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Stat of the Week: Which Nuggets players form the best duo on the court?

Using Two-Man Net Ratings to frame a conversation about the Denver Nuggets rotation

2021 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets are off to a 6-4 start on the season, and 10 games in, there are a number of conversations already surrounding the rotation.

While the starters have been rock solid as always, the bench continues to leave a lot to be desired in most of their outings. Often, the Nuggets will play well for the majority of the first and third quarters only to see their hard earned leads dwindle down to nothing or disappear entirely. That Denver is 6-4 has been a testament to their starting group.

But which players are actually playing well? Which players are struggling? Shooting efficiency can only tell so much of the story. A player that doesn’t shoot efficiently but draws the attention of the defense away from others can still be fairly valuable. A player that defends well positionally without picking up blocks or steals is still a good defender, even if it didn’t show up in the stat sheet.

Instead, let’s use plus-minus, a fair measure of a player’s impact within the context of a lineup when there’s enough data to prove what’s happening isn’t a fluke. 10 games is a small sample size, but it’s enough to start drawing some general conclusions about which players are being the most helpful. Rather than use traditional plus-minus, let’s use net rating: the difference between the number of points a team scores and the opponent scores per 100 possessions (which simply accounts for pace of the game).

Even more specifically, let’s discuss two-man net ratings, which is the same but when two players share the court at the same time.

Here’s how to read the above chart: when Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon share the court together, the Nuggets outscore opponents by 16.8 points per possession. Conversely, the Nuggets are outscored by 33.3 points per possession when Jokić shares the court with JaMychal Green (though that was only a sample size of six possessions total).

Here are my biggest takeaways from looking at the data:

The starters have been just fine

There was plenty of concern for Denver’s starting unit and overall rotation without Jamal Murray, but thus far, the Nuggets have managed in their starting unit. With Monte Morris serving as the immediate replacement, the Nuggets starters have remained the backbone of the team. Jokić and Gordon have spent the most possessions together of any duo, and the Nuggets have been excellent in those minutes with Gordon fitting into Jokić ball nicely and offering some elite wing/forward defense along the way.

Michael Porter Jr.’s numbers are the lowest in the starting group because he didn’t take part in the Miami Heat beatdown, but he has also been the starter to struggle the most overall. The low shooting percentages have been a major culprit in why Denver’s offense with the starters hasn’t been at peak performance. Still, MPJ’s commitment and progression to the defensive end have helped counteract some of the bad offense, which is certainly a good sign.

Denver Nuggets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Facu Campazzo was benched for a reason

During the blowout win over the Miami Heat, the only regular rotation player to not play (outside of an injured MPJ) was Campazzo. Michael Malone decided to go with Bones Hyland, Austin Rivers, P.J. Dozier, and JaMychal Green off the bench to form a nine man rotation, staggering starters Will Barton and Jeff Green.

Based on the numbers above, it’s hard to argue with Malone’s decision. Campazzo has struggled more than any other bench player to make a consistent impact, and that has manifested in red lines across the board under Campazzo’s name in the chart above. He’s the one rotation player that doesn’t have a positive combination with anyone else on the roster. Not even Nikola Jokić.

Last season, Facu found success in Denver’s rotation, especially as a starter. This year, the Nuggets are simply a team with different circumstances. They haven’t needed Campazzo with the starters quite yet, but even when he’s played next to the starters, it hasn’t been good. Hopefully that changes some time soon.

Staggering has mostly worked

The Nuggets have mostly found success when they have played starters and bench guys at the same time. Jeff Green now has positive net ratings with every starter but MPJ. P.J. Dozier has paired well with Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon specifically. Bones Hyland has had success with every single starter. Even JaMychal Green has had his moments.

In order to minimize the number of heavy bench lineups, the Nuggets might be at their best if they embrace the staggered pairings of starters with bench guys. Jokić and Gordon work well with everybody. Morris, Barton, and Porter provide the bench some extra scoring in theory. Perhaps it’s time to mix and match the pairings just a bit more to take advantage of Denver’s roster. They have built a rotation with versatility around Jokić in mind. As long as they can survive the minutes without the big man on the floor, they may be able to get away with staggering bench guards and forwards next to him rather than loading up on heavy starter minutes.

It’s important to note that the season has just begun, and the Nuggets are still in the process of gathering information. Making sweeping statements so early in the year is generally a bad idea. It CAN shape the rotation going forward though, and the Nuggets will need plenty of structure if their stars miss a significant amount of time.