Welcome back to the Denver Stiffs mailbag! Let’s get to your questions on the Denver Nuggets’ training camp and preseason.

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I touched on this in an article earlier in the week where I predicted each starter’s points per game average. The order I had for the above three players was:

  1. Nikola Jokic – 20.0 ppg
  2. Jamal Murray – 19.0 ppg
  3. Gary Harris – 17.0 ppg

Initially, I had Murray as the leading scorer as well, and he’s not a bad option in the slightest. Many guards, especially scoring guards, break out in their third season, and I don’t think Murray is any exception. Despite that, Jokic is a much safer option to lead the team in scoring for a number of reasons.

  • First, he’s already done it, leading the team with 18.5 points per game last season and showing even more scoring ability during various segments of the season.
  • Second, Murray may be ceding some ball handling responsibilities to Will Barton at times, who’s a solid scorer and deserves more touches than the team’s previous small forward, Wilson Chandler.
  • Third, Murray’s still just 21 years old. It’s not often that a 21-year-old leads a team in scoring with so much surrounding scoring talent.

The best part about Denver’s offense: they have a number of quality options. I expect Jokic, Murray, and Harris to finish top three in that order, but both Barton and Paul Millsap could prove just as capable on any given night. Isaiah Thomas, if healthy, also figures to be a factor. Denver will have no shortage of options on any given night which is why I expect them to be a top three offense when the season concludes.

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The chatter is real. According to Denver Stiffs’ own Brendan Vogt, Lyles has simulated various scenarios at small forward during training camp thus far.

Lyles should provide enough as a floor spacer and mismatch specialist to make things work offensively. Defense is the question, but the Nuggets are actively searching for an answer with Lyles. He told the media that he was participating in drills defensively with the intention of improving foot speed and quickness on the perimeter, so we will just have to wait and see how he looks.

In the end, one must ask themselves what the opportunity cost is defensively for playing Lyles or Juancho Hernangomez at small forward. How much worse would the Nuggets be in that situation than the current starting unit featuring Will Barton as the de facto small forward? Barton provides the quickness and ability to switch a matchup on the perimeter, but against larger small forwards, he will be bullied from time to time. Lyles, for all the potential issues he may have defending quicker small forwards, has a much better shot at matching up with larger wings like Joe Ingles, Tobias Harris, and Brandon Ingram than Barton. He likely won’t win the matchup against Kevin Durant, Paul George, or other star wings, but Barton probably isn’t winning those battles either.

I think this is a good gamble, at least to experiment in the preseason. It’s only a temporary fix in all likelihood but it could help win Denver games if it works out.

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I really don’t see IT being an issue this year. One of the best parts of training camp, at least from the outside looking in, has been watching Thomas commit to helping Denver win. He has been a vocal leader, teacher, and motivator while sidelined with his hip injury. It’s not 100% that he will be perfectly happy coming off the bench if he’s eventually outplaying Jamal Murray, but he has said all of the right things thus far about just the value of being wanted by Malone and wanting to help the team win. He’s competitive, not just with his opponents, but his teammates and himself. That should provide Denver with an edge on certain nights.

I don’t expect him to outplay Murray this season though, and instead of being unhappy about it, IT may simply enjoy contributing to a successful team again. He’s a stud, and if he sees Denver performing at a strong level without him, he may be more willing to simply find his role rather than try and become the man.

I really don’t see IT being an issue this year. One of the best parts of training camp, at least from the outside looking in, has been watching Thomas commit to helping Denver win.

If he DOES try and become the man though, and he’s awesome at it, that’s a great problem to have. Malone has done an excellent job so far at keeping the team unified and directed toward a single goal: winning games. I don’t expect success to hurt the team, but if it does, I trust that Malone will rein him back in.

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For preseason clues, I always look at the rotation to gauge which combination of players the coaching staff believes will generate the most success. Sometimes, coaches use the preseason to try new things and decide position battles. In Denver, the bulk of the position battles are set. Denver’s five starters are etched in stone barring injury, and while Isaiah Thomas is out, Monte Morris, Trey Lyles, and Mason Plumlee are clearly the sixth, seventh and eighth members of the rotation in some order.

My best guess is that coming out of the preseason, one of Murray, Harris, or Barton will be on the floor at all times. Last season, Denver struggled to score when Nikola Jokic went to the bench, and while Barton spent much of his time in the second unit last season, this season, Denver should be able to assist him more with Isaiah Thomas captaining the bench most of the time. Still, one of Murray, Harris, or most likely Barton would play on the wing next to Thomas to keep the pressure on offensively. Add in Lyles as a third scorer and that unit could be solid.

Here’s an example of a possible rotation concept Denver could use this season:

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Notice that while Morris is on the floor, he always shares it with one of the starting guards while playing the first four minutes of his stint with Nikola Jokic. Also notice that Trey Lyles spends brief stints at small forward in this scenario.

How Denver staggers their starters is key to maintaining offensive and defensive identity for this season. Denver experienced vast swings of momentum when Jokic left the floor, and though it’s unreasonable to expect the Nuggets to be just as good without him, it’s important that they survive those minutes and don’t give up ground.

I expect Malone to try different rotations and combinations through the first three preseason games and settle on a desirable outcome by games four and five. At that point we will probably know:

  • Which player is the 9th (and possibly 10th) man in the rotation?
  • What lineups are utilized with Jokic off the floor?
  • How do the Nuggets make up for a lack of desirable size at small forward?

That’s it for this mailbag. Remember, if you have a question, use the hashtag #BlackMail to reach out on Twitter. There will be much to discuss in the coming weeks, and it’s exciting to have basketball back in full swing!

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