When the Denver Nuggets took the floor against the Washington Wizards with a starting lineup that featured 7’0” center Nikola Jokic at point guard and 7’2” center Bol Bol at small forward, it was so outrageous that it instantly became a hot topic among NBA fans and media.
However, when looking at the size of teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers — the three teams considered favorites for the 2020 NBA Championship than Denver — it may not be so crazy after all. Whether matching up with championship caliber opponents was something that occurred to Nuggets head coach Michael Malone when utilizing his eight-man rotation is unknown, but he may be onto something here.
Let’s take a look at the frontcourts of the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers.
The Bucks have 6’7” small forward Khris Middleton, 6’11” power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo and 7’0” center Brook Lopez as starters. The Lakers start 6’9” small forward LeBron James, 6’10” power forward Anthony Davis and 7’0” center JaVale McGee in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, the Clippers start 6’7” small forward Kawhi Leonard, 6’8” power forward Marcus Morris and 7’0” center Ivica Zubac, on top of a 6’8” shooting guard in Paul George.
For kicks, let’s throw in the Toronto Raptors, a team with at least a shooter’s chance to reach the NBA Finals from the Eastern Conference. The Raptors will start 6’7” small forward OG Anunoby, 6’9” power forward Pascal Siakam and 6’11” center Marc Gasol. Serge Ibaka, a 7’0” forward-center, will also play a significant role for the team.
While Denver’s tall ball lineup from Wednesday would outsize all of Denver’s opponents, their normal starting lineup featuring Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton on the perimeter is on the shorter side among playoff lineups in the NBA today. It’s unlikely that Bol Bol or Michael Porter Jr. will play a major role this season, given that both are rookies and neither has enough playoff experience.
Still, for conversation’s sake, let’s analyze how a lineup with a frontcourt featuring Bol, Jokic and Paul Millsap would fair against the Bucks, Lakers, Clippers and Raptors.
Slowing downhill momentum
The first thing to note about teams like the Bucks, Lakers and Raptors is that their key frontcourt players — Giannis, LeBron and Siakam, respectively — are players who make their biggest impact around the rim by getting downhill in a hurry. The sheer length of this frontcourt configuration for Denver would make it extremely tough for this trio of players to do what they do best, forcing them to shoot jumpers more often than they would like.
Giannis (30.6%), LeBron (34.9%) and Siakam (35.9%) all shoot below the league average from 3-point range, and while all of these stars are threats to take shots from the perimeter, none are remarkable jump shooters from anywhere on the court. If Denver’s lengthy trio could halt the progress of superstars in getting to the rim, the Nuggets would be in a great spot.
Now, in terms of being able to keep up with their forwards one-on-one on the perimeter, it’s difficult to see Millsap and Bol being able to keep up with the aforementioned star trio, as well as Kawhi. Still, length becomes a factor here because it’s not quite easy to get around a player with a large base or large wingspan. So long as they don’t get beat off the first step consistently, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Employing more of the 2-3 zone defense that the Nuggets played in their first scrimmage could be a great tactical adjustment for Malone to make against some of these stars.
LeBron’s high basketball IQ and renowned passing ability will help him plenty in this instance, but he’s still going to have to deal with the extraordinary length of Denver and a first step that has slowed down significantly. Leonard’s methodical approach, well-rounded skillset and soft touch will help him, but he’s an athlete known more for his footwork than his first step.
Lastly, Denver’s frontcourt depth allows them to mix it up a bit, as 6’10” Michael Porter Jr. or 6’8” Jerami Grant could take Millsap’s spot in this hypothetical lineup. Plumlee, who is 6’11”, could take Jokic’s spot.
While the initial conversation was about how the Nuggets would fare against the other team’s starting frontcourt and specifically their star players with this wonky lineup, teams like the Clippers, Lakers and Raptors each have highly talented big men they bring off the bench. As previously mentioned, that player for the Raptors is Ibaka. For the Clippers, it’s Montrezl Harrell. The Lakers have Dwight Howard.
Still, no matter how Denver mixes it up, they’ll have enough length to contend with these teams’ big men and make it harder for their star players to get all the way to the rim.
There’s always the chance that an opposing team will figure out how to take advantage of Denver’s size. Small ball continues to run rampant throughout the NBA, and Denver’s tall ball approach may be met with some road bumps along the way. There’s also the potential for Malone to shy away from using these less traditional lineups once the Nuggets’ roster is at full strength. Still, it’s at least worth considering how these larger-than-life lineups can give them them upper hand against their main competition in the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Nuggets, they’ll play the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors in their seeding games. If they want, they’ll get to test their supersized lineups then.