The NBA All-Star Game is over, and the rest period for NBA players, coaches, and team personnel is all but over. The Denver Nuggets will return to Pepsi Center shortly to begin working on a game plan for this Friday’s game, a nationally televised road matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. With 55 games finished and 27 to go, Denver is entering the third and final section of the regular season (First is the narrative setting section lasting about 30 games. Second is the dog days of the regular season before the All-Star break. Third is post All-Star break and the real playoff push).
In this third section of the regular season, coaches tend to tighten up their rotations, identifying the players that best help them win and rolling with that group into the playoffs. There can still be changes, but generally, a coach understands who he can trust at this point. Head coach Michael Malone is no different. He knows who he can trust and who he can’t and will orient his rotation around those players. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray will headline the starting unit. Will Barton has inserted himself into that core group. How Malone handles the rotation from this point onward will be key in identifying which players will have the largest roles in a playoff setting.
Malone knows the numbers front to back on how his players are performing together. He knows that Paul Millsap has a massively positive effect on the starting unit and may decide to reinsert Millsap into that group sooner rather than later. Malone knows that Michael Porter Jr. had a decidedly negative effect on every lineup until around December, at which point Porter started to figure things out and has been effective ever since.
But while Malone is familiar with these numbers, many readers aren’t so plugged in to the pulse of the team statistically. So, allow me to be the conduit of that information and share my insight on why certain players may play more than others going forward.
Two-Man Net Ratings
A simple measure of team performance while a player is on the floor is that player’s Net Rating, the differential between how many points one’s team scores and how many points one’s team allows per 100 possessions. This adjustment for possessions allows for an easier comparison for players that are on the floor for different amounts of time.
Two-Man Net Ratings are the same concept, but instead of measuring how the team performs while one player is on the floor, it measures how a player does when paired with another teammate. For example, when Nikola Jokic and Will Barton share the floor together, the Nuggets outscore opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions, a very strong number that Nuggets fans should be pleased to see. The larger the numbers, the better a pairing usually is.
Here’s the full Two-Man Net Rating chart with every player currently on Denver’s roster that has exceeded 200 minutes. Blue is good. Red is bad:
Here are my five biggest takeaways from the above chart:
- The original starting unit is still the best Denver can offer
- Paul Millsap still has the greatest impact
- Michael Porter Jr. is surprisingly positive
- Two point guard lineups work between Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, and PJ Dozier
- The starters work well with everyone except Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant
Right away, it’s easy to pick out the red amongst the wall of blue (the Nuggets are a pretty good team with a great starting lineup). Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig have a bunch of red next to their names: the Nuggets don’t perform as well when Grant and Craig are on the floor. This is to be expected for a number of reasons. Jerami Grant was a newcomer to Denver’s starting group, and the majority of his minutes have come in difficult situations. At first, he was trying to integrate into a bench unit that cycled through wings that never really fit together. Then, he was inserted into a starting lineup ravaged by injuries for the last several weeks.
Still, Grant has made the most of his time. He has started the last 18 games he has played, scoring in double digits in 16 of the 18 contests. His Net Rating of +2.5 is lower than Denver’s Net Rating as a team (+3.7) but also factors in how many minutes he has spent as the backup center in addition to the starting power forward. All in all, that’s pretty impressive.
The other player of note is Torrey Craig. He has a positive Net Rating with only one other player: Michael Porter Jr., and the same quirk is shared by Grant as well. That’s indicative of a larger point later in the article. Craig’s guard and wing defense, just like Grant’s forward defense, are essential in a playoff setting but far less important in the regular season. More often than not, opposing teams are comfortable playing through other players if Craig is matched up with a star player. Against certain matchups, like the Portland Trail Blazers or Houston Rockets, it’s difficult for those teams to change their styles, and Craig excels when he gets to hound Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Against many other teams however, Craig’s 1-on-1 defense is less important, and his overall negative effect on the offense becomes more pronounced.
With Craig on the floor, the Nuggets post a 106.4 Offensive Rating. With Craig off the floor, the Nuggets post a 112.7 Offensive Rating. That difference is tangible in the regular season (but less tangible in the playoffs if there’s a guard or wing on the other team that needs to be stopped).
It is however undeniable that the Nuggets haven’t been as strong with Grant and Craig on the floor. The player who really stands out in a positive way, especially when juxtaposed with Grant, is Paul Millsap. His Net Ratings with each starter aren’t just good. They’re elite. His Net Ratings with each of the starters fall in the 90th percentile or higher among duos with 700 minutes played or more. That’s a Milwaukee Bucks level of dominance, and it shows just how important Millsap remains to Denver’s title chase. He has to be out there in some fashion.
I will note that Millsap’s Net Ratings in November and December appear far different than those in January and February, right when the overall level of competition started to increase for the Nuggets. This is one of the reasons Grant gets a bad wrap, but he probably shouldn’t. Grant also would have excelled had he played high minutes with the starting group against teams like the Orlando Magic every night. Grant’s road to high advanced stats has been more difficult.
Best Three-man units by month
The Nuggets have fielded several different units during the season, but the starters continue to stand out in this exercise along with a surprise contributor.
Denver's best 3-man lineups by month featuring players currently on roster (>50 minutes played):— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) February 17, 2020
Murray-Barton-Millsap: +19.2 Net
Murray-Millsap-Jokic: +15.2 Net
Barton-Porter-Jokic: +20.1 Net
I want to see what happens when they put it all together.
During the month of January, we experienced the breakout of Michael Porter Jr. and all of its ramifications. In the face of injuries to multiple starters and important players, Malone gave Porter a chance to c=shine in extended minutes. MPJ delivered, and it’s very hard to go back now that some of these performances are out there for the world to see. Here is just a sample of Porter’s best five games during January:
January 2nd @ Indiana: 25 points on 11-of-12 shooting, 5 rebounds, Plus-13
January 15th vs Charlotte: 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, Plus-10
January 16th @ Golden State: 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, Plus-11
January 20th @ Minnesota: 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, Plus-17
January 31st @ Milwaukee: 15 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks, Plus-11
While the production is really impressive, the real kicker is the plus-minus on the end of each performance. During January, Porter suited up for 15 games. He had a positive plus-minus in 11 of the 15 and proved he could be trusted for extended minutes. His shooting, rebounding, and size impacted the game for others as well as himself, and the Nuggets won games that way. It’s hard to go back to before when Porter wasn’t playing a lot, given that he has shown he can put up an efficient 15 to 20 points on any given night, on top of the already strong rebounding. I expect Malone to use him frequently for the rest of the regular season.
Three other three man units that have stood out over the entirety of the season:
Monte Morris - Gary Harris - Mason Plumlee: +15.6 Net in 106 minutes
Will Barton - Michael Porter Jr. - Nikola Jokic: +14.2 Net in 111 minutes
Will Barton - Paul Millsap - Nikola Jokic: +13.9 Net in 670 minutes
When the Nuggets start mixing and matching their lineups, Harris has been a strong piece next to Morris and Plumlee for awhile. His defensive instincts add to what is already a strong defensive group, and those three specifically have connected all year. When Denver decides to stagger their lineups while staying big, going back to this trio makes sense.
Porter also has to play with the starters at some point every game. The two-man Net Rating chart makes that painfully clear. He has a positive plus-minus with every player outside of Morris and Plumlee, but even those are closer to neutral than they were earlier in the year.
The 10 five-man units I’d like to see play the most time together
The Nuggets are going to utilize several units to close the season and prepare for the playoffs. With some informed choices based on the above data, there are 10 five-man groupings I’d like to see for the rest of the regular season in order to prepare for a playoff run.
- Starters: Murray - Harris - Barton - Millsap - Jokic
- First Subs: Murray - Barton - Porter - Grant - Jokic
- Five Creators: Morris - Murray - Barton - Porter - Jokic
- Five Defenders: Morris - Harris - Craig - Millsap - Plumlee
- Full Bench: Morris - Craig - Porter - Grant - Plumlee
- Bench spacers + Jokic: Morris - Jordan McRae - Porter - Grant - Jokic
- Survive when Jokic sits: Morris - Murray - Barton - Millsap - Grant
- Four guards and a stretch big: Morris - Murray - Harris - McRae - Millsap
- The LA counter: Murray - Barton - Grant - Millsap - Jokic
- A new death lineup: Murray - Barton - Porter - Millsap - Jokic
With every Nuggets player approaching full health to close out the year, only 11 total players were used to create the 10 lineups, and it’s those 11 players I expect to play most. Rotations are cut down even more in the playoffs, and not all 11 will play in every game the rest of the way. I’d only expect all 11 guys to play if the game went to garbage time; however, each player can fill a role, and there are different scenarios when any of the above lineups might prove useful.
Porter and Grant have proven to be an important duo of the future for the Nuggets over the last six weeks and deserve an extended look. Morris and Barton have been balling out lately and should be out there a ton. Two of those players weren’t on the roster for a playoff run last year, and the other two just weren’t themselves. If the Nuggets can get those four playing at a high level throughout the playoffs, the Nuggets will be extremely dangerous with a number of options to throw at the opposition.
In the end, the Murray-Jokic pick and roll will always be the fallback, but others can help the Nuggets close out the year. I’m looking forward to learning how Malone plans to deploy his stacked rotation for the rest of the 2019-20 season.