Stat of the Week makes a return this week and will appear every Monday on Denver Stiffs going forward. The purpose of this column is to educate readers on the nuances of statistics both simple and complex that relate to the Denver Nuggets 2019-20 season.
First up, the limited minutes available for a rotation stacked with talent.
The overarching discussion surrounding Nuggets training camp last week was the small forward rotation. Four candidates—Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez, and Michael Porter Jr.—are competing for what appears to be two rotation spots, including a starting position. However, the Nuggets rotation is far more convoluted than just the small forward position, with backups pushing starters for playing time across multiple positions.
Malik Beasley, who according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks just turned down a three-year $30 million contract extension, is in line to play limited minutes this season as the backup shooting guard behind Gary Harris. Monte Morris was one of the best backup point guards in the NBA last season and will almost certainly remain a backup unless an injury occurs. Jerami Grant started 77 games last year for the Oklahoma City Thunder and will probably start the season on the bench behind starting power forward Paul Millsap. Mason Plumlee played in all 82 games in 2018-19, averaging 21.1 minutes per contest. He almost certainly won’t reach that threshold this year.
With that in mind, the first Stat of the Week of the 2019-20 season is 240 rotation minutes per game, 48 for each of the five players on the floor at any given time.
There are better ways to visualize the rotation crunch though. Here’s a hypothetical rotation involving Barton returning as the starting small forward and Torrey Craig backing him up:
Notice the distinct lack of minutes for Porter and Hernangomez in this configuration? Adding any minutes to the forwards currently sitting on the bench reduces the allotted minutes for current rotation players. Both Barton and Craig have showcased their value to the Nuggets rotation in the regular season and playoffs the last several years, and going away from those two in the primary rotation signifies a shift from veteran stability to the unknown surrounding young players. Porter especially will have the standard ups and downs of a young, inexperienced option, and for a Nuggets to give him an opportunity, it likely means benching one of Barton or Craig.
Head coach Michael Malone has already shown his preference in previous seasons to max out at a 10-man rotation, meaning it unlikely that more than two candidates at small forward will see consistent playing time. While the Nuggets could certainly play of their small forwards on a regular basis, it would mean benching another player. The starters are seemingly safe from that change, while the Nuggets must keep Morris and Grant in the rotation for both present and future gains. That leaves only Beasley and Plumlee as candidates to be removed, and both seem unlikely. Beasley was Denver’s best shooter last year and offers a dynamic presence off the bench the Nuggets sorely need. Plumlee fills the mold of traditional center, and his minutes help keep Nikola Jokic from overextending himself in the regular season, a role that’s far more important than any rotation decisions.
Every position is filled to the brim with players that need to play. To get more minutes for Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee have to lose minutes. To allow Jamal Murray to play an extensive minute total, he has to steal some minutes at shooting guard or else limit Monte Morris drastically.
Michael Malone has some unenviable decisions to make, and the Michael Porter Jr. factor only complicates matters. There will be games when starters like Jokic and Millsap or Murray and Harris need some rest or are nursing an injury, in which case Porter could fill in the gaps; however, with the roster at full strength, those gaps just don’t exist at the moment. Not only are players going to be unhappy if they don’t play, some guys will be unhappy even if they do, with short stints off the bench and a minutes crunch created with so many options available to play.
The 240 minutes allotted to Malone every single game will need to offer some interesting configurations throughout the season to keep players happy. It is certainly possible that everyone remains as happy as they can possibly be given the circumstances, but the potential for controversy is there. Will the Nuggets make a trade to condense the talent of their roster and placate the unhappy parties?
Time will tell, with the first game of the preseason and the first look at a possible rotation just 36 hours away.