While basketball is one of the few team sports that can be greatly affected by individual prowess, it remains true that the most cohesive teams are generally the most successful. Up and down the roster and the rotation, certain players fit together better than others for reasons pertaining to talent level, skill set, and chemistry.
More often than not, why teams perform well or perform poorly boils down to those three factors above. Two teams with a similar talent level may have different levels of success due to player fit and chemistry concerns. Two teams with great talent and great chemistry might just have too many players that fill similar roles rather than the versatility needed to play several styles of basketball.
For the Denver Nuggets, a talented roster with only a couple questions about fit has seen some serious turnover from 2019-20 to 2020-21. Out are Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, and Mason Plumlee from the rotation. In are JaMychal Green, PJ Dozier, Facundo Campazzo, and Isaiah Hartenstein, along with a more significant role for Michael Porter Jr., their 22-year-old forward with elite scoring versatility.
So, how’s it working out for Denver thus far? They have a record of 10-7, 9-3 in their last 12 games and 3-0 since the return of Porter at the beginning of a five game road trip. Let’s take a closer look at the two-man Net Ratings to see which players are playing well together.
That’s a lot of green with some red sprinkled in. Here are my takeaways:
Two distinct positive lineup groupings
Reading the above chart as a group of four quadrants makes things a bit easier to appreciate early on in the season. In the top left quadrant: a group of long-time starters that is moderately positive. On one end of the spectrum, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokić combine for a net rating of +7.0 points per 100 possessions in the 442 minutes they’ve shared the floor together, the second highest minute total for a roster pairing. On the other end of the spectrum, Harris and Paul Millsap have a -0.3 net rating in the 328 minutes they’ve shared the court, so the success the Nuggets have had with the starters isn’t unique to Millsap. In reality, Millsap has actually been a weak link in the rotation from a plus-minus perspective.
The other distinct group is the bottom right quadrant, also known as the full bench unit. JaMychal Green and Monte Morris having a +18.4 Net Rating is rather spectacular, the eighth highest net rating duo in the NBA among duos that have at least as many minutes played. Green has stabilized the bench unit, and ever since Porter returned, the bench has been winning the Nuggets games. Morris, Green, and Porter are the driving forces, but Campazzo, Hartenstein, and especially PJ Dozier have also contributed. Each of Jamal Murray and Jokić have also shared some time with those groups to stabilize things when the bench is struggling overall.
Monte Morris is legit
Almost across the board, Morris is having a tremendous impact. Save for a bizarre negative net rating with Millsap, Morris has been universally valuable for every lineup the Nuggets have asked Morris to contribute to on a nightly basis. Morris leads the bench unit, replaces Murray on occasion with the starters, and even closes games as a steady, complementary option. He does a little bit of everything, and the Nuggets have been successful by relying on him more frequently.
Michael Porter Jr. still has work to do
Though his three game return has been everything the Nuggets could have hoped for from a bench role, the Nuggets should still be conscientious of his role and how it can evolve over time. His negative net rating next to Jokić is an immediate red flag on the fit concerns, but it might be explained away with a massively negative net rating while playing next to Millsap. The two fill similar roles for the team positionally right now, and it’s no wonder the Nuggets are more successful with one or the other on the floor rather than both.
Porter’s +6.7 net rating next to Murray is a good sign though. Those two have figured out some chemistry with the bench units, particularly when surrounded by Morris and Green. Those four together are generally exceptional and versatile on the offensive end. Add Jokić to that group, and teams will ultimately fold to such an excellent unit offensively with the athleticism and basketball IQ to get stops on the other end too.
Will Barton with the bench unit didn’t work
This might be unfair because the majority of Barton’s minutes with the bench came in the first four games of the season without Green in the fold; however, it’s hard not to ignore that wall of red. Morris and Barton have found a way to be successful in subsequent minutes together, but the rest of the group that includes Dozier, Green, Campazzo, Porter, and Hartenstein has yet to find a great combination with Barton out there. I suspect it has something to do with an elevated role offensively with that unit and often playing too small defensively.
If the Nuggets were to decide to reinsert Porter into the starting lineup, it might not make sense for Barton to be the player he replaces. Barton has had success with the starters and failures with the bench group. Perhaps Millsap is the right player to sit down for a few games instead.
Net rating combinations are neither the be-all-end-all nor something to be ignored. The sample size is beginning to grow large enough that teams can truly draw conclusions from which players lift others up and which players drag others down. Jokić has constantly been a player who lifts players up with his play style, and though there are some exceptions, any player that can’t find a positive net rating figure next to Jokić has to be questioned at least a little.
Whatever the case may be, the data remains a nice color-coded visual to help outline which players have been more successful. The surprising answers to that question so far: Monte Morris, JaMychal Green, and Facundo Campazzo. Perimeter size be damned.