The Denver Nuggets are in the fight of their lives over the next nine games.

With the biggest game of the past four years happening tonight against the Portland Trail Blazers, there is no longer any margin for error. The Nuggets are closest they have been in four years to reclaiming a spot in the final playoff picture, but Portland, among other games, stands in their way. If Michael Malone is going to put together the best lineups he possibly can, it better be tonight.

Since the trade deadline, the Nuggets have ample data to understand which lineups have been the most effective for the team thus far. To illustrate this, here are the two-man Net Ratings of each combination of rotation players since February 19th.

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The white spaces are gaps left due to less than 50 minutes of total playing time for the selected pairing, and using conditional formatting in Microsoft Excel generates a colorful representation of the rotation’s successes and downfalls. Here are three major takeaways from the exercise:

1. Nikola Jokic can be utilized with anyone; just give him the ball

By far the most impressive column if any player, Jokic has a Net Rating of +4.3 or greater when he shares the floor with any of his teammates. He has spent the most time with Jameer Nelson and Gary Harris (300+ minutes each), which levels out the rating slightly. What’s most impressive though is how successful he has been playing with the entire bench group. Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and Kenneth Faried all possess a Net Rating of +10.0 or greater with Jokic on the floor, and all of those players represent the bench group, aside from Mason Plumlee. The Nuggets should try and use this to their advantage if possible, attempting to survive while the starters are in, but insert Jokic into the second unit and take control of the game from there.

2. Gary Harris does NOT work with the bench unit…at all

Look at that collection of orange and red for Harris: Barton, Faried, Plumlee, and Juancho Hernangomez have all struggled immensely with Harris on the floor. This doesn’t really surprise me, as the bench struggles to integrate off-ball guards and give them a defined role. Harris works nicely with the starters, especially Danilo Gallinari; therefore, I would limit his role to working with the core starting group. No more second quarters in which Harris starts on the floor, trying to bridge the gap between units. It just doesn’t work.

3. Jamal Murray and Wilson Chandler should be the first players off the bench

Yes, Chandler is moving back to the bench, but for good reason. It’s clear that Nelson, Harris, Gallinari, and Jokic are going to be starters, no matter the situation. What is unclear is who fills the other forward spot. I believe Mason Plumlee should start next to Jokic for a variety of reasons, but the most clear reason is that the move allows Wilson Chandler togo back to the bench forward role he so clearly excels at. He operates well with Murray and Faried, and I believe that trio should spend as much time together on the back end as possible. Murray also operates well with Harris and Gallinari, while Nelson operates well with most of the bench players. In order to provide the proper blend of offense, defense, and roles across the board though, Chandler must go back to the bench so as to offset with Gallinari, dividing Faried and Plumlee in the process.

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My Ideal Rotation

The starters: Nelson, Harris, Gallinari, Plumlee, Jokic

On top of being a great storyline going into the Portland game, the Plumlee-Jokic pairing has performed just fine over their 85 minute sample size. The goal of this unit is to take the pressure off of Jokic to score extensively at first. All four of the players surrounding him can handle the ball and make decisions as a playmaker. As long as Nelson and Gallinari are willing cutters, the offense should outperform any defensive ineffectiveness.

First rotation (7:00 left in Q1): Wilson Chandler for Mason Plumlee, Jamal Murray for Jameer Nelson

This is the biggest “leap” that Malone would have to make as a coach, but Murray’s numbers next to the starting lineup are undeniable. The starters play really well with him on the floor, and the Nuggets should exploit that. Chandler comes in quickly as well. Hopefully, the next few possessions are a shot of energy for Denver.

Second rotation (5:00 left in Q1): Mason Plumlee for Nikola Jokic

Yep, Plumlee comes back in for Jokic, and Plumlee will finish the quarter. This allows Jokic to open the second quarter with the full bench and hopefully provide Denver an advantage it doesn’t currently possess in the second unit. Plumlee plays fine with the starters, but this is the part where Denver will just have to survive.

Third rotation (3:00 left in Q1): Will Barton for Gary Harris

Harris will hopefully get a rest from extensive cutting and guarding the opponent’s best offensive guard, and Barton should enter as a final burst of energy before the quarter ends. This is the opportunity for Denver to run after misses, and they should be able to score some easy baskets by getting up and down the floor.

Fourth rotation (12:00 left in Q2): Kenneth Faried for Danilo Gallinari, Nikola Jokic for Mason Plumlee

The Nuggets should explode at the beginning of the second quarter. With the insane bursts of energy from the tandem of Faried-Jokic, along with the incendiary shooting of Murray and Barton, this unit should really excel on both ends. This group would run through Jokic, but also have a dribble-drive playmaker in Barton. I love this group.

Fifth rotation (8:00 left in Q2): Jameer Nelson for Jamal Murray

At this point, Murray will be a bit worn out after 11 minutes in a row, and Nelson should be ready to come back in after a long break and continue to orchestrate offense for the rest of the half.

Sixth rotation (6:00 left in Q2): Danilo Gallinari for Wilson Chandler, Gary Harris for Will Barton

Gallo comes in after a solid block of rest, while Chandler has played 13 straight minutes to bridge the gap between units. Harris comes back in for Barton, who has played nine straight in a reduced role.

Seventh rotation (4:00 left in Q2): Mason Plumlee for Kenneth Faried

Faried has played eight minutes straight, and it’s time to go big again anyway (for a short stretch). It’s time for both to get a rest while going back to the original starting unit of Nelson-Harris-Gallo-Plumlee-Jokic

Eighth rotation (2:00 left in Q2): Wilson Chandler for Nikola Jokic

This is to protect Jokic from the fatigue that will inevitably hit him at this point, as well as the potential for picking up extra fouls. The team should be able to finish strong if they continue to integrate Plumlee into the mix.

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Here are the minute tallies if the Nuggets take that first half rotation and use it (roughly) for the second half:

Danilo Gallinari – 36

Nikola Jokic – 34

Gary Harris – 30

Wilson Chandler – 30

Mason Plumlee – 28

Jameer Nelson – 26

Jamal Murray – 22

Will Barton – 18

Kenneth Faried – 16

This is a great reduction of minutes for Will Barton, as well as an increase for Mason Plumlee. Kenneth Faried’s low minutes can be increased depending on both his back and if it’s okay for him to play with Plumlee. At this point, it’s difficult to see a scenario where both Faried and Plumlee play heavy minutes, and playing them both off the bench has turned out poor so far. By starting Plumlee, Denver can deploy the Faried-Jokic pairing against bench units and likely dominate the opposing frontcourt.

Overall, there are a variety of ways to manipulate the rotation. This attempts to pair players with other players they succeed with, while increasing the minutes for Nikola Jokic. Playing Jamal Murray with some of the starting players, keeping Gary Harris and Danilo Gallinari with mostly starters, and utilizing the Faried-Jokic tandem were my biggest goals after seeing the numbers. This rotation accomplishes those things.

What say you Nuggets Nation? What would be your ideal rotation heading into the final stretch?