We are 12 days out from the last game the Denver Nuggets played before the Coronavirus pandemic shut the NBA down, along with the rest of the world. Very little basketball discussion has occurred since then, and that will probably continue while the NBA remains frozen in time with the season postponed and future results up in the air.
In the meantime, it’s fair to speculate on some big picture questions hanging over the heads of the Nuggets organization. As Nikola Jokic continues to prove his worth as a top 10 player in this league and Jamal Murray looks to join him in the All-Star discussion, building around those two young cornerstones has become the most important discussion for the future of the Nuggets. The organization believes Michael Porter Jr. could play a major role offensively next to that duo, and the trade for Jerami Grant seems to have panned out at this point.
Where the questions really begin for the Nuggets is on the wing. Gary Harris and Will Barton started the majority of games at shooting guard and small forward respectively, and while Harris had a mostly down season and Barton had a bounce back year, the door is still open for which player makes the most sense at starting shooting guard going forward.
Whichever player the Nuggets decide to start at the 2 heading forward, one thing was made clear this season: starting both Harris and Barton at shooting guard and small forward is a good way to make it to the playoffs and a bad way to match up with the elite teams in the NBA right now.
Let me explain why:
Gary Harris is listed at a height of 6-foot-4 and a weight of 210 pounds.
Will Barton is listed at a height of 6-foot-5 and a weight of 181 pounds.
Their average height of 6-foot-4.5 ranks 28th in the NBA behind other starting wing duos in average height. The only two teams smaller on the wings than the Nuggets are the Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Both Harris and Barton are good players, good starters even, to have on roster for a competitive team. Harris brings a 3-and-D skillset with a willingness to defend the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Barton brings a playmaking wing skillset along with versatility, capable of creating for himself and others off the dribble.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets are starting to realize the value of size on the perimeter as they attempt to turn their championship dream into a reality. Across the NBA, the teams Denver will have to contend with over the next few seasons have length on the wing. The Los Angeles Lakers have LeBron James listed at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds. The Los Angeles Clippers have Kawhi Leonard listed at 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, as well as Paul George listed at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds. In future seasons, the Dallas Mavericks have Luka Doncic listed at 6-foot-7 and 218 pounds, the Golden State Warriors will have Klay Thompson at 6-foot-6 and Andrew Wiggins at 6-foot-7, and the New Orleans Pelicans will have Brandon Ingram at 6-foot-7.
No matter which of Harris or Barton will guard the above players, they will be at a size disadvantage. It’s an unavoidable reality and one of the many reasons Nuggets fans are enthralled with the size of Michael Porter Jr. on the perimeter. The 21-year-old is listed at 6-foot-10 and 215 pounds, and his frame could stand to add some extra muscle weight as he gets older. The idea of matching him up with some of the above players, while ludicrous now given his defensive shortcomings, is appealing in future seasons after he has some development. His size is an advantage Denver’s incumbent starting wings will never have.
It’s very likely that, given Jamal Murray is penciled in as a starter for the foreseeable future, that the Nuggets may only be able to start one of Harris and Barton going forward if Denver wants an opportunity to compete for a ring.
It’s no secret that Gary Harris had a down season. Though he bounced back nicely after the All-Star break, the six year veteran had his least productive year since he was a rookie playing spot minutes. Among the 56 guard and wing starters to average at least 25 minutes per game, Harris’ 10.4 points per game was the 7th lowest PPG average, ahead of only Patrick Beverley, Tony Snell, Danny Green, Tomas Satoransky, Elfrid Payton, and Danuel House. That is not great company to keep for a shooting guard who averaged 17.5 points per game just two seasons ago.
Harris’ 9.5 Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is the ninth lowest in the entire NBA among players to start at least 40 games this season. The only players lower than him are veteran role players and rookies on bad teams.
In the Nuggets offense, it’s not up to Gary Harris to carry the load, but he does have a responsibility to convert his limited number of attempts. That’s just not something Harris has done the last two seasons. His 48.7 Effective Field Goal % is the lowest it’s been since his rookie year, and the Nuggets can’t have that from him given the shots he’s taking.
According to PBP Stats, Harris’ expected eFG% on shots he attempted this season was 53%. Michael Porter Jr. had roughly the same expected eFG%, and while Porter’s actual eFG% far outstripped expectation at 57.1%, Harris was far UNDER expectation. His actual eFG% of 48.7% held Denver’s offense back. If Harris had hit the number of shots related to his expected eFG%, the Nuggets Offensive Rating of 112.0 (9th in NBA) would have jumped to roughly 112.7 (4th in NBA) had all other variables remained equal. That’s a sizable leap and shows just how important it is that role players fill their role well.
Will Barton is another story entirely. He has performed well this year in an extensive role as the versatile, secondary playmaker off the dribble the Nuggets need from time to time. Playing both on and off the ball, Barton has hit his shots when necessary, converting his threes at a 37.5% clip and maintaining a respectable 54.9 True Shooting %. Among all 74 qualified players to average at least 15 points per game, Barton’s TS% ranks 59th, which isn’t great but still solid given the company he’s keeping. His expected and actual eFG% are right in line with each other as well, which says to me that he has achieved the level of solid starter, especially offensively.
Where the Nuggets run into more trouble is defensively. They have been prone to giving up big scoring performances on the wings, especially to big small forwards. Among the 45 occasions an opposing player has scored 25+ points against the Nuggets, 12 of those have come from opposing small forwards. Players like LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, and Luka Doncic have given Denver fits this season.
This isn’t to say it’s Barton’s fault that good small forwards have had good scoring performances against the Nuggets, but this is a problem related to size for the Nuggets, and they just don’t have a great way to solve it. As good as Barton’s offensive production is, if opposing small forwards like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and others have limited resistance against them, that doesn’t offer great confidence in a playoff setting in which matchups are so important.
The Nuggets don’t have an elite rim protector like Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid to make up for their lack of perimeter size. Jokic, Paul Millsap, and Jerami Grant have done a nice job overall at limiting their individual assignments, but for a player like Jokic that can’t cover ground at an elite level, it’s difficult for him to help off his own assignment and recover in time for a kick out or a lob pass. Denver’s personnel simply dictates that the Nuggets need better perimeter size and physicality to match up with the best in the league. Unless the Nuggets plan on trading Jokic, then this has to be the top priority when figuring out how to go from a solid playoff team to a championship contender.
With two years and $39.6 million remaining on a contract extension he signed in 2017, Gary Harris is being paid the equivalent of an average starter at the shooting guard position. Players like Buddy Hield, Victor Oladipo, Zach LaVine, and Eric Gordon will offer similar cap hits going forward. Save for Oladipo, none of those players are considered high quality contributors on playoff teams, but for a Nuggets squad already planning on paying Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray over $56 million combined during the 2020-21 season, they have to maximize every dollar.
The Gary Harris of these past two seasons hasn’t lived up to the contract extension he signed in 2017, and that may lead to Denver making some tough decisions going forward. Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig are all slated to be free agents during the upcoming offseason, and with the Nuggets unlikely to pay the luxury tax, there will be some picking and choosing of which players to retain.
Will Barton is also slated to make $13.9 million next season, but he has a $14.9 million player option for the 2021 offseason, and I would expect him to decline that option and test free agency unless the Nuggets keep him as a starter going forward. He’s worth at least that much on the open market, and given that he just turned 30 years old, I’d imagine he would want to cash in on a major contract one last time if possible.
Both Harris and Barton have been great players in the Nuggets organization for a long time, but I fear that change is coming very soon. It’s unclear which veteran fits best in Denver long term given the uncertainty of Michael Porter Jr. and what he can be. It makes sense to slot a defender like Harris in between Murray and Porter, but since Harris doesn’t have the size match up with many small forwards defensively, the onus would fall on Porter to be good immediately. That’s a difficult bet, and one that’s exacerbated if Harris never recovers form offensively either with efficiency or scoring volume. The problem is even more drastic with Barton, but he also offers some additional offense to stem the tide. Would Michael Malone be willing to start Murray, Barton, and Porter all at the same time knowing that the team would struggle defensively?
Whatever happens when the offseason eventually comes, know that any and every scenario is on the table. Denver could keep everybody and run it back. They could make sweeping changes to the roster. They could make one significant move that opens up more opportunities for size on the perimeter.
Whether Gary Harris and/or Will Barton are part of next year’s roster construction remains to be seen.