It was always going to be a slow process, but the development of the Denver Nuggets into a team that features three pillars has always been the goal.
No, Michael Porter Jr. isn’t there yet. Hell, Jamal Murray is still wading into those waters himself. Still, Porter, Murray, and MVP candidate Nikola Jokić are all doing their best to figure things out together.
Three-man lineup combinations have really highlighted their abilities to excel together, especially lately. Among the 132 three-man lineups to play at least 400 minutes on the floor together, the Murray-Porter-Jokić trio has produced the eighth highest net rating in the NBA at +14.8 points per 100 possessions. This includes a 122.7 offensive rating that ranks fifth in the league.
|Team||Player 1||Player 2||Player 3||Minutes Played||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating||Net Rating Rank|
|LAC||Paul George||Kawhi Leonard||Serge Ibaka||425||122.3||104.3||+18.0||1|
|LAC||Paul George||Nic Batum||Serge Ibaka||459||120.9||103.8||+17.2||2|
|LAC||Paul George||Kawhi Leonard||Nic Batum||487||123.6||107.0||+16.7||3|
|PHI||Ben Simmons||Seth Curry||Joel Embiid||561||120.6||104.2||+16.5||4|
|UTA||Mike Conley||Royce O'Neale||Rudy Gobert||483||119.6||103.3||+16.3||5|
|POR||Gary Trent Jr.||Robert Covington||Enes Kanter||427||125.9||110.7||+15.2||6|
|MIL||Donte DiVincenzo||Khris Middleton||Brook Lopez||554||119.5||104.6||+14.8||7|
|DEN||Jamal Murray||Michael Porter Jr.||Nikola Jokić||431||122.7||107.9||+14.8||8|
The Nuggets started off the season on the wrong foot with Porter in the starting lineup. The defensive numbers were horrendous, and Porter was struggling with understanding his role on the offensive end. The Nuggets don’t need him to be a star yet, but by being a star in his role lately, Porter has unlocked Denver’s starting unit alongside Jokić and Murray. Giving the ball to the stars (as well as Monte Morris) has led to a higher level of decision making and execution. It’s hard for defenses to keep up with Morris when he’s next to Jokić and Murray anyway. Add in Porter as a stretch 4, and the dial offensively has been turned up to 10.
The easiest way to explain why this lineup is scoring the way that it is simply shooting very efficiently. With Jokić, Murray, and Porter on the floor, the Nuggets are maintaining a 63.9 True Shooting percentage as a team, tied for third among all three-man units with 400+ minutes played together. Having talented shooters certainly helps things, and Jokić, Murray, and Porter are nothing if not talented.
The Nuggets have a legitimate superstar in Jokić that they can always turn to no matter what and no matter when. Sometimes, that’s the simple answer for why lineups are good or bad. There isn’t anything cute going on other than one player imposing his will on an entire team, which is something Jokić does consistently.
Still, the Nuggets ARE doing a lot of great things on the offensive end in order to keep opponents guessing. With Porter playing power forward consistently, the Nuggets are doing so with several dynamic perimeter threats on the floor at all times, and they’re generating elite shots consistently while also turning to players that are elite at hitting the hard shots when they come around.
The concept of playing 5-out has made playing great defense really difficult, and the Nuggets make it nearly impossible for defenses with Jokić captaining things. In the clip below, Malcolm Brogdon pushes out on Monte Morris too far only to see Morris back cut to the rim.
Which Pacers player is supposed to help Brogdon? It’s probably Domantas Sabonis, who’s technically the low man on the weak side of the play. It’s difficult to help off of Porter though, who hit five three-pointers in the contest and burned Sabonis consistently for helping too often.
With all three stars on the floor, Jokić, Murray, and Porter are shooting 50.0%, 43.2%, and 40.5% from the field respectively. All three have found an impressive rhythm in this configuration, something that doesn’t often line up in such a pristine way. The ebbs and flows of basketball would generally prevent that, but it says a lot that Denver’s stars are helping to drive shooting success for each other.
I mean, good luck defending a Murray-Jokić pick and roll with Porter lifting on the weak side.
The Nuggets are discovering new ways to put pressure on defenses by involving all three of Jokić, Murray, and Porter in the actions. With Jokić’s passing, Murray and Porter’s cutting, and the shooting talent of all three of them, there’s some serious Golden State Warriors energy with how impossible to guard the Nuggets might soon be. The foundation of this offensive trio involves a defense tipping the scales too far in one direction or another. Focus too heavily on Jokić and Denver’s other two stars have the shooting and playmaking talent to make teams pay. Stick too tightly to the shooters and Denver can let Jokić go to work wherever he wants. Guard it perfectly, and it simply might not matter if one of those three hits an impossible shot every now and then.
Sometimes, the only way to defend the trio is to switch ball screens and not rotate off of outside shooters. When that’s the case, the Nuggets punish switches. Abuse them actually. Jokić is one of the best in the NBA at making tough shots look easy.
The reward has always been worth the risk with this trio. The offensive talent simply drowns out the defensive concerns in many ways. In the modern NBA, the unstoppable offense is what drives winning most of all, and teams simply hope to earn enough defensive stops in the process. The Nuggets are the same way. They aren’t going to wow anyone with their defense with that trio out there, but playing sound positional defense will take that trio far. They’re only allowing 108 points per 100 possessions as it is, which is perfectly reasonable when the offense is at 123 points per 100 possessions anyway.
It’s all about optimization, finding the sweet spot for Denver to play that positional defense while still allowing the offense to cook. That means playing Michael Porter Jr. at power forward. It means surrounding the trio with additional playmakers and shooters that are willing to defer touches and scoring opportunities. It’s about building the most skilled lineup possible that can still defend at a high enough level to be sustainable.
From my vantage point, it feels like the Nuggets are accomplishing that task. It allows them to explore their championship aspirations again, both now and in the future. Jokić just turned 26 years old. Murray just turned 24. Porter will turn 23 in late June. The Nuggets remain one of the youngest teams in the NBA with a young core that is set to be explosive for a long time. To be as effective as they have been in such a short amount of time with Porter playing with Jokić and Murray overall is a pretty big accomplishment. The future is bright for that trio as corny as it sounds, and the future is bright for the Nuggets if they can continue finding ways to optimize that group as best as they can on both ends of the floor.