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Stiffs Mailbag: Lineup issues, Michael Porter Jr., and defensive solutions

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Answering Twitter questions from Denver Stiffs readers

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

You know the drill. I always appreciate the questions. Let me know what you want me to discuss next:


Until JaMychal Green returns, the Nuggets are in a difficult spot with their frontcourt rotation. Michael Malone has utilized PJ Dozier at power forward on several occasions, and against smaller teams, that choice isn’t as big of a deal. Against the Sacramento Kings, it was tough because Richaun Holmes, Marvin Bagley, Nemanja Bjelica, and Hassan Whiteside all received rotation minutes, meaning that Dozier was stuck guarding a true big man multiple times. When it wasn’t Dozier, it was a switch onto another small guard, Bol Bol, or Michael Porter Jr. playing 24 straight minutes in the second half on the second night of a back to back.

I would personally try out Zeke Nnaji at power forward, especially if Michael Malone is set on a 10-man rotation for the time being. Bol is fairly lost out there at the moment, and though Nnaji is a rookie, he demonstrated poise and intuition in the preseason on both ends of the floor. The Nuggets need another intuitive player in their bench rotation, and if Nnaji can knock down some perimeter jumpers, he’s the best option Denver has to improve the rebounding disparity.

My proposed bench lineup would include Monte Morris (when Jamal Murray returns to health), Will Barton, P.J. Dozier, Zeke Nnaji, and Isaiah Hartenstein. It isn’t a perfect lineup, but it puts the ball in the hands of Morris and Barton frequently. They will need to step up.


One of the most difficult parts of losing Jerami Grant was losing the versatility he afforded for different combinations of lineups that could affect the game in a positive way. JaMychal Green isn’t quite as versatile, but he does have the ability to play power forward or center with different types of lineups. I firmly believe the Nuggets at least split their matchups with the Sacramento Kings if they have Green healthy and available. He offers Denver utility as a traditional power forward and stretch center option, and with Isaiah Hartenstein struggling to make a consistent impact, Green could spend significant time at either position to help Denver win games.

Denver needs to remain patient, see what they have with their biggest free agency acquisition of the offseason, and hope his availability helps stabilize the rotation. He would have been helpful against Bagley and Bjelica on Tuesday night, more so than Millsap or Bol Bol. Having a traditional power forward option will raise Denver’s floor considerably. As good as P.J. Dozier has been to open the season, he’s not a power forward.


It’s difficult to offer a legitimate answer since media isn’t really allowed around the team right now. We speak to Michael Malone and the players on Zoom briefly, but that’s the extent of our contact at the moment due to COVID.

Right now, it certainly feels like there’s a tendency to spiral a bit rather than rally in a difficult situation. Denver was in a difficult situation on the second night of a back to back on Tuesday night, and rather than lock in defensively, the Nuggets struggled to cobble together momentum on either side of the ball. The season is long and arduous, so Denver gets a pass for it right at the beginning of the year; however, it’s difficult inside an empty arena to generate momentum consistently. Morale is going to be difficult to come by no matter what, and the pandemic makes things 10 times harder.

The players will adjust. They’ll have to.


Bradley Beal is an excellent playmaking guard that’s in his prime and would help the Nuggets win games. The key word there is “guard” though, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m less interested in Beal than most. I trust Jamal Murray to continue developing into a player that’s similar to Beal. Maybe better, maybe worse. The problem comes from an over-saturation of playmaking that the Nuggets may not need from the guard position.

If Gary Harris was making 40% of his threes instead of 17.6% (3-of-17) then he would represent Denver’s ideal complementary guard next to Murray; he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact, because as a cutter, floor spacer, and defender, he fills the roll Denver needs when Jokić, Murray, and even Porter are locked into their offensive roles.

Offensively, there’s no question what Beal would add to Denver. He’s one of the most consistent scorers and playmakers in the NBA today, and though he’s operated on a losing team for awhile, he isn’t a losing player by any stretch of the word. Get him to the playoffs and he will be impactful.

That being said, the questions aren’t on offense. They’re defensive questions. If Denver gives up Porter in a trade for Beal, how are they defending any playmaking forwards? They aren’t really doing that now, but Beal doesn’t change that dynamic in any way. Denver still has serious weaknesses with a trio of Murray, Beal, and Jokic, namely perimeter defense against elite guards and any defense at all against elite forwards. If those questions still remain after the trade, it’s difficult for me to justify doing a trade like that at all given how talented Porter is on the offensive end.


Denver can be a good defensive team. According to PBP Stats, the Nuggets have allowed the fifth lowest expected effective field goal percentage in the NBA against opposing teams based on shot location and play context. The actual eFG% allowed is second worst. That massive discrepancy says to me that Denver’s currently getting a bit unlucky with the points they’ve allowed. Opposing teams have shot 43.3% from three-point range against Denver. Marvin Bagley made multiple threes against them on Tuesday night, the seventh time he has ever done that in his NBA career.

It can’t all be attributed to luck though. The Nuggets getting JaMychal Green back will help raise their baseline performance, and more cohesion with a new team as the year progresses will also help out this group. Denver will need improved performance across the board though. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris will need to pressure opposing guards as best they can. Nikola Jokić will need to maintain his positional defense and surprise opponents with how frequently he contests shots they don’t expect him to contest. The bench will need a lift overall.

Most importantly though, Michael Porter Jr. has to stay engaged and stay the course. He had one of his worst ever defensive quarters against the Kings in the second quarter. After halftime, Porter improved, contesting shots, staying focused, and being less of a liability overall. Teams are going to attack him, and he has to be ready for it. If teams stop feeling like they can get whatever they want against Denver’s newest starter, then the baseline for defense will improve dramatically.

In the playoffs...well, let’s save that for another day. That might need some personnel changes.


The Nuggets, as you said, are stockpiled with quality young talent. Bol Bol, R.J. Hampton, and Zeke Nnaji showed off their skills in the preseason, but unfortunately, the regular season is a different beast entirely. It can’t just be about showing off skills. Michael Malone needs to know what that player can contribute to the game plan every single night, and if the answer is “I don’t know” or “Not enough right now” then Malone will hesitate to play those players for good reason.

To be clear, I don’t know if Denver is going to make any trades. It’s too early to really speculate on what the Nuggets need, who the Nuggets might look for, and whether that player is even available.

But if Denver were to trade someone, Bol, Hampton, and/or Nnaji could easily be the sweetener in any deal. All three are incredibly young, versatile, talented, and willing to learn. The Nuggets like all of them for good reason and believe in their talent and character translating to the NBA. but other teams will like them too. The unfortunate thing about trades is that in order to get something, one has to be willing to give something up. Denver is generally unwilling to meet such demands because they put a high price on their own guys.

If the right player shows up at the right price though, I hope the Nuggets don’t hesitate too much. The primes for Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and even Michael Porter Jr. aren’t guaranteed, and all that can be asked for is hope and sustainability for as long as possible. Letting really interesting young players get in the way of that is a recipe for missing out on expectations by waiting too long for the opportune moment.