The Denver Nuggets have long been an afterthought in this league but have been on the rise for the last two seasons and expectations are as high as ever for this group. The moves they made in this offseason have provided a new level of clarity about the rotation and the direction of the team. They understand that Jokic is their superstar have been intentional about bringing in players that fit around him. They now have all of their young core locked up for another two years and have a chance to really build some continuity.
The Nuggets did move on from last year’s starting small forward, Wilson Chandler. It was a long time coming and it seemed Wilson never quite got comfortable in his role last year. In his absence they’ve chosen to re-sign and promote Will Barton from his bench role into the starting lineup. Last season the lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic played 65 minutes together and outscored their opponents by 33.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball reference.
I’m not about to tell you that I think that number is sustainable for an entire season, because it’s just not, however, there’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the success of such a lineup. The offensive potential of that group is already keeping coaches up at night and while the whole 5-man unit didn’t get to play much together at the same time, they still logged a lot of minutes with the individual members of the starting lineup. They’re familiar with each other’s games and will better understand how to play together after a year and an offseason to work on it. That said, there are few specific reasons why I think this unit will be so successful this season.
Starter Will Barton >>>> Bench Will Barton
Will Barton has been a controversial figure among Nuggets fans and has gained a reputation among some fans as a ball hog and an inefficient gunner. While it isn’t completely wrong, I’m willing to bet the main reason fans feel this way about him is that they really only remember the off the bench version of Will Barton. He was forced into the role of the primary playmaker for the bench units and he was not particularly good in that role, putting up 13.7ppg, 4.5rpg, 3.8apg while shooting .426/.330/.734 (FG%/3p%/FT%) off the bench in 41 games.
Even with that, when injuries to Millsap and Harris forced Barton into the starting lineup we got to see a whole different side to him. If I told you your starting small forward would average 17.7ppg, 5.6rpg, 4.4apg in 37.5mpg while shooting .476/.404/.872, you’d probably expect that player to be your 2nd or 3rd option. Those are Will Barton’s numbers in the 40 games he started last season, and in all likelihood he will be the Denver Nuggets 4th or 5th option offensively.
If those numbers translate to a full season and Jamal Murray progresses as a shooter like most people expect, those two could join Jokic and Harris as 40% 3 point shooters. Last season only 52 players who played at least 1000 minutes and averaged at least 3 3PA per game averaged over 38% and that number shrinks to 28 who hit 40%. The Denver Nuggets could conceivably have 4 of the top 30 shooters in the league starting for them next season.
The shooting alone is difficult to defend, but when you consider how much spacing this gives Jokic and Millsap to work and the cutting skills of the 3 guards, there isn’t much a defensive gameplan can do to stop them. If you’re an opposing team and have to find a spot for your worst defender, the answer might actually be Paul Millsap.
The 3 Guard Lineup Will Work
There are concerns about the efficacy of the 3 guard lineup the Nuggets plan to run with next season. No one questions the offensive advantage this type of lineup will give them over most teams, the concern is on the defensive end. This starting lineup would make them a very small team at a time when teams are fighting over long athletic defenders. The Nuggets have invested in offensive talent at the expense of physically gifted defenders.
That said, this 3 guard experiment can work if only for the fact that it did work. Last year, Murray, Harris, and Barton shared the court for 851 minutes and the team outscored opponents in those minutes by 6.8 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball reference. That’s a significant number and one that likely wouldn’t exist if they couldn’t at least hold their own on the defensive end.
Due to their lack of length on the perimeter, it is very unlikely that you’ll ever see this group lockdown opposing guards and wings. Yet, all three players are high energy defenders with quick hands.They all work hard on the defensive end wreak havoc on opposing ball handlers, forcing them into turnovers at a pretty good rate. The real problem defensively for this group is going to come from some of the bigger stronger wings in the league, however in those situations they may be able to get away with having Millsap guard those guys and hide Barton on a less threatening Power Forward. There’s also something to be said for the fact that while Gary Harris is not very tall, he has added muscle every summer he’s been in the league and is now built like a tank. He has the potential to bang a bit with some of the bigger wings.
I’m not expecting this group to be good defensively by any means, good teams will find ways to exploit their lack of size and they will likely struggle to keep some of the quicker guards in front of them. That said these weaknesses will be mitigated, at least little, by their ability to get steals and bother opposing ball handlers. When you add that to the significant offensive advantage this group provides, you end up with a net positive.
Jokic and Millsap – Together Again
Paul Millsap signed a 3 year/$90 million deal with the Nuggets last offseason in what was quite possibly the biggest free agent signing in Nuggets history. A move praised by analysts and experts around the league due to his perfect fit next to Nikola Jokic. He then proceeded to break his wrist and miss 44 games. It seemed like it wasn’t until the final weeks of the season that Millsap and Jokic finally found their chemistry together only to have the season end in heartbreak.
In what has been a largely healthy career up until last season, expectations are high that Millsap will be healthy and we’ll get to see this front court pairing unleashed for 75+ games. Jokic and Millsap played 868 minutes together last season, the 15th most of all Nuggets 2-man combinations. In those minutes, they outscored their opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions.
Paul Millsap came to the Nuggets and the coaching staff jumped at the chance to incorporate him into the offense, at the expense of touches for Jokic. This caused many to believe the pairing of the two really wouldn’t work and then Millsap went down with an injury. In the time he spent recovering, he got to watch the Nuggets offense up close and see just how brilliant it could be with Jokic as the focal point. He even came out and told the coaches that he could come in and fit what their doing, essentially saying that he didn’t need to be force fed touches.
After returning this seemed apparent, the offense ran more smoothly through Jokic than it had in Millsap’s first stint and the two players really found their groove by the end of the season. After two straight years of trying something different on offense, it finally feels like Michael Malone will get out of his own way and just let Jokic be Jokic and let Paul be the savvy vet that he is and find his niche within the offense while also being an anchor on defense.
Taken together this Nuggets starting unit has all the right pieces to be absolutely lethal on offense. They will certainly have their struggles defensively, however their offensive weapons are at level this league has rarely seen. Some teams might overlook them because of their obvious defensive deficiencies, but they’d be doing so at their own risk.