The 2018-19 season is finally set to begin for the Denver Nuggets.
After going 4-1 in the preseason and devouring every “expert” predictions, there is a lot to be excited about for Nuggets fans. In a season that by all accounts is playoffs or bust, there still are a few questions surrounding the team that need answers. Let’s take a look at some of the major questions the Nuggets will be faced with in regards to their rotations:
Who makes the rotation?
There are 48 minutes a night with five players on the court at a time means there are 240 total possible minutes per game. We know the starting lineup will consist of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris & Jamal Murray. This is the same lineup the Nuggets ended last season with. Last year, those five averaged 161.9 minutes combined. That is with Millsap only averaging 30.1 mpg (minutes per game) in 38 games, after averaging 33.2 mpg over his four seasons in Atlanta. Both Jokic & Murray have increased their minutes per game every season in their career so far, and if you look at Harris & Bartons’ career minutes, they missed that classification just ever-so-slightly.
Assuming continued development for the young core of Jokic, Murray & Harris and a healthy Millsap, the five of them increasing their combined minutes to 170 seems attainable. That will leave 70 possible minutes available for the bench, an average of 14 minutes for each position. Rotations early in the season tend to have 10-11 players as they figure out how new players fit in, how new schemes work, and which players have chemistry on the court together. Denver’s entire core was on the roster last year besides Isaiah Thomas & Michael Porter Jr. (more on them later), so it would make sense for Denver to have their rotation figured out quicker than other teams still feeling each other out.
Judging by last season and preseason minute distributions we can predict who will take up those available minutes. We should see a lot of Mason Plumlee, the Nuggets 4th highest paid player. He averaged 20 minutes a game last season, the only way he can match that or exceed it is if Michael Malone looks to force the much-maligned twin tower set with Joker and Plumlee on the court at the same time.
Trey Lyles has been raved about during the preseason and looks to be in the best shape of his life. Lyles is in the final year of his rookie contract and will be entering restricted free agency next summer.
He will be looking for a size-able payday, whether he deserves it remains to be seen with his on-court success this year. Malone went on record saying Lyles could see time playing some Small Forward and some small-ball at Center. With 3 of the Nuggets 4 highest paid players being “big men,” it may be difficult for Lyles to break out. His ability to guard players on the wing could elevate Lyles minutes potential.
Two-way success story Torrey Craig started two preseason games. Craig is a favorite of Malone and for good reason. After being plucked from the Australian NBL for the Nuggets summer league team in 2017, Craig has demonstrated a fantastic motor, especially on defense. Every team in the NBA needs a guy like Craig who hustles for loose balls and offensive rebounds, runs and cuts on offense and natural defensive instincts. Craig will frequently guard the best scorer on the other team, while he isn’t the defensive stopper that the Nuggets are missing his effort alone will make him an essential piece to the bench unit.
Monte Morris (only non-projected starter besides Craig to start in preseason) & Malik Beasley played the most minutes per game in the preseason this year, partially attributed to Murray & Craig each missing a game and Harris missing two. It’s unlikely both Morris & Beasley see playing time due to the starting lineup featuring three guards. Morris seems to be the early favorite for the 9th spot, as a point guard that can calm the team down and run sets efficiently. A poor shooting performance early in the season could see those minutes go to Beasley who shot 52% from beyond the arc in preseason competition.
That leaves Juancho Hernangomez who was 11th in minutes per game after playing all 5 preseason games. Hernangomez shot looked great, but his tweener-ism makes it difficult for him to defend both smaller, quicker guys at the 3 or bigger, post-oriented 4s.
2nd-year forward Tyler Lydon was 15th in minutes, behind two-way big Thomas Welsh and since waived Donald Sloan & Xavier Silas who were on training camp deals. Lydon only played 1 NBA game last year and spent a lot of time in the G League until he suffered a season-ending injury. It seems likely he will spend some time there again this season.
How do Isaiah Thomas & Michael Porter Jr. fit Into the team when (or if) they return?
The two “big name” additions to the Nuggets this summer did not play a single minute in the preseason.
Thomas, still recovering from that nagging hip injury, has no timetable to return. The Nuggets are doing their due diligence, when IT is finally healthy expect him to take up all the backup guard minutes allotted to Morris or Beasley above. Nuggets fans were excited when the team announced the signing, the 2nd former all-star to sign with the Nuggets in free agency in the last two summers. If Thomas is even 80% of his former self, he will be an immediate contributor off the bench and could have some 6th Man of the Year potential if he doesn’t miss major time. The one concern with Thomas is he takes away too many shots from the main core in minutes he shares with them.
Porter Jr. fell to the Nuggets in the draft amid injury concerns with his back. Before going to Missouri and getting hurt, Porter was widely regarded as a top 3 guy in his draft class. There is not a lot of game footage of Porter versus similarly talented players or teams but based on the raw skills he had displayed it made sense to rank him high.
Like Thomas, Porter has no timetable to return, and the Nuggets will not rush him back. Just based off potential alone and a desire to get him in-game reps, Porter could elevate himself over Craig as the backup small forward and potentially take minutes away from Plumlee or Lyles in small ball lineups if either disappoints or if MPJ exceeds expectations. The likelihood Porter redshirts this season remains high.
Don’t forget about 2nd round pick combo forward Jarred Vanderbilt, also recovering from an injury (foot surgery) with no news of a return either. If 1st round picks Hernangomez & Lydon can’t find minutes, rookie Vanderbilt won’t be a factor either. He will likely spend time in the g league when he does return, teaming up with Welsh & the Nuggets other two-way guys DeVaughn Akoon-Purcells.
The best Nuggets teams in the last 15 years all had deep benches, a big positive that turns into nothing if they suffer injuries. Having guys nearing the end of their rookie contracts like Hernangomez & Beasley on the outside looking in doesn’t bode well for their futures with the team, and the front office could look to move off them.
Tim Connelly has done a great job building a team of options for coach Malone to utilize at this digression. We’ll have to wait and see how Malone, coming of a fresh contract extension today, will use those tools he’s given. If he’s able to do this well, the Nuggets could be in for a special season.