regular rotation. One guy that figures to be a major factor in this debate is Michael Porter Jr. After missing his entire rookie season, Porter looks to be healthy and ready to go entering the team’s training camp and preseason. He was drafted to be the team’s future at the small forward position. If he’s able to flash some of the skills that made him one of the top recruits in the nation, he could easily crack this team’s rotation.
Both Vlatko Cancar and Jarred Vanderbilt could find their way into the rotation this season if things go their way. Malone could look to extend the rotation deeper to keep his starters fresh for the end of the season. Vanderbilt and Cancar can both give them some additional wing depth. In a league that is always looking for the next great wing, it never hurts to have too many that can play for you.