Who is the biggest X-factor to close out the season?
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): It’s Michael Malone. He’s the guy that has control over the rotations, when to rest players, and how to utilize his roster. I think they need to figure out their best lineups, and that may mean getting weird for a few minutes against an opponent. If the Nuggets can take advantage of their depth to be best prepared to play at the level they need to compete each night, they should have a great finish to the season.
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): “What is the biggest X-Factor” I would have to say health. But for who? I’ll go with Michael Porter Jr. The Nuggets know who they are with a healthy Jamal Murray (assuming that happens). They know how to make it work with Paul Millsap next to Jokic or playing with the bench. But MPJ is the player whose scoring and rebounding can make a huge difference in the way other teams have to play Denver, and in freeing up other players to play within themselves instead of trying to play outside their comfort zones. Porter is the X-factor for the Nuggets.
Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): The easy answer would be Nikola Jokic, who is the Nuggets X-Factor anytime Denver steps on the court, but I will say Jamal Murray. In his last five games — which have all come after missing 10 due to a left ankle sprain — Murray is averaging 29 points, 6.2 assists, and is shooting 46.2 percent from three per game.
Not only is Murray scoring the ball, but he is also making really good decisions on where to go with the basketball. It feels like those 10 games Murray missed due to injury are really going to help him and the Nuggets moving forward. If Murray continues to play with the confidence he showcased in the Nuggets last five games, he truly could be the player that puts them over the top and turns them into a true title contender.
Should the Nuggets strategically rest Nikola Jokic and other starters?
Lewis: I will say yes, because there are going to be games where they should be able to win without having Jokic play. They do need to make sure that he’s as rested as possible, even if it means just sitting him down for one game before a busy week or the final 10 games of the year.
Gross: It’s hard to say yes, since in the most obvious moments of the season to rest players (the Milwaukee game on incredibly short turnaround, for instance) they instead won those games. The difference between the two-seed and the five-seed is three games right now. Three games between hosting the first 2 playoff rounds or being a road team in the first round and then heading to Los Angeles to play the Lakers in Round 2. Denver needs all the wins they can get. If the Nuggets get some breathing room then they can work on strategic rest, but right now the injury recovery time for half the roster is gonna have to count.
Ewing: I’ve never been a huge fan of resting players, so I’ll say no. You could definitely look to limit the amount of minutes that say Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Paul Millsap play on a nightly basis, but I would not sit them down entirely.
I think it should get to a point where they play every game, but the Nuggets are still looking to get them rest. For example: if the Nuggets are playing a bad team and they are up by 15-plus points going into the fourth quarter, there is no reason the starters should be inserted back into the game. Situations like that are where the Nuggets have to take advantage if they want to be fully healthy going into the postseason.
What is the most important weakness to try to correct before the end of the season?
Lewis: It’s pretty obvious to me that it’s shooting. The team can always increase their effort output against the top teams, but you can’t just hustle made 3-pointers. They need to try to run sets to help get their shooters in a rhythm and build their confidence through the next 20 games.
Gross: Health. But on the court, let’s go with three-point shooting. The Nuggets are bottom-5 in three-point attempts and middle-of-the-pack in percentage. It would do the Nuggets immense good to see Gary Harris make threes and MPJ shoot more of them. It’s hard to keep up with the best in the West while trading 3s for 2s and not getting to the foul line (fifth-worst in free throw attempts). They’ve gotta sink threes to unlock Jokic Ball for the stretch run and the playoffs.
Ewing: Three-point shooting is the greatest concern for me and it has been like that for most of the season. It worries me that some nights the Nuggets shoot the lights out of the gym and on other nights they struggle to get anything even close to a 3-pointer.
It will be important for Jokic to continue to knock down 3-pointers and for Murray to keep putting up shots from beyond the arc. If the Nuggets can even get a couple threes per game from Gary Harris and Torrey Craig, it will only help those 3-point numbers go up.
What lineup would you most like to see to prepare for the playoffs?
Lewis: I’d like to see a lineup of Murray-Porter Jr-Grant-Millsap-Jokic. I think that’s a lineup that they’re going to need to use for a few minutes in really important situations against the Lakers and Clippers if they face them in the playoffs. It would be wise to figure out some plays they can run against teams in the regular season so they’re prepared in the postseason.
Gross: I would like to see Jerami Grant stay in the starting lineup and have Millsap play off the bench. He can play small-ball 5 as well as power forward, and by limiting his minutes and exposure maybe Denver can keep Paul healthy the rest of the way and get that production in the playoffs from him that they’ll need.
Ewing: Huge fan of Paul Millsap off the bench and I believe that is the recipe for success moving forward. Jerami Grant should remain in the starting lineup alongside Murray, Jokic, Will Barton III (when healthy), and Gary Harris.
Then, the Nuggets can unleash Millsap off the bench alongside Monte Morris, Torrey Craig, and of course, Michael Porter Jr. Mason Plumlee would be the odd man out in this circumstance, but there would still be an opportunity for him to earn minutes depending on the matchup.