The benefit of a stacked rotation, outside of being very good, is having a variety of options for any situation.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Denver Nuggets will have a number of decisions to make regarding their opening night rotation. How will head coach Michael Malone choose to integrate former Oklahoma City Thunder starter Jerami Grant? What about the talented first round pick Michael Porter Jr. looking for his first NBA action? After exiting in the second round of the playoffs last season, the Nuggets retained every rotation player outside of forward Trey Lyles, who lost his spot during the middle of the year. With so many options at his disposal, Malone will need to be creative in how he deploys certain units to maximize effectiveness and playing time for as many players on the roster as possible.
Here are the most interesting lineups heading into 2019-20:
10. The Young(er) guys
Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Michael Porter Jr, Jarred Vanderbilt, Bol Bol
It would surprise me if this lineup ever played, but imagining the Morris-Bol pick and pop game with Vanderbilt floating around the paint is very interesting. Vanderbilt could handle the ball, Beasley and Porter could be the primary scorers and floor spacers. It’s an exciting, weird group that should draw serious intrigue if they step on the floor.
9. Big Ball
Jamal Murray, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Mason Plumlee, Nikola Jokic
This one is incredibly situational and very weird, but the presence of Porter may mitigate the spacing issues with a lineup featuring Craig and Plumlee. Murray-Jokic pick and rolls will always be there, and Plumlee operating in the dunker spot with Craig and Porter spacing the floor make for a palatable offensive unit.
Defensively is where this gets very interesting. Craig would likely guard the opposing team’s best ball handling guard while Porter would likely match up with the best offensive wing. Strategically deploying size against smaller players or simply having the personnel to match up with a taller offensive team makes sense. The Philadelphia 76ers featuring Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid would be an interesting matchup against the above group. Millsap could also sub in for Plumlee to guard Horford, his former teammate.
8. Jokic ball
Monte Morris, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Juancho Hernangomez, Nikola Jokic
It’s hard to be bad with so much spacing and offensive smarts on the floor at the same time. While Porter has some shot selection question marks heading into his rookie season, he will be playing in a configuration with Morris operating as the ball handler and Jokic operating as a playmaker on the short roll. When that option doesn’t work, Jokic will pivot into read and react offense, and the ability of the above four players to space the floor, react to Jokic, and generate open shots will be important in determining how much Juancho plays this season. He’s on the outside looking in to the rotation right now, but playing well with Jokic will aid his playing time in many ways.
When Paul Millsap was added to the fold, Denver lost a lot of the vertical cut offense they had developed with the Danilo Gallinari-Wilson Chandler forward tandem. In the Jokic passing compilation below, don’t watch the Jokic passes. Watch the spaced floor with Chandler and Gallinari in the corners instead. Porter and Juancho profile as players with similar roles offensively, while Morris is a facsimile for Jameer Nelson and Harris reprises his role as off-ball cutter and spacer.
7. The Bench
Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee
The primary bench unit could certainly change throughout the year. Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez certainly deserve opportunities whenever possible, while Jarred Vanderbilt and Vlatko Cancar could offer unique looks in deep bench scenarios. Right now though, this is the unit I expect to receive the most time. Bookended by the primary bench players from last season in Morris, Beasley, and Plumlee, the unit gets a revamped look with the offensive skill set of Porter and the two-way versatility and athleticism of Grant.
The major difference between last year’s rotation and the opportunities this year are the size and athleticism advantages offered by Porter and Grant. Porter is rumored to be the tallest player on the team (outside of the unsigned Bol Bol) and Grant is 6’9 with a 7’3 wingspan and springs for legs. While Barton and Craig are athletic themselves and Juancho offers height at the forward position, Porter and Grant should allow the Nuggets to push forward a size and speed advantage in several matchups this year. Denver will likely feature the 6’6 Barton listed at 190 pounds in their starting unit, while Porter and Grant will offer some size to complement Denver’s shorter starting unit.
The three-man combination of Morris-Beasley-Plumlee generated a +4.2 Net Rating in 762 minutes together, and it’s easy to imagine what they can do with additional options to help lighten the load off the bench.
6. The Los Angeles countermeasure
Jamal Murray, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
Denver is almost obligated to try Jerami Grant at small forward during the course of the season as a countermeasure to opposing big wing scorers. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James are all very good. They might be too good for whatever the Nuggets decide to throw at them; however, it doesn’t mean the Nuggets can’t try. Playing Murray and Jokic as the bookends of this unit should somewhat buoy the offense, but the main objective of this lineup is to add as many big-bodied wings as possible.
Playing against the Los Angeles Clippers, Craig would likely match up with Leonard while Grant would face off against George. Playing against the Los Angeles Lakers, any of Craig, Grant, or Millsap could realistically try to guard LeBron James. Jokic would defend the Lakers center, whether it be Anthony Davis in small ball lineups or an actual center in traditional lineups.
5. Small Ball
Monte Morris, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant
It’s been awhile since the Nuggets had a genuine small ball lineup they could trust, but this could be the year to go small given the versatility of Jerami Grant. His ability to switch in every situation defensively (and Millsap’s ability to guard in specific isolation scenarios) should allow Denver to form a competent defensive unit without a true center. With Murray and Jokic off the floor, Morris and Barton would be relied upon for creating offense for others unless Harris takes a step forward offensively. The collective ability to operate different roles on and off-ball offensively should allow for a unique look to throw at opposing teams while Murray and Jokic rest.
4. The “We need points now” group
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokic
While this unit is focused mostly on offense, it starts with generated stops and quickly getting out in transition. As long as Jokic focuses on grabbing rebounds, he will have many options of players willing to run in transition. Harris and Beasley were two of Denver’s strongest options in transition over the last few years, running ahead of the defense and catching a Jokic pass in stride before finishing at the rim or hitting a perimeter jumper. If fast breaks don’t work, the Nuggets can fall back on the Jokic offense, and with three excellent perimeter shooters at full health and an option in Grant to sit in the dunker spot (or the corner three where he shot 39.7% last year) the Nuggets will be able to generate points in bunches.
This is a situational lineup of course. Defense will be difficult to come by, even with three above average defenders out there, given Denver’s size disadvantages. Still, if the Nuggets are ahead in the third or fourth quarter and want to generate a quick 7-0 run to push a game out of reach, this is the best lineup to accomplish that offensively and with some explosiveness to boot.
3. Jamal Murray the leader
Any lineup with Jamal Murray ON and Nikola Jokic OFF
There are 48 minutes in most basketball games, barring some unforeseen four overtime tragedies. During the minutes with Nikola Jokic off the floor, there are going to be moments when the Nuggets need to generate more offense than what the bench unit can provide. Monte Morris is very good, but at his ceiling Jamal Murray is a much more impactful offensive player. How Murray continues to develop his game without Jokic on the floor will help determine if he can reach a Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry ceiling.
This may not be answered during the regular season, but it would certainly be nice to see how Murray reacts to the playmaking and star power falling entirely on his shoulders. In the playoffs, when Jokic needs a breather or is in foul trouble or is at a matchup disadvantage, the Nuggets need someone else to step up. Murray performed well for the majority of the playoffs, but he can be even better the next time around. More moments like his fourth quarter takeover against the San Antonio Spurs wouldn’t hurt.
2. The 2020s hopefuls
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokic
The most intriguing lineup of the 2019-20 season and beyond. Denver’s two high profile additions to the rotation this year to complement the current core of starters. Nuggets fans know how Murray, Harris, and Jokic operate together. Discovering how Porter and Grant impact that trio could determine Denver’s next steps as a franchise. With Porter a young beacon of potential and Grant just entering his prime, the Nuggets are set to be one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA for the foreseeable future.
This is the group Nuggets fans should hope can do it. The Nuggets front office took a chance on Porter when other teams wouldn’t, and they are hoping to reap the rewards of a healthy Porter. At his ceiling, Porter projects to be the second best player on Denver’s roster, shouldering a heavy scoring load and generating baskets in difficult situations. For Grant, at just 25 years old entering his sixth season, the Nuggets are hoping that his offensive growth and defensive tools are legit, even without playing next to two-way MVP candidate Paul George and elite table setter Russell Westbrook.
If these two players pan out anywhere close to their maximum output, the Nuggets may have a championship core for the next several years. If not, Denver will probably operate closer to the level of the Portland Trail Blazers unless Murray takes a significant leap forward. There’s a large gap there, a dangerous gap.
1. The Starters
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic
This was the unit many were most excited to see last year. After this group posted a +35.6 Net Rating in just 65 minutes during the 2017-18 season, they opened 2018-19 as the starting unit and played six blissful quarters of basketball before Will Barton went down with an injury. When he returned and the unit joined forces once again, it lost some luster in the regular season (+7.8 Net Rating) and then fell apart in playoff action against the San Antonio Spurs (-2.1 Net Rating) in the first round. This led to Malone switching up the lineup and inserting Torrey Craig, placing Barton on the second unit instead.
Heading into 2019-20, I would expect this lineup to open the season as the starting unit, and deservedly so. Injuries to Barton and Harris nullified the statistical progress Denver made over several years, and as members of the unit continue to improve, the unit should as well; however, a +7.8 Net Rating isn’t going to cut it from the starting group. Here are the starting units for several elite teams during the 2018-19 regular season:
The Nuggets group doesn’t have a long way to go before treading into elite territory, but if Denver wants to take a step toward title contender status, the easiest way to do so is put forth the strongest possible group of starters, given they play the most time in the playoffs together. There will of course be wrinkles and variations throughout the year, but an elite starting unit helps cover for other weaknesses in the rotation.