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Stiffs Mailbag: Impossible rotation decisions, trade deadline needs, and more

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Answering questions from Denver Stiffs readers

Denver Nuggets v Milwaukee Bucks

Everyone knows the drill by now. This is the Denver Stiffs mailbag where I answer Twitter questions and let Denver Nuggets fans shape the conversation. There are a lot of great questions today! If you’re interested in asking me one, follow me on Twitter and drop a line, either on Wednesday’s when I call for questions or simply message me directly.

Enjoy!


The Nuggets have had a lot of interesting and positive things happen to them lately. Most notably, they have found success with their newest starting lineup of Monte Morris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokić. It’s difficult to parse out credit where credit should be due for such a configuration. It helps that all three of Murray, Porter, and Jokić have been shooting literal fireballs through the nets offensively, combining to shoot 64.5% from the field, 54.3% from three, and 100% from the free throw line in the 107 minutes that quintet has shared the floor.

Morris hasn’t been the most essential part of that, but he has definitely factored in. The Nuggets have more offensive flexibility with him on the floor capable of being a pick and roll playmaker. He sets the table really well, helps the Nuggets get into their sets, and then has the versatility to either score, facilitate, or get out of the way. All three are key when playing Jokić style of offense.

Another key for Morris: the Nuggets haven’t lost their defensive capabilities with him on the floor next to Murray. When Morris and Murray are on the floor together, the Nuggets have generated a +14.2 Net Rating, 118.7 offensive rating, and 104.5 defensive rating. That defensive number is a testament to the work those two have done and also how Denver does as a team with that duo out there.

In a vacuum, it makes sense to start Morris. Going away from Gary Harris is a big deal though because of the ramifications. Do the Nuggets go super small and play him at small forward, benching Will Barton instead? Do the Nuggets play Harris off the bench at backup shooting guard next to Facundo Campazzo and just go gangbusters defensively on the bench? What happens if Denver needs to stagger Murray to bench lineups anyway to keep the offense afloat? I....kind of like the idea of Denver committing to offense with the starters and defense with the bench while Jokić isn’t going to be out there anyway.

The simplest thing is to bench Morris, start Harris, and go back to the initial backcourt duo. Murray and Harris also have a +9.3 net rating in 462 minutes played this season, so it’s not like they have been bad at all. I like the idea of starting Morris and figuring things out from there though. It causes some rotational issues, but if the goal is for the Nuggets to field the best five-man unit in their starting five, Morris can and probably should be out there.


He absolutely does. Nikola Jokić has had a career path similar to Dirk Nowitzki for sure, and this point in both of their careers is also similar. Dirk really started reaching the prime of his career in his Age-26 season in 2004-05. Jokić is in his Age-25 year but just turned 26 last month. Both players have been incredible international talents on NBA franchises that have been consistently good but rarely elite to that point. Then, in 2005-06, the Dallas Mavericks lost in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat. Then, they came back and claimed the 1 seed in Dirk’s MVP year in 2006-07 before they were unceremoniously toppled by the ‘We Believe’ Golden State Warriors. It wasn’t until a few years later when the Mavericks put the pieces back together and won their only championship.

That run sounds a lot like Denver’s future path. They probably won’t be a dynasty unless Murray reaches an even higher level or Porter becomes an un-guardable scoring forward, but they will continue to have several fantastic seasons in the meantime. This article by Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer compares Jokić and Nowitzki in that regard:

“Jokic should be a cornerstone in Denver for the next decade, if not longer. A big man whose game is based on skill can play forever. Size and shooting ability don’t decline with age. And since Jokic rarely gets off the ground, he has a better chance of staying healthy long term than smaller players who fly through the air. Dirk has never missed a season due to injuries, and he’s still valuable at 40. He made his first All-Star Game at 24, and his last at 37, with the league shifting under his feet several times along the way.”

While time and space may shift around him, it feels like Jokić will endure. That doesn’t meant that Denver shouldn’t think about how to build the best possible team around him, but they can patiently strike at the right moment to maximize their championship window BECAUSE of who Jokić is: a pillar of everlasting Nuggets basketball.


Given how much Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton struggled to make a legitimate impact in that game on Tuesday, the difference between PJ Dozier and Facundo Campazzo could absolutely be a thing that is real. It also might not be. Outside of DJ Augustin, the Bucks don’t have a smaller guard that handles the basketball consistently for Facu to hound out there. They run offense through the 6’8” Middleton, who Dozier can at least contest when he’s out there.

Going back and watching the clips, I don’t think there was anything special that Dozier did while he was out there. I would actually give more credit to Vlatko Cancar and Zeke Nnaji in those configurations, especially going up against Milwaukee’s wings; however, there’s something to be said for Denver not needing to worry about Dozier being posted up by Middleton. That’s something that the defense will always need to be worried about if it’s Facu out there instead.

In all reality, both Campazzo and Dozier are going to be situational playoff options for Denver. Murray, Porter, and Jokić are obviously out there, and I think Monte Morris has earned his keep. When parsing together a playoff rotation, I find myself leaning toward Dozier’s size and versatile skill set on both ends over Facu’s pestering and elite facilitation at point guard. It’s just how the playoffs normally work, with the smallest and biggest players often being played off the court. Facu might surprise me, just as he has surprised many, but Dozier has proven what he’s capable of dating back to The Bubble.


Ah, the ol’ wing defender question. If only there were a versatile player and skilled on both ends of the floor for the Nuggets last season who could have filled this role.

No crying over spilled milk though. I’ve mentioned the possible big time replacements before. Aaron Gordon is my white whale personally. He’s still recovering from an ankle injury, but he’s a good, versatile player and would be the ideal fourth starter for Denver, given that he has the size and versatility to mix and match defensive assignments with Porter. Harrison Barnes is the other option, as he’s just relatively good at everything and a solid pro that happens to stand at 6’8” and being wasted by a bad Sacramento Kings team.

Three other lower cost options stand out: Taurean Prince, James Ennis, and Maurice Harkless. Prince is probably the best player of the three offensively, though that hasn’t manifested in efficiency and effectiveness, which may mean Denver would be wise to avoid him altogether. Ennis has been efficient in his minutes in Orlando and has been pretty good on both sides of the ball. He’s slightly smaller than the other two but still big enough to make a difference in a bench role.

If I had to pick a player though, it would be Harkless, a 6’7” wing option who has played 547 career games, defended opposing stars throughout his career, and would be a cheap flyer for the Nuggets to take that could possibly win them a game or two in a playoff series.

The former Portland Trail Blazers wing has played just over 100 minutes in a Miami Heat uniform this year and isn’t in the rotation anymore. He had an early injury and the Heat have basically moved on without him during their latest stretch of winning. It’s possible that they would be willing to part with Harkless at the deadline for one of Denver’s young players on the outside of the rotation looking in like Bol Bol or Vlatko Cancar.

If the Nuggets are struggling with their current rotation to find playable size when Porter slides to power forward, this could be a good solution that doesn’t take away from current rotation options. Harkless wouldn’t be a starter, but he would be a fringe rotation piece that could help Denver out as a situational option.


I’m not a fan.

John Collins is due a big contract this offseason. He’s a really good power forward who can slide to center in certain lineups and would be a dynamic offensive fit next to Nikola Jokić; however, the Nuggets already have a dynamic player next to Jokić in Porter. That’s the player Denver would have to give up in order to acquire Collins, and I’m not sure any Nuggets fan wants to pay that price. Collins is good and very productive, but he isn’t versatile enough on the wing to match up with other elite teams. Porter at least gives Denver a possibility of that.

As for Bagley...nah. He’s like John Collins but worse at almost everything.


This is the most important question of the bunch in my opinion. It’s probably the single most difficult for Michael Malone to answer.

Here are the facts: Michael Porter Jr. has been a better player than Paul Millsap this year. The highs are way higher and the lows are way lower though, and Malone might be more interested in adding the steadiness and veteran poise of Millsap back into the starting lineup. Statistically though, that wouldn’t be the best idea. Lineups with Porter at power forward have simply been better this season than lineups with Millsap at power forward. That includes those that have placed Porter at small forward, Millsap at power forward, and Jokić at center, a trio with just a +0.3 net rating in 210 minutes despite roughly 30 incredible minutes against an awful Cleveland Cavaliers starting unit.

The ramifications of moving Millsap to the bench are big. It would signify the ultimate transition from one Nuggets era to another as Millsap has been Denver’s starting power forward for over three seasons. Going to a 22-year-old second year player is a big leap to make for a championship contending roster.

Still, the ramifications of doing anything else are also big, perhaps huge. Porter is in the middle of a stretch where he has found rhythm and confidence playing almost entirely power forward next to Jokić. The Nuggets have found success as well, and Porter has been the third most important piece behind Jokić and Murray. Going away from what is working is a dangerous proposition, especially for a 36-year-old on a one-year deal.

I’m not in charge of the interpersonal dynamics of the Nuggets locker room, thankfully. Michael Malone is, and it’s up to him to make these difficult decisions that hold major importance on Denver’s short term and long term success. If it were up to me, I would build around the prospect that Porter is Denver’s starting power forward for the foreseeable future.


Let’s assume that Michael Malone goes to a starting lineup that has played just four minutes together all season in Murray, Harris, Barton, Porter, and Jokić. That’s a heat check prediction by me, but it’s the only foreseeable outcome I have for Denver at the current moment that Michael Malone will seriously consider.

There are a number of ways Denver could look to organize it’s bench. They could go with a nine man rotation that features Murray with the second unit. They could play Dozier at power forward and go with four guards to accomplish that. They could add a rim rolling center in Isaiah Hartenstein.

I think the most likely outcome is for the above starting lineup to be replaced with a five-man bench unit of Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris, PJ Dozier, Paul Millsap, and JaMychal Green initially. The Nuggets have several players who will be vying for spots, and though Malone has been staggering Murray lately, playing Murray extensive minutes with Jokic and the starting unit maximizes Denver’s minutes with their emerging Big Three. Even when all three sit, having Campazzo, Morris, and Dozier all on the floor gives Denver a lot of ball handling and playmaking that makes sense together.

Fully Healthy Rotation Hypothetical - 3/4/2021

The most unique part of this configuration is playing Millsap and Green together. Both fill a similar role, but this way, they can be interchangeable as pick and pop and post up options with the second unit, spacing the floor for Denver’s guards without giving up size on the defensive end. Millsap and Green have played just 32 minutes together on the season, but I can see that lineup being effective for sure.

That leaves seven players out of the rotation. Markus Howard, Greg Whittington, Bol Bol, and Vlatko Cancar missing out were all to be expected. Isaiah Hartenstein is out as well. He pairs nicely with Murray in the second unit as a pick and roll big man, but if Murray isn’t running with the second unit, Denver will be fine. The two absences that will sting most for Nuggets fans are R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji, Denver’s two 2020 rookies who have validated Denver selecting them in the first round with solid play. There just isn’t enough time though. Hampton would be my first replacement for any of the bench guards though (Facu, Morris, and Dozier) while Nnaji would be my first replacement for Millsap or Green.

Would Malone take such a risk by going to lineups he hasn’t used before? Is that wise? This particular rotation idea isn’t quite what the Nuggets have been doing lately, but it isn’t quite going back to what the Nuggets were previously doing either. It’s sort of a hybrid option between the two extremes that Denver hasn’t yet tried.

And yet...I still think this is what will happen.