80, 75, 70, 57, 43.
Those were the individual games played totals for the Denver Nuggets starting unit last season — Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Will Barton. Much of the missed time was due to significant injuries to Harris and Barton throughout the year, while Millsap broke his big toe on the fourth game of a road trip against the Charlotte Hornets in December while Harris and Barton were already out.
Because of Denver’s compounding injury issues during the early-middle of the regular season, the new starting unit played just 24 games together during the regular season. This was one of the biggest contributors to Denver never hitting their ceiling with the above unit, as the time they spent together was fractured by missing players and short stints to get to know the true chemistry of the unit. It’s no wonder that the Nuggets needed to change their starting unit in the postseason. The San Antonio Spurs starters had appeared in 41 games together and had their chemistry down. The Portland Trail Blazers were a two-man show anyway. Everyone else knew to get in line behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
It’s these injury issues along with two extra bodies in the rotation during the 2019-20 season in Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant that give head coach Michael Malone the flexibility to change is rotation from game to game. As many as 13 players could deserve playing time, whereas only nine to ten players deserved minutes last year, depending on the health of Juancho Hernangomez. Now, with a variety of options to choose from and a different set of expectations within the Nuggets organization, Malone has an opportunity to push forward a new mantra for playoff success: rest.
Load management is a divisive term among players, coaches, and fans of the NBA today. Star players are frequently subjected to regular stints of rest time to keep their bodies healthy throughout the regular season, and for the Toronto Raptors this past year, it worked like a charm. The most games Kawhi Leonard played in a row last regular season was nine during late November/early December. He played 60 games total, played the entire playoffs, averaged 39.1 minutes per game, and won Finals MVP for the first championship in Toronto history.
The Raptors had the rotation insulation to give Kawhi the time he needed to heal and get his body right for the playoffs. After that nine game stretch, Kawhi sat for both ends of a road back-to-back against the Los Angeles Clippers (his new team) and Golden State Warriors. The Raptors won both by a combined 44 points, inserting Fred VanVleet into the lineup and moving starting shooting guard Danny Green to Kawhi’s position. Load management only works at strategic points and with the correct rotation to cover for the loss, and the Raptors had both.
For several of their rotation players, the Nuggets have the backups and versatility to make things work from game to game, and given the bumps and bruises many carried into the postseason, it would be wise to factor that in. Jamal Murray, chief among the players that tough out small injuries due to his competitive spirit, spent much of the postseason limping on one leg. Frankly, some of the scoring nights he had were that much more impressive given the nagging injuries that had built up over the season. Murray played 75 games during the regular season and probably had to play that many given the rest of Denver’s injury issues. If the Nuggets were more healthy overall, it wouldn’t have surprised me if Murray had played closer to 70 in the name of letting his body recover before the playoffs.
For Gary Harris, load management is possibly the most needed and the most easily navigated. With Malik Beasley showcasing excellent chemistry with Jokic in his limited opportunities in the starting unit, the Nuggets have a player ready made to step into the starting unit and give Harris an opportunity to manage his body throughout the year. This is a big season for Gary Harris, and pulling a hamstring that was already sore or separating a shoulder that already felt a little loose would be the worst possible way for the season to go before the trade deadline. At that point, the Nuggets may feel they need to add someone less injury prone at the position.
It would be great to see healthy Gary Harris for close to a full season. There’s still some untapped potential in that 6’4 frame of his.
For Will Barton, the Nuggets have other options at small forward who give Denver a different look. Torrey Craig gives the Nuggets a defensive minded role player. Michael Porter Jr. and Juancho Hernangomez offer a different level of height and perimeter shooting. It was clear that Barton lost some of his athleticism coming off of his hip injury. All parties should be receptive to an option that utilizes whatever it takes for Barton to recover that athleticism and become the real Will the Thrill in the 2020 playoffs. THAT player helps Denver win the playoff series against Portland last year.
For Paul Millsap, the 34-year-old will turn 35 in February, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand why Millsap should have select days off woven into his NBA calendar. The Nuggets need their players at full strength in the postseason, and Millsap is Denver’s version of Andre Iguodala, the veteran presence that elevates his game in the playoffs and becomes a new level of defensive menace. Denver has newcomer Jerami Grant to shoulder most of the minutes, while Porter and Hernangomez make excellent options as a stretch 4.
Nikola Jokic played 80 games last year. He is the anchor and everything that helps the Denver Nuggets be the Denver Nuggets. That said, if injuries arise, the path of cautiousness will help everyone in the long run. One of the reasons Joel Embiid struggled through injuries in the playoffs, other than being a major injury risk with his body size and frame and history, is because he played 38 of the first 40 games of the regular season while averaging 34 minutes a night. The Nuggets did a great job of managing Jokic’s minute load during the regular season by having him average less than 32 minutes a night, and if that number stays constant, Jokic may be able to crack 75 games again. That being said, with the FIBA World Cup being played right before training camp, overworking Jokic in the regular could provide negative consequences down the line.
Finally, there’s the Michael Porter Jr. question marks. He may be healthy enough to be a regular rotation member when the season rolls around, but rather than find out how much he can handle early on, easing him back into the rotation makes a fair degree of sense. I don’t expect him to be a starter, which means that he can split time with other players in a bench capacity until he proves he can handle more than that. Back-to-backs would be off the table, and resting every few games anyway would be prudent as well. With Hernangomez and Craig in contract years, they will want to play as often as possible. This is the year to let that happen and for Porter to get his basketball legs under him before taking off in the future.
I don’t pretend to be a doctor, but I do know the feeling of relief in getting a day off from the daily grind or work, school, and athletics. It resets the mind, offers a larger appreciation to the task at hand, and as the Toronto Raptors proved, it can be the difference in a playoff series.
With that in mind, given Denver’s assortment of 12 rotation caliber players, I propose a rotating schedule of load management of Denver’s starting unit, with the goal to play Jokic and Murray 70 to 75 games while Harris, Barton, and Millsap play 65 to 70. With Morris, Beasley, Craig, Porter, Hernangomez, Grant, and Plumlee itching to prove themselves and play as often as possible, there are opportunities. In addition, Porter, under perfect circumstances, would play roughly 55 to 60 games, filling in the gaps at the forward positions.
When Porter needs rest, both Craig and Hernangomez are prepared to step into his role. On days when Harris needs a breather, Beasley is ready to step up. If Jokic or Murray needs a day off, there are ways to configure the rotation without them present. Many of the rotation members involved are ready made starters in the regular season. It’s an advantage the Nuggets have an opportunity to utilize and still win games while keeping players as healthy as they can.
Nuggets fans want to see what this roster can do at full strength. It’s one of the many reasons the front office decided on continuity over star acquisition. For that idea of full strength to be fully realized though, it might be better to step back and let the overall talent of the roster go on full display.