As the Denver Nuggets gear up for their final two games of the preseason, the team is moving toward better health after a rough start to training camp. With Will Barton turning an ankle on the second day, Michael Porter Jr. missing a game due to knee soreness, and Nikola Jokić on (quite understandable) paternity leave, the Nuggets haven’t had a great opportunity to see the full picture of their team sans Jamal Murray. Monte Morris has started all three games and looks better every time, but players like P.J. Dozier, Austin Rivers, and Jeff Green have been in and out of the starting unit when they will most likely captain a bench effort with the team at full strength.
Once the team gets healthy, the goal for Michael Malone will be to put together lineups conducive to helping the Nuggets win as many games as possible while keeping larger goals in mind. For example, Nikola Jokić cannot play 48 minutes, as much as Malone might like to play him a ton without a true backup center on the roster. Denver will need to parse together units capable of winning games that allow Jokić to rest in the process. That will give Denver several combinations while Murray recovers, and then options to work with when he ultimately returns.
But which lineups will the Nuggets use most this season? Which groups will define their success or failure?
The starting five
Lineup: Monte Morris, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić
This is the unit the Nuggets wanted to utilize most after Murray went down in April last season; however, Morris and Barton were injured soon after, and the next time the Nuggets really got to try out this unit was against the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the playoffs. It played just 27 minutes across two games and had a plus-minus of minus-1 in 27 total minutes.
This year, the Nuggets are hoping to push the boundaries of this starting group and see just how much better they can be after a full offseason to prepare. Morris knows he will be asked to fill a larger role with Murray out. Barton knows there are more opportunities to create offense and must be ready to bear the burden. Gordon arrived late in the season and clearly wasn’t fully accustomed to what his role in Denver would be without Murray. Now, those three in particular will play a huge part in determining just how strong the Nuggets can be with Jokić and Porter as their two best players to start the season.
Look for this lineup to play often, dominating against weaker teams and playing stronger teams about even.
Statistical Prediction: +8.0 Net Rating in 400 minutes
Lineup: Facu Campazzo, Bones Hyland, P.J. Dozier, Jeff Green, JaMychal Green
There’s no question that after his first three preseason games, Bones Hyland has put together a very impressive start to his rookie campaign. It sounds like he will a part of the rotation, filling one of three guard spots on the second unit and adding some scoring punch to a group short on playmaking talent.
To go with him in an all-bench unit are three incumbent reserves and Denver’s newest offseason addition. Jeff Green converts Denver’s bench unit from traditional to modern, eliminating the need for a backup center with his skill set as a “do-everything” forward/big man. Jeff and JaMychal Green will man the big man spots, while Dozier slides to small forward to make room for the creation capabilities of Hyland and Campazzo. It’s a good unit that will have trouble scoring on some days but should be good enough defensively to tread water while Jokić and Porter rest.
Statistical Prediction: +1.5 Net Rating in 200 minutes
Small ball - Offense
Lineup: Monte Morris, Bones Hyland, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr. Nikola Jokić
The Bones mania continues with an offensive minded small ball unit that features the rookie along with four starters. This is a unit that will most likely play sparingly but can have success by surrounding Jokić with several dangerous shooters. Sliding Porter to power forward in place of Gordon and adding Bones to the mix gives this group a really interesting identity. They can play with pace by getting out in transition for easy buckets or simply play a half court game, running offense through Jokić and giving him a litany of options.
This feels like a unit Denver could go to if one of the Greens were forced to sit out games. Stagger Gordon with the second unit a bit and then bring back a strong unit offensively featuring Porter at the 4 next to the big fella.
Statistical Prediction: 128.0 Offensive Rating in 125 minutes
Small ball - Defense
Lineup: Facu Campazzo, Will Barton, P.J. Dozier, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green
On the other end of the spectrum, there will need to be some units that feature a defensive group, especially one that can survive offensively when Jokić and Porter sit. Barton plays better defensively when surrounded by strong defenders, and this unit should give Denver an opportunity to defend, rebound, and run often. A lot hinges on Uncle Jeff being a capable stretch 5, as well as Barton, Dozier, and Gordon finding their own individual offense, but a switch everything unit like this one could produce some fun results in moderation.
Statistical Prediction: 101.0 Defensive Rating in 100 minutes
Lineup: Facu Campazzo, Will Barton, P.J. Dozier, Michael Porter Jr., JaMychal Green
There will be several moments throughout the season where the Nuggets don’t feel like utilizing a five-man bench unit. Generally, all-bench units struggle to keep up with opposing benches that feature a staggered star, so the Nuggets must find comfort in doing staggering of their own.
Rather than playing Jeff Green (or JaMychal at times) the Nuggets could look to utilize Porter at power forward. His size for the position makes him a mismatch nightmare against opposing teams that utilize two bigs off the bench, and his height will always give him opportunities to get shots up against second unit. Add Barton into the mix for additional playmaking and steadiness, and this unit should be a fairly good one if used mostly against opposing second units.
Statistical Prediction: +5.0 Net Rating in 75 minutes
Defense + Jokić ball
Lineup: Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Nikola Jokić
This lineup feels very situational. Most of the time, Jokić and Porter will be on the floor together, developing chemistry and driving offense against starting units; however, there will be times where Porter staggers with the second unit and then needs a break before returning to close second and fourth quarters with the starters. The same goes for Will Barton if the team utilizes this lineup and the previous lineup in succession.
To compromise, the Nuggets go big around Jokić, insulating him with smart, capable positional defenders. Gordon sliding to small forward to make room for Jeff Green at power forward feels like a good way to match up with teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Milwaukee Bucks, all of whom play physical brands of basketball in the frontcourt and will need size to counter those groups. The Nuggets can still run traditional pick and roll with Morris and Dozier out there, and if Gordon and Green can hit corner threes and cut on occasion, the offense should be just fine.
Statistical Prediction: +4.0 Net Rating in 75 minutes
Let’s get weird
Lineup: Bones Hyland, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Bol Bol, Nikola Jokić
Now THIS is a crazy lineup that makes sense on paper. Jokić, Porter, and Barton will be Denver’s best offensive players this year, but if they really want to push the boundaries, they could probably do so by simply adding Bones and Bol. The Nuggets had success with their starting unit that featured Bones at point guard, and given his ability to run pick and roll, it isn’t a stretch to say that Bones could find success running point at different times.
Bol probably won’t see a ton of minutes this year, but if the Nuggets are looking for maximum fun, replacing Gordon and allowing Bol to play power forward rather than center could alleviate some (not all) of the defensive concerns. When the game is simplified for Bol offensively, he can make some incredible plays. A lineup like this would simplify the game to the extreme.
This lineup isn’t going to defend anyone, but it would absolutely break scoring records if the turnovers are kept to a minimum.
Statistical Prediction: 150.0 Offensive Rating, 135.0 Defensive Rating in 25 minutes
Lineup: Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić
This is genuinely the most important lineup for the Denver Nuggets this season. With Murray currently recovering from surgery, the question of when in the season he returns could have a great many ramifications on Denver’s playoff outlook. If Murray comes back and the Nuggets have plenty of time to help Murray assimilate into what’s currently going on, then the team has a chance to win a title.
That all starts with a return to the lineup everyone has been waiting to see since last season’s trade deadline. The Nuggets have committed a ton of money to see this group play together over at least the next two seasons, and the theory of it makes complete sense. In practice, the Nuggets should have an MVP candidate (Jokić), an All-Star candidate (Porter), an All-Defense candidate (Gordon), and a versatile starter (Barton) to help ease Murray’s transition.
If all five can find time to be healthy at the end of the season, look out NBA.
Statistical Prediction: +10.0 Net Rating in 150 minutes
Now this is getting fun
Lineup: Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, P.J. Dozier, Michael Porter Jr., JaMychal Green
By the end of the year, the Nuggets will be searching for their best playoff lineups — five-man units that they can trust to execute offense and defense in high leverage situations. There’s a belief that Bones will probably out or close to out of the rotation at this point, but it doesn’t mean that the Nuggets can’t find lineups that will be extremely fun.
Much like the staggered bench lineup above, this is a great representation of a staggered bench lineup when Murray returns to the court. Letting him go against bench players while Morris returns to a sixth man role and ALSO giving him Porter carry some offensive burden should allow Murray to find individual success while also helping out the team. The Porter-JaMychal combination is strong last year, and putting Dozier at small forward ties everything together.
This lineup should excel against bench units.
Statistical Prediction: +8.0 Net Rating in 50 minutes
The perfect mix
Lineup: Jamal Murray, P.J. Dozier, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić
There are questions about what Denver’s go-to five-man unit will be in playoff situations this year. Can they find enough defense with the starting group? Will Murray be ready? Should they change up the frontcourt down the stretch?
This five-man unit, the starters plus Dozier, feels like a group that will excel in most every playoff situation. Denver will surely close with the starters more often than not, but Dozier seems primed for a breakout if he can stay healthy. His individual and team defense skills should Murray an opportunity to focus more on offense and less on defense as he returns to the court, and Dozier has the ball handling and playmaking capability to allow Murray to be a secondary playmaker in different sets as well.
This is the group I was most excited to see against Western Conference contenders last year. They played a single solitary minute together. I think we will see some of this group at the end of the regular season but a lot more frequently in the playoffs, and I’m looking forward to every bit of it.
Statistical Prediction: +15.0 Net Rating in 40 minutes