After his performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder and as the culmination of a number of excellent performances to date, it’s clear that Trey Lyles should be in the Denver Nuggets starting unit going forward.

Another 15 points and 9 rebounds for the Kentucky product off the bench against a physical Oklahoma City team. In a game where most guys struggled to find their confidence, Lyles put up 15 points on just 10 shots, made three three-pointers, and committed no turnovers, exactly what head coach Michael Malone needs from high minute guys in high pressure situations.

I’ve written about Lyles and his excellent play during the last month, and from the get go, I was a fan of his skill set when the Nuggets traded for him on draft night. While most Nuggets fans jumped on Tim Connelly and the organization for not selecting Donovan Mitchell or OG Anunoby initially, I was intrigued by Lyles, a 6’10 combo forward out of Kentucky who basically received the Devin Booker treatment while in school. Due to playing with such excellent talent, Lyles was misused at Kentucky. Coach John Calipari knew he was exceedingly talented, but so were Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, the two starters in the frontcourt going into the season.

Because of this, Lyles played small forward rather than power forward during most of his college minutes. It was clear that he was a power forward coming into the draft, but some teams remained unconvinced of his skill set at a different position. The Utah Jazz clearly bought into him though, as they selected Lyles 12th overall. The Nuggets also did, despite a rough start to his career. 

Writers on Denver Stiffs can attest to my excitement about Lyles, and I’m sure there are clips on the Pickaxe Pundits show that would back it up. The unfortunate factor involved was a perceived lack of playing time. With Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried as incumbents, along with a current prospect in Juancho Hernangomez and a new prospect in Tyler Lydon, it was difficult to see playing time for the now 22-year-old. The picture became even more cloudy with the signing of Paul Millsap, an All-Star at the position.

Even though things looked bleak, Lyles continued to work hard, trimming down his 6’10 frame to a slimmer 234 pounds. During the preseason, he excelled with his shot making and his fit next to Mason Plumlee. Unfortunately for him, Faried also had an excellent preseason and earned the initial bid to backup Millsap, who was already penciled in for 30+ minutes every night. For the first 15 games, Lyles was nothing more than an afterthought in the rotation, coming in during garbage time in situations that wouldn’t invoke Michael Malone to consider playing him more.

Then, catastrophe happened. On January 19th, Millsap injured his wrist. Lyles started receiving regular backup minutes at that point at average backup level, but it wasn’t until Jokic rolled his ankle, Chandler started dealing with a bad back, and Malone got fed up with Faried’s defense that Lyles received a larger opportunity. With Will Barton moving in and out of the starting lineup, the bench unit needed scoring from somewhere, and boy did Lyles deliver. 

His efficiency was already solid, but as soon as he traveled to his home state of Indiana, he took off, scoring 25 points from all over the floor, especially behind the arc. In the month of December, Lyles has shot 55.6 percent from behind the three-point line on 4.0 attempts per game. Those aren’t just elite numbers for a backup power forward, but for anyone.

But you know about Lyles already. I wrote about him for Stat of the Week last Friday. What you don’t know is that I think he should be the power forward starter until Millsap returns. He has earned the opportunity with excellent play, and the Nuggets have utilized him in crunch time the last few games anyway. He has gained the trust of Malone by upping his defensive intensity late in games, and he can shoot the hell out of the ball.

The easy solution of course is to move Wilson Chandler back to small forward and insert him as the power forward next to Jokic, but it’s time to think outside the box. It’s clear that Chandler doesn’t operate as well at small forward as he does at power forward these days, and because both units need spacing, having him on the wing with a three-point percentage in the low thirties isn’t the proper way to optimize this Nuggets team. 

So, who should the Nuggets start at small forward? Will Barton? No, they need his production in bench units. Malik Beasley? Nope. He’s not ready. Juancho Hernangomez? Nah, he needs time to recover.

The correct answer, of course, is Torrey Craig.

Yes, THE Torrey Craig. The cult hero of the Denver Stiffs comment section. The perfect low usage, potentially high efficiency floor spacer on offense who takes pride in stopping the player across from him. At the beginning of training camp, both Malone and Connelly echoed similar thoughts about the 26-year-old as a defender, saying that he may in fact be the best defender on the Nuggets. Even coming off a wild ride from the Sioux Falls Skyforce to play for the Nuggets on short rest, Craig was excellent, bringing a necessary energy and intensity on the defensive end that helped the Nuggets in the fourth quarter. He made the game-saving defensive stop on Jrue Holiday, which was just a microcosm of what he could be going forward.

Now, Craig isn’t perfect, and he’s probably not the most talented player the Nuggets could play at small forward. He also won’t be big enough to stop the likes of LeBron James or Kevin Durant; however, he will give it his best shot at stopping everyone else, and after hitting a rhythm three-pointer Friday night and playing well last night, it’s obvious that he isn’t an offensive liability either. On five attempts, he made all five shots, including all three of his three-pointers. The Nuggets haven’t had that kind of efficient production from the small forward position in awhile.

This move also allows Chandler to be the versatile bench forward that he was last year, at least until Millsap returns. His game is best at power forward, and it’s easy to see bench lineups that feature a front court of Barton, Chandler, and Mason Plumlee that score enough to keep the Nuggets in games. With Craig not likely to be a high minute guy, Chandler would also play some minutes with the starters as well, maybe even finishing games if he’s having a good night.

In my opinion, the best rotation for the Nuggets going forward involves Barton playing point guard anyway, and by starting Craig, both Barton and Chandler can shoulder some duties as creators.

Above all though, Craig at small forward puts Lyles and the rest of the starters in the best situation to show their stuff. Lyles has shown he can score efficiently, but now he needs to show it against starters in order for the Nuggets to truly figure out what they have. Chandler has the opportunity to leave in free agency after this season, and it would be nice to see if there’s a hidden gem sitting behind Paul Millsap at power forward long term. In order to do that? Malone must make some tough decisions.

It’s time to fully embrace the youth movement. No safety nets or bail outs in the starting unit. A lineup that features Torrey Craig and Trey Lyles does just that.

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