Don’t look now, but the Denver Nuggets are discovering a lineup that packs a serious punch.
With the injuries the Nuggets have sustained over the last few weeks to regular rotation players, Michael Malone has been forced to get creative with the lineups he has thrown out there. Sure, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray have been mainstays, but surrounding those two with the proper floor spacing, defense, and perimeter creation is always going to be important.
Jokić and Murray can usually make anything work, but the starting lineup the Nuggets has used lately has helped things become easier for them. Will Barton is a regular in the starting unit, and he’s back reprising his role at small forward, doing a little bit of everything as a floor space and secondary playmaker. Monte Morris is out there too, and he’s starting at point guard, allowing Murray operate more in an off-ball scoring capacity. Finally, Michael Porter Jr. is tying the whole lineup together with his length, athleticism, shooting capability, and even his defensive impact at power forward.
Put it all together, and the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 77 points in just 91 total minutes on the floor together, good for a net rating of +41.9 points per 100 possessions.
The lineup has played just nine games and 91 minutes together, so there’s definitely the threat of a small sample size, especially while Denver has faced some average and sub par teams lately. Still, the offensive and defensive numbers are incredible.
A 133.0 offensive rating establishes what has truly been a dangerous offensive group. With multiple ball handlers on the floor and every player being a consistent three-point shooter, defenses are stretched thin guarding Denver’s floor spacing and cutting scheme. In addition, Porter playing the stretch power forward adds more athleticism and scoring talent around Jokić that Denver doesn’t usually have. The Murray-Jokić two-man game is consistently surrounded with versatile scorers and cutters, meaning teams can’t overplay one way or the other.
That five-man Nuggets unit has combined to maintain a 62.8 TS% and 4.77 assist-to-turnover ratio. By himself, Jokić’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 19.00 when these five players share the floor, which is basically a cheat code.
The 91.1 defensive rating is where the Nuggets have been extremely surprising, and the defense starts with Murray and Porter. The Blue Arrow has evolved from simply a scoring guard to a more all-around player, taking on the toughest perimeter assignments in this configuration and performing well. From Jayson Tatum to Bradley Beal to Damian Lillard, there has been no shortage of players for Murray to guard, and he has done well night in and night out. In addition, he’s simply more attentive and aware, locking in and making plays that he wasn’t previously making.
In addition, Denver simply grabs 56.1% of all rebounds when this five-man unit shares the floor. Having Porter at the 4 in a position where he can rebound consistently has helped Denver a lot. Jokić has always been an elite rebounder at the 5, but Porter also being an elite rebounder at the 4 in this configuration has made things easier for the rest of the group and allowed Denver to play three guards on the perimeter.
That 77-point margin I mentioned earlier? That ranks fourth in the entire NBA among five-man lineups, behind only the Philadelphia 76ers starting five, the Utah Jazz starting five, and the Los Angeles Clippers starting five. Those three units have been the most effective in the entire NBA, but Denver’s group, headlined by two stars, two playmaking veterans, and a wildcard young forward, have found great success together.
The rhythm with which those five are playing at right now has helped Denver massively. The Nuggets have won the first quarter in six of their last seven games, and the starting unit they have rolled out there lately has been a big piece of it. Porter in particular has been excellent in the first quarter of games. In the last six games, Porter is averaging 10.2 points per game in first quarters alone, the second highest mark in the NBA. His percentages are ludicrous at 80% from the field and 85.7% from three-point range.
Porter is coming into his own. While the supercharged scoring of Murray and the versatile offensive game of Jokić has certainly buoyed this group, Porter figuring things out has been the biggest difference. He is absolutely flourishing at the power forward spot.
This group gets a big test tonight against an elite, physical Milwaukee Bucks starting unit that features Giannis Antetokounmpo at power forward. Khris Middleton at small forward is no slouch either, and Jrue Holiday is back to be a pest in the backcourt on both ends of the floor. The Nuggets aren’t geared well to face this group, but it would be a great sign for Denver if they could maintain their momentum on both ends of the floor against an elite opponent. Jokić and Murray will have a lot on their shoulders, but Morris and Barton could give them a big lift offensively. Porter’s play on both ends will be the difference, and if he can rise to the occasion, there’s no telling where this group could go.
For now, let’s just enjoy what’s happening here. The Nuggets are having fun and staying successful, and lately, this unit is the biggest reason why.