Happy Saturday folks! It’s Stiffs Mailbag time.

I got the same version of this question a lot, so I guess it’s time to talk about Will Barton.

Post All-Star Break, Barton is averaging 12.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists on 51.2% True Shooting. Those are definitely fifth starter caliber numbers on most teams, but in the Western Conference, he probably needs to be better. Given some defensive deficiencies and a lack of true size at small forward, the advantage for Barton has to be offensively. Efficiency, creativity, and playmaking were his biggest strengths last year, but it’s unclear if he will be ready to get back to that when the playoffs arrive.

Here are the members of opposing starting lineups who have been comparable to Barton so far:

  • Warriors: None
  • Blazers: None
  • Rockets: None
  • Jazz: Ricky Rubio
  • Clippers: Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet
  • Thunder: None
  • Spurs: Bryn Forbes

And here’s the list of players Barton is clearly better than:

  • Warriors: None
  • Blazers: Maurice Harkless, Enes Kanter
  • Rockets: None
  • Jazz: None
  • Clippers: Ivica Zubac
  • Thunder: Terrance Ferguson
  • Spurs: Jakob Poeltl

Competing at the very highest levels of playoff competition with Barton in the starting lineup will be difficult. The Nuggets need a better defender on James Harden and Kevin Durant, and Barton doesn’t provide that. Against most of the playoff field though, Barton is perfectly reasonable as the final member of a starting five, even at 80 percent of his true capacity like he seemingly is now.

If Denver wants to go further in the playoffs, then I get it. They need to find an upgrade somewhere and Barton is the most logical player to replace. Right now though? Denver’s goal is to get out of the first round, get some good playoff experience, and come back next year ready to go. Barton has been a key contributor for many years when the franchise needed someone to help pick up the pieces.

Cut him some slack.

The narrative will either go one of a couple of ways — the Nuggets are the team that’s “got next” (after the Warriors) or that they avoided the Houston Rockets and got lucky with matchups. To be clear, both can be true, and both can be false. They are narratives after all. Right now, the NBA world assumes Denver will crash and burn in a postseason series because of how young and inexperienced they are. Maybe that happens. Maybe it doesn’t.

But for Nuggets fans specifically, the narrative should be that this season was amazing. Winning 50+ games, advancing in the playoffs, and watching the young core grow should be enough to say that this is an A-plus season. Maybe it won’t be enough for some folks, but the Golden State Warriors had to take their lumps in the playoffs before figuring things out. In the NFL, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs were defeated by a veteran New England Patriots team, even though the Chiefs clearly had more talent. Sometimes, it just takes time, but the NBA world will at least start giving the Nuggets the time of day if they go deep in the playoffs.

The short answer is no. If the Nuggets are going to clinch a top 2 seed, they will probably have to play Nikola Jokic nearly every game from here on out. There are scenarios where they clinch before that, and if it happens, they will probably rest him. Denver’s magic number to clinch a top 2 seed sits at 4 right now, so if they win against Washington, San Antonio, and Portland twice, then that clinches things before the last two games against Utah and Minnesota.

If that happens, expect Denver to rest everybody in those last two games. Jarred Vanderbilt and Thomas Welsh should combine for 60 minutes or more.

The players who excel most in the playoffs are either the stars generally relied upon, veterans who have been there before, or young players breaking out. Three guys who I expect to consistently play well are Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Paul Millsap.

Jokic is the star, and in most of his potential first round matchups, he should transcend schemes that try to neutralize him. Murray is the ideal breakout player in a playoff series. I could see him averaging upwards of 20 points per game in the playoffs because that’s the kind of guy he is, given his ability to generate and make tough shots off the dribble. Millsap is the last guy, and the Nuggets better hope he comes to play. As I outlined in Stat of the Week, he is the second most important player in Denver and the guy with the most playoff experience. His ability to execute in the half court should help the young Nuggets when the going gets tough.

Another guy to watch out for is Torrey Craig. He has the profile of a role player who could step into a big role either off the bench or in a surprising appearance as a starter. I believe Michael Malone will strategically deploy him in a playoff series depending on where he is best utilized. If that is as the counter to someone like DeMar DeRozan against the Spurs, I wouldn’t be surprised.

So, to crunch the numbers, here’s a chart explaining how Denver performs when they are passing the ball well.

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The assist numbers are indicative of strong playmaking being key, but probably not the most indicative. Denver clearly has a strong record when the passing is working well, but so much of those looks are dependent on the shooter. Even when Denver hits the combination of strong playmaking and limiting turnovers, it doesn’t affect winning as drastically as one might think.

Let’s see how a shooting chart looks instead.

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This is more like it. Three-point efficiency is so key for Denver’s numbers, and the Nuggets have a clear divide when they hit 35 percent of their shots beyond the arc. The team simply becomes more dangerous, spreading opposing defenses thin and allowing driving lanes for each Nugget and passing lanes for Nikola Jokic.

Specifically, the Nuggets are 18-3 in games when Jamal Murray hits three of his three-pointers or more. That impacts the way teams can scheme for Denver, and as we saw last night, some three-pointers made simply transcend any scheme.

It’s apparent that offensively, Denver can win without making three pointers, especially if it’s because they aren’t attempting them and are choosing to work inside the arc; however, there will be matchups in the postseason that lend to the three-pointer being extremely useful. If the Nuggets were to match up with the Utah Jazz in a series, providing spacing against Rudy Gobert and an aggressive Jazz defense would assist Denver in a big way. Same with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Nuggets have hit 10+ threes in every single game versus OKC, making life easier for themselves scoring inside the paint in the process.