On the verge of the All-Star Break, the Denver Nuggets have entered the final third of the season, when contenders and pretenders are crafted in two month stretch of playoff caliber basketball.
For the most part, the Nuggets have escaped the regular season scuffle, licking their wounds as Isaiah Thomas is set to potentially return for tonight’s contest against the Sacramento Kings. Paul Millsap is still readjusting to a sore ankle. Gary Harris hasn’t returned from his litany of lower body nicks and bruises yet. Will Barton has bounced around the court without the same spring thus far.
And yet, the Nuggets are 38-18, second in the Western Conference. They are only a game up on the Oklahoma City Thunder for the 2 seed though, so the pressure is on to maintain that standing.
Which is why it’s time to return to lineup data and understand what’s working and what’s not. Here are five lineup insights that will help the Nuggets continue their dominance going forward.
1. The Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton combo
To this point, Murray, Harris, and Barton have spent just 75 total minutes on the floor together this season, posting a +33.4 Net Rating (point differential per 100 possessions) in the process. As can be seen above, the combination only shows up one time: the initial starting lineup utilized this season. That group posted a +30.5 Net Rating, and they deserve the opportunity to recreate that success.
While Malik Beasley and Monte Morris have broken out in a big way, Denver’s foundation centers around the combination above, including the versatility of Barton, the two-way play of Harris, and the big game nature of Murray. If those three ever play minutes together again, it will be the first time they spend extensive time in the starting lineup with Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. Morris and Beasley can handle bench duties, possibly with an assist from Isaiah Thomas, but the above trio has proved their salt last season and deserve another go at things.
2. The Small Forward position is a mess
In both the positive and negative charts, the Nuggets have missed stability at small forward this season. Will Barton was supposed to fix things, but his injury threw a wrench in that plan. Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez alternated time there, while Malik Beasley has filled in during three guard lineups when Denver must get their offense going.
All four players — Barton, Beasley, Hernangomez, and Craig — are under contract for next season, but so is another player. Michael Porter Jr. is on the recovery trail for his injury and could throw his hat into the ring whenever he’s 100%. President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly talked about it on 104.3 The Fan yesterday, and it’s worth a mention based on Denver’s weakness at the position. When Millsap is operating as a healthy power forward, small forward is Denver’s weakest spot in the rotation due to a lack of physical traits to match up with the best scorers in the NBA. Craig works hard, but he’s not a playable piece offensively. Barton hasn’t quite returned to form. This is a concern, and a scenario that would only become more confusing if Porter were to return and play minutes this year.
3. Monte Morris is Denver’s second most valuable player in 2018-19
He hasn’t missed a game. He’s steady as a rock in the face of adversity. He provides a combination of playmaking and shooting that no Nuggets player can match this year. Oh, and he’s not a defensive liability. When Morris is on the floor without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets post a +6.5 Net Rating. When Murray is on the floor without Morris as the de facto point guard, the Nuggets post a +5.2 Net Rating. Morris has had very few bad games this year as well, crossing the threshold of 10 points and 3 assists on 45% from the field a total of 24 times, showing his ability to put together a complete game consistently. By extension, Murray has only hit that threshold 18 times while averaging 8.5 more minutes per game.
4. Nikola Jokic has one key inhibitor this year: Trey Lyles
While most players perform well in combination with MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, one player who has never had such luck is Trey Lyles, with the duo posting a wretched -11.0 Net Rating, worst on the team.
When the duo shares the floor, the Offensive Rating drops to an abysmal 97.9 points per 100 possessions, showing that even with Jokic setting the table for everyone else, the team has to play the right way. The Nuggets count on Lyles to be a spacing threat in these situations, but with Lyles and Jokic on the floor together, the Kentucky product has somehow shot even worse from three, making just 20.5% of his three pointers.
In addition, the Nuggets shoot worse from the perimeter as a team with Lyles on the floor. With Lyles on, Denver’s three point percentage moves from their average of 35.6% to an abysmal 31.9%, but as soon as Lyles exits, that percentage skyrockets to 37.8%. This reflects in Denver’s overall Offensive Rating as well, shifting from 105.2 when Lyles is on the court to 115.1 when Lyles is on the bench.
It’s quite simple: Lyles is hurting Denver right now more than he is helping them. I would be the first to support him in the face of unwarranted criticism, but the fact is that Lyles has killed Denver’s team offense. On top of being a poor shooter himself (25.4% from 3 on 181 attempts) he hasn’t helped Denver create positive looks for others. This has to change going forward if the Nuggets are to make a playoff push.
5. Denver’s best offensive lineups include Beasley + Millsap + Jokic
Whether it be Murray, Morris, Harris, Beasley, Barton, or even Craig on occasion, the Nuggets have found a combination that works offensively, so long as the steadfast duo of Millsap and Jokic is on the floor.
Denver may not always be able to properly deploy Millsap and Jokic with the best personnel, but when they do, the best lineups universally have featured either Barton or Beasley in a three guard configuration. Hell, Beasley in general next to Millsap and Jokic has worked wonders. That three man combination (Beasley-Millsap-Jokic) has a +17.0 Net Rating in 357 minutes on the court together. That’s Golden State level of dominance. Denver must continue to make time for this configuration, even if Thomas and Harris return to full health. Beasley’s three point shooting has become absolutely essential to Jokic lineups, and his presence helps facilitate the action for Murray, Morris, Barton, and Denver’s other ball handlers.
In addition, playing Hernangomez or Craig next to Jokic and Millsap has also found success, but only when paired with two creators at the guard spots. Putting Hernangomez and Craig together on the wings provides too little in the way of creation and forces Murray and Jokic to do too much. Denver can make due with one or the other, but certainly not both.
While Denver has a variety of simple decisions they can make going forward, from maximizing Beasley’s minutes with Millsap and Jokic to cutting down Lyles’ minutes altogether, there are some difficult calls as well. How will Denver operate while having two guards under 190 pounds coming off the bench? Can they make a small lineup work? Does Thomas’ and Harris’ impending return push Barton and Beasley to small forward for the rest of the year? While cutting Lyles out of the rotation may seem easy, replacing him is harder than it might seem, especially against teams with a big backup power forward that overpowers Craig and Juancho.
That being said, Malone has the luxury of an increasing number of options at his disposal. Combine the judicious use of Jarred Vanderbilt, and the Nuggets may soon have 12 available bodies to use in a rotation. The bevy of guards will help the offense, and adding Harris and Millsap will help the defense. Too many good players on the roster doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and if Maline can use these guys to his advantage, then the Nuggets will have an excellent opportunity to hold down their spot in the Western Conference,
The race is on though, and the Nuggets better come out of the gate absolutely flying.