It’s never fun to sit out the main competition, but it’s always interesting to see what happens.

While the Denver Nuggets operate as bystanders during the 2017 NBA playoffs, the teams in the tournament (and the ones recently eliminated) have provided a variety of interesting data points for the NBA to decipher. Watching these games with a little bit more objectivity than normal, seeing the little tweaks and adjustments from game to game, even timeout to timeout, I have really enjoyed the atmosphere the playoffs provide. With backs against the wall, the true thoughts of a coach on a certain player, certain lineups, and certain situations become more evident. Is a player performing poorly due to adjustments by the opposition, or is he just having a bad night? Or both?

Here is the biggest thing I have noticed to date in these playoffs and how they will affect the Nuggets, a burgeoning playoff team, in the coming seasons.

The NBA is trending smaller to the extreme in the playoffs

For the majority of basketball’s history, the most dominant players have come from the center position. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and others are seen as some of the legends. For awhile, shooting guards were the dominant position with legends like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and Clyde Drexler. Now, the NBA has changed to the extreme. The number of players at each position that have played a part in the rotation this postseason has been very guard heavy in general.

142 players have played at least 12 minutes a night during the postseason, an artificial number I used to represent two six-minute stints off the bench to help a starting player rest. Of those 142, only 33.8% are played by power forwards and centers. The 16 playoff teams have averaged 8.875 players in the rotation to this point, meaning most teams settle on a rotation of eight or nine players. If most teams average in between nine to ten players in the regular season rotation, one of the bench big men is seeing his respective minutes absorbed by smaller players.

This has been very evident in a few teams, most notably the Boston Celtics with Amir Johnson and the Oklahoma City Thunder with Enes Kanter and Domantas Sabonis. Both teams chose to play just two big men real rotation minutes thus far, while letting small forwards, shooting guards, and even point guards play down a position to compensate. The Celtics have the personnel to do this at a high level with Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder. The Thunder with Alex Abrines and Jeremi Grant? Not so much.

The NBA is also becoming less reliant on big men being high minute players in general. The number of players who play 30 minutes a night distributed by position tells a similar story:

Position PG SG SF PF C
# of rotation players 33 31 30 24 24

The most important names at power forward and center stand out clearly: Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Draymond Green, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan. Rudy Gobert just missed the cut due to an injury early in Game 1 and a foul infested Game 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Beyond those players, it’s hard to spot a team that relies very heavily on a big man to carry the load on either end of the court. Players like Dwight Howard and Jonas Valanciunas had roles massively altered/reduced due to team deficiencies with the player on the floor. Others like the aforementioned Johnson and Kanter were nearly cut out completely due to the speed and necessary skill set for power forwards and centers on the floor. There are no more immobile centers on the floor, and the only power forward with 25+ minutes per game to average less than one 3-point attempt was LaMarcus Aldridge, who has spent a considerable amount of time as a center anyway.

The league trending smaller isn’t new. It’s been going on for years, with the Big Three on the Miami Heat the first truly successful team to do it. LeBron James transitioning to power forward and Chris Bosh moving to center flummoxed an Oklahoma City team dead set on utilizing Kendrick Perkins as an anchor in the middle. This was when I first considered the possibility that centers didn’t have to be bigger and stronger on the interior to be the more effective player, and they didn’t have to stay in the paint at all times.

How does this alter the thinking for the Denver Nuggets? Well, it doesn’t alter it much. Denver has one of the best centers in the NBA in Nikola Jokic, and he will be asked to bear a heavy burden due to his immense skill set and effectiveness in orchestrating offense (and soon defense). Where it does change the center position is what to do behind Jokic? Currently, the Nuggets believe Mason Plumlee to be the right fit behind Jokic in that he can replace some of what Jokic provides while also being versatile enough to play with him too. Is it the right thing to do to pay Plumlee an eight figure contract if he may be eliminated from a playoff rotation? It’s quite possible that Plumlee doesn’t line up with what the NBA is developing into over the next few seasons in that centers facing the big man out of Duke will likely be even more fast and athletic as backups. Plumlee himself is athletic, so it may not matter, but committing likely $35-40 million to two centers over the next few years when Jokic is up for extension may be a transaction that hurts Denver in the playoffs.

On the other side of the positional spectrum, the Nuggets have drafted a variety o young guards they hope to fill in a playoff rotation soon. Jamal Murray, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, and Malik Beasley are all first round picks in the last three years. Denver has drafted just three other players in the first round during that span, meaning that the Nuggets themselves likely see the direction the league is trending as well. On top of the young guns, Jameer Nelson and Will Barton currently have contracts in Denver and were two of the top three minute guys all season in the back court.

The Nuggets currently employ six forwards, though Darrell Arthur has struggled to stay healthy over a prolonged period and Mike Miller is basically a player-coach at this point. The other four options are interesting pieces. Danilo Gallinari, the likely free agent and the best player in the bunch with his sweet shooting and offensive arsenal. Wilson Chandler, the Swiss Army knife on both ends with an ability to create his own offense and neutralize opponents occasionally. Kenneth Faried, the aggressive rebounder and short corner king, providing energy in bundles. Juancho Hernangomez, the young Spaniard with a game mirroring Gallinari’s but aggressiveness on both ends that the Italian doesn’t possess anymore.

My guess is that the Nuggets see the future and are likely to invest their assets according. I think they will game plan for a nine man rotation in the future: four guards, three forwards, two centers. Based on how they have selected in the draft and what people like general manager Tim Connelly have said publicly, I believe they are game planning on the following positions being filled for the foreseeable future:

  • Guard: Jamal Murray
  • Guard: Gary Harris
  • Forward: Juancho Hernangomez
  • Center: Nikola Jokic
  • Center: Mason Plumlee

That’s five of the potential nine spots that are nearly guaranteed to be filled by those players, and it means that Denver still has to fill two guard spots and two forward spots. They might feel comfortable giving guys like Mudiay, Barton, and Beasley opportunities there, or they might even bring in competition from the outside. The same goes for Gallo, Chandler, Faried, and Arthur, who may or may not be back in next year’s rotation depending on a wide range of possible scenarios.

Whatever the case may be, the NBA Playoffs have provided an archetype for the Nuggets to follow in roster construction and financial health. Connelly and Co. will need to work hard to find the right build for the roster, and there are many potentially right answers. Only few answers lead to a championship caliber team though, so Denver must tread carefully.

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Position PG SG SF PF C
# of high-minute players 17 12 15 9 7