Who should start at small forward and who will start at small forward to open the 2019-20 season?
Ryan Blackburn: With as many as six reasonable options available to Michael Malone, I’m going with the incumbent and think that Will Barton should start and will start. There are a lot of locker room dynamics in play here, and on top of the problems benching Barton could create, I actually think he’s the best fit of the group as it stands. The Nuggets must continue to diversify their offense on the starting unit. The team became heavily reliant on Jamal Murray as the only ball handler, and as a result, the Nuggets struggled to generate consistent offense late in the playoff series against Portland. Building up Barton’s confidence is important, and he could play a major factor in a deep playoff run this year.
Adam Mares: I imagine that Malone will declare this spot open for competition at the start of training camp and whoever performs the best throughout the will probably get the nod. That being said, my guess is that Will Barton will be the best option with Michael Porter Jr. playing most of the minutes behind him. There is no denying that Barton had a horrendous season last year but I don’t think his play was indicative of the type of player he has been since arriving in Denver and I don’t think it is predictive of what he will be when fully healthy. He’ll certainly have a shorter leash to work with, but I still believe in his ability to be a major threat in Denver’s democratic offense.
Brendan Vogt: I’m of the opinion that some folks have engaged in revisionist history regarding Will Barton. He was among the very best glue guys and bench players in the NBA two seasons ago, showing his worth through his ability to provide value to different types of lineups. We expected Thrill to shine with the starters, and he didn’t. But he got hurt. It might honestly be that simple. I think Barton should, and will get another shot to prove he’s a part of this starting group. The next best option is a rookie with two operations on his back and a drop-foot diagnosis under his belt already.
Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap will compete for power forward minutes this season. Who will play more total minutes on the year?
Blackburn: An unfortunate reality of predicting injury is that it offers a vibe of negativity, but it’s an unfortunate reality of Denver’s power forward situation. Grant has rarely been injured throughout his career while Millsap has spent chunks of the last two seasons rehabbing random injuries. At 34 going on 35, I have less confidence in Millsap staying healthy, and the more Grant plays, the more the Nuggets are going to love the fit with him and Jokic. Don’t be surprised if Jerami Grant is playing more minutes than Millsap at the end of the year and is also the starting power forward.
Mares: I think Grant should, and probably will, play more overall minutes during the regular season. Millsap is at the age where he needs to start picking his spots. There will be stretches of games where the Nuggets need 35 minutes from him but when everyone is healthy, Grant coming off of the bench and playing 30 mpg is probably the best bet. There should also be plenty of “load management” built in for Millsap to sit out road back to backs or the fourth game in five nights.
Vogt: Grant is younger, and can potentially be plugged into more lineups than Millsap, who, at age 34, might be approaching his final descent in the world’s most competitive basketball league. Millsap is more likely to get injured, and might see his role decline as the season goes on—but Michael Malone is an old school coach who rides for his guys. Given Millsap’s coach-ability and affinity for the defensive end, I expect Malone to stick with him for one more season.*
*The answer is probably Grant, I just value parity in roundtables.
With more competent options at power forward than ever before, how often will we see the Nikola Jokic-Mason Plumlee pairing next year?
Blackburn: The Jokic-Plumlee duo probably won’t factor into the regular rotation anymore. Denver struggled to match up with San Antonio and Portland when they went small in the playoffs because Denver’s counter of bully-ball with Jokic and Plumlee was less effective. Developing smaller options that can play next to Jokic in a playoff series should be one of Denver’s primary rotation goals heading into next year, and I expect Millsap and Grant to soak up most of if not all power forward minutes, leaving Plumlee with less opportunities.
Mares: It’s really hard to find minutes for Plumlee when everyone is healthy. Jokic should play around 33 mpg. Grant played 33 mpg last season but should see that reduced to around 26 mpg, almost all at power forward. That leaves roughly 15 minutes at backup center and 18 minutes at power forward available. Assuming Millsap plans to play about 25 mpg, that leaves just 9 total minutes for Plumlee at either the center or power forward position. Like Juancho and Craig, Plumlee deserves more run than that, but I’m not sure he is going to find it now that Grant is around. That’s one reason I could see Denver moving on from Plumlee at the trade deadline and picking up a center more suited for a smaller role.
Vogt: The arrival of a true backup four in Grant gives Malone more flexibility with his front court rotation, which should mean the end of Jokic-Plumlee, although it should be reiterated that pairing actually worked quite well last season. I think Adam makes a good point that Plumlee’s tenure in Denver could be coming to a premature end as well. A fat expiring deal attached to a coachable and capable player should be fairly valuable on the trade market.
Which five players will comprise the “closing lineup” for the Nuggets this season?
Blackburn: Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap, Jokic. It’s a boring answer but probably the right one. Millsap still plays off of Jokic at a high level, and Barton’s ball handling adds a dimension that Craig, Beasley, Hernangomez, and Grant just don’t offer. Porter isn’t ready, and inserting Morris creates a three guard lineup that is too small to consistently factor into the closing minutes. The Nuggets are counting on Barton to bounce back in a major way, because if he doesn’t, then the hole at small forward likely prevents the Nuggets from winning a championship next season.
Mares: Jokic will close every game that he is healthy, as will Jamal Murray. Gary Harris will be the default option and probably close 95% of the time but I could see him getting bumped on the few nights when either Barton or Beasley are really cooking. I think Millsap will be the default option at power forward as well but I think Grant will get a fair amount of closing minutes when he is playing well. Let’s predict Millsap closes 85% of the time.
Small forward is the real interesting one. Assuming he regains the starting spot, I think Barton will be the default option with Craig as Malone’s safety blanket when he wants more defense in the game. People forget that a healthy Juancho closed a few games early in the season, including that barn-burner against the Warriors at Pepsi Center. He won’t close many but he’s capable of getting hot and earning some extra minutes. But I think Denver really wants MPJ to work his way into that spot by the end of the year. I’m not sure it will happen, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he was there by the trade deadline.
Vogt: I’m not sure we are at the point when Millsap is removed from the closing unit yet, and I don’t envision Grant playing alongside him at the three. I think we will see the starting five out there closing games, although I agree with the idea that Barton is potentially expendable here. There might be some utility in swapping Barton for a defensive-minded player as his number won’t be called as much while Murray and Jokic carry the load down the stretch.