The Nuggets and their roles: a player-by-player breakdown

 

The Denver Nuggets are coming off of a brilliant 2018-2019 season in which they nabbed the two seed, and made it to the second round. The Nuggets, who were one of the youngest teams in the league last year (and still are), can afford to look at the 2019-2020 season with ambition and optimism. Obviously the Western Conference is a completely different landscape, but this might work in the favor of Denver, who is running back virtually the same roster, and only lost around 1% of their rotation minutes from last season. The addition of Jerami Grant to take over for Trey Lyles as the second power forward is also a brilliant addition, and I’ll talk specifically to that in his segment. With the health of Michael Porter Jr, and the drafting of Bol Bol, the Nuggets have added even more potential upside this season.

Here’s how all the pieces fit:

Tyler Cook (Forward, 21)

One of the summer league standouts, Tyler Cook is the first two way contract the Nuggets handed out this off-season. He’s a physically impressive player with some defensive versatility,  but not a lot of shooting ability. He’ll get some minutes in garbage time, as well as games with the G-League affiliate. Obviously the Nuggets aren’t expecting Cook to contribute greatly now, but his performance and his physical traits made him worth signing to a two-way deal.

Bol Bol (Center, 19)

The second of the Nuggets two way deals, Bol was voted by his draft class as the biggest steal in the most recent NBA draft. Bol’s ceiling is incredibly high, hitting 3’s from a 52% rate at Oregon in his brief tenure there, as well as racking up 2.7 blocks per game. If he develops into a lights out spot up shooter, as well as a high level shot blocker, his potential is limitless. Even with his ceiling this high, he slipped to the middle of the second round indicating that his floor is certainly very low due to injury. By signing Bol to a two-way deal, this will allow the Nuggets to see if he can handle NBA talent, while seeing minutes in the G-League. He’ll also see some garbage minutes during his time with the NBA team.

P.J. Dozier (PG/SG, 22)

The Nuggets have yet to place P.J. Dozier on the roster, and it’s up in the air if they do so. However, the combo guard showed great flashes of playmaking and scoring in the G-League last year, finishing 14th in points, and 7th in assists. He also excelled in the Summer League. Even though he’s a skilled passer and scorer, he lacks slightly in shooting, but his percentages seem to be improving. As of now, the Nuggets have an open roster spot, as well as an opening in guard depth, having no one behind Beasley and Morris as second string guards. If the Nuggets wish to add a 5th guard, Dozier can be used here. He’s an option during training camp to add athleticism and playmaking to deeper lineups.

Vlatko Čančar (Foward, 22)

The first of the full-time guys, Vlatko impressed in the summer league putting up numbers of 8.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game (4 games). Vlatko, in international play, has been used as a floor spacer at either of the forward positions, shooting 37.4% from 3 in senior leagues overseas. He has the size for either forward spot, being 6’8″ with a 6’11” wingspan, but is a little on the weaker side in terms of strength. He also runs the pick-and-roll well in either role, which is a huge part of Denver’s offense. He’s a smart player and definitely a fan favorite. Even considering the log-jam that Denver has at the forward positions, his versatility adds additional depth to the roster, though it’s difficult to see a ton of minutes for Vlatko.

Jarred Vanderbilt (Forward, 20)

Vanderbilt follows the model of a few players that the Nuggets have drafted. High-end prospects out of high-school who struggled with injury in college. Jarred possesses a great ability to rebound the ball, as well as lateral quickness and athleticism which adds to his defensive prowess. Offensively, he’s capable of hitting open threes, and plays very nicely off of the dribble. Again with the very deep rotation of forwards that the Nuggets possess, minutes for Vanderbilt will be scarce, but if injury strikes or otherwise, Vanderbilt appears to be a solid piece for additional Nuggets depth.

Michael Porter Jr. (Forward, 21)

The highly valued, yet highly concerning lottery pick of the Nuggets 2018 draft has a very good chance to be a high impact player on this Nuggets squad. Before drafted, he was a consensus top-3 talent in his draft before falling due to injury concern. After his redshirt year, Porter has a very legitimate opportunity to add the spacing and scoring that the Nuggets have needed from the Small Forward position. He’s a great size for his position at 6’10” and had a beautiful shooting stroke. Much like Bol Bol, he was also ranked as the biggest draft steal by his draft peers. He put up just over 20 points and 12 rebounds per 36 minutes in his very short time at Mizzou, at less than optimal health. With his size, his handles, his defensive potential, his athleticism, and his shooting, Porter Jr. draws constant comparisons to Kevin Durant. That’s probably his ceiling, and I can’t imagine anything higher. Will he reach it? Realistically, no. However, that doesn’t mean that he can’t contribute immediately to this Nuggets team that is trying to contend. His pure scoring ability and physical traits will allow him to become a valuable rotation piece if his knees and back hold up. His teammates as well as Coach Malone have had nothing but praise for Porter Jr, which only adds to his hype. If the hype is real, Michael Porter Jr. can be a real asset for Denver. If not, it’s not the worst thing in the world.

Juancho Hernangomez (Forward, 23)

In his third year with the Nuggets, Juancho was able to start in 25 games when the Nuggets lost forward depth with injuries. He put up 27 points in a game, and had a game winning block against Golden State. He’s shown flashes of being a solid spacer and scorer and is serviceable on defense. He’s had some injury concerns and we haven’t likely seen a Juancho will his full potential as a spacing wing. During minutes with Jokic, we’ve seen Juancho seeing high success as a cutter, making it easy for Jokic to feed him shots around the hoop. So far this off season, Juancho has excelled in the FIBA tournament. If healthy, a developed Juancho can become a high level backup at the small forward spot, even able to start when Denver needs to rest Barton. At worst, he’ll stay as a deeper rotation piece bouncing between the 3 and 4 spots on the court.

Torrey Craig (Small Forward, Shooting Guard)

One of the biggest surprises from last season was Torrey Craig. Able to slide into the 3 spot for the injured Will Barton, Craig earned a reputation in Denver as a lockdown defender on the wing. We also witnessed the ability for Torrey Craig to knockdown open jumpers from behind the arc. After the All-Star break, Craig led the Nuggets in 3PT% through the playoffs hitting 43.5% of his deep shots. He’s stated that he’s been developing it more this offseason. If Torrey Craig can continue to play his very elite defense, and continue to hit 3’s at a high clip, (probably not 43%), then Torrey Craig will certainly be a mainstay in Denver’s extremely deep forward rotation.

Mason Plumlee (Center, 29)

This last season, Plumlee was pretty much always the first big off the bench to provide rebounding and interior defense. This upcoming season, that will certainly change. Denver traded their next first round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire Jerami Grant. With that acquisition, and Grant’s ability to defend and play three positions, as well as space the floor, Plumlee’s minutes will be reduced. Cutting the rotation a bit in the playoffs, Plumlee saw a drop in minutes per game of 5.5 (21.1 to 15.6), which was third most on the team behind Juancho who lost around 15 minutes, and Monte Morris, who lost 8. His lack of spacing, as well as the increased need to have Jokic on the floor, was the cause of this. Now that the Nuggets have Grant instead of Trey Lyles as the back-up four, with Michael Porter Jr, Vlatko Čančar, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jarred Vanderbilt all vying for minutes, a forward log-jam is created. If the Nuggets try to keep Jokic at around 31 minutes per game, that leaves the backup center minutes sitting at about 17 per game. With the abundance of power forwards, putting Plumlee in lineups next to Jokic at the 4 doesn’t seem terribly viable anymore. The Nuggets also may experiment with Jerami Grant as a stretch 5, considering his length and athleticism. All of this points to a very sizable minutes reduction for a still productive Mason Plumlee. The Nuggets will have to consider if moving Mason Plumlee’s expiring deal might be more appropriate than letting him sit as a <15 minute per game big off the bench.

Monte Morris (Point Guard, 24)

Everyone now knows that Monte Morris is one of the elite backup point guards in the league. His assist-turnover ratio was unreal and his passing was incredible. He really shined as a shooter as well, hitting an incredible 41.4%. His skill at closing quarters was something incredible to watch as well. Even if Morris doesn’t improve in the slightest, then he will still be an incredibly important piece to this team. His vision and IQ, as well as his brilliance in the pick-and-roll, are vital to one of the top bench units in the entire NBA. Morris has established himself as a perfect complimentary piece to a fantastic young core.

Malik Beasley (Shooting Guard/Small Forward, 22)

You may notice there there are two guards in the tweet that I just posted. Obviously Monte Morris, but on there as well is Malik Beasley. Malik Beasley had an incredible breakout season in which he expanded his role as a scorer and shooter off of the bench. He put up incredible numbers at a very efficient clip, also shooting over 40% from 3. I expect him to reprise his role as the backup 2, but there is an interesting proposal that some have made for Beasley. Ryan Blackburn of the Denver Stiffs writes the following:

“For much of the regular season and playoffs, one of Denver’s best lineups statistically was Jamal MurrayGary Harris, Beasley, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic. It was basically Denver’s 2018-19 version of the low usage lineup in 2017-18 that featured the starters with Barton.

In 46 regular season minutes, the above five-man unit accumulated a 122.1 Offensive Rating and a 98.0 Defensive Rating, good for a +24.1 Net Rating and the second best lineup Denver utilized last year with 40 minutes played or more. That didn’t really change in the playoffs either, as Denver played the same lineup 49 minutes to the tune of a +12.0 Net Rating”  (https://www.denverstiffs.com/2019/8/21/20826256/stiffs-mailbag-nicknames-malik-beasley-a-starter-at-small-forward-and-more)

Granted, it was only 46 minutes, and as Ryan points out later, it was situational. However, there’s a lot of potential to see Beasley in that Small Forward spot still. Beasley does boast higher efficiency than Will Barton. Beasley also put up the same amount of points in 4.5 fewer mintes. The major concern with this proposal is defense. Barton is not elite by any means, but Beasley struggled heavily on defense, both during the regular season, as well as the playoffs. Unless we see a sizeable jump from Malik in defense, he’s likely to stay as the primary bench scorer.

Will Barton (Small Forward/Shooting Guard, 28)

The Thrill is coming off of a down year, where he was below average by most metrics. Previously, he added positive offensive value in a role as a reliable shooter and scorer, taking along some secondary playmaking duties as well. Will should be looking to make a leap back to where he was pre-injury. A healthy Will at full potential could add more spacing and cutting, as well as creating turnovers with his length to disrupt passing lanes. I see him as likely the season starter at the 3, with the Nuggets hoping he returns to form. If he continues to falter, he could take a backseat to the plethora of wings that the Nuggets have. I would think that is a less likely situation. Barton struggled heavily in his time back and early in the playoffs, but he was never able to get in a rhythm after injury. With a full offseason and starting the season clean, Will will do a lot of damage.

Jerami Grant (Forward, 25)

Potentially the least talked about, but high impact acquisition of any team was the trade for Jerami Grant. The Nuggets upgraded their backup 4 from a power forward who couldn’t shoot or play defense to a guy who shot nearly 40% from 3, and can defend 3 positions at an elite level. Grant boosts the ceiling of the Denver frontcourt, and the entire team. His athleticism and ability to shoot spot-up threes from the corners, and his ability to roam the baseline in the dunker spot adds much more offensive depth to the second unit than they’ve previously had. Grant’s lateral quickness, ability to catch and shoot, and speed will give him the ability to play minutes at the small forward. His length, vertical reach, and strength will also give him a chance to see some minutes as a small ball 5. His athleticism gives Mike Malone a lot of options with lineups that he can roll out. His control with the ball, and basketball IQ, led him to be 6th in the league last year in Turnover percentage, with two of the five players ahead of him on the same bench unit, (Monte Morris & Malik Beasley). A high-IQ, high character, unselfish player like Grant will fit flawlessly into a squad of the same mold. If Millsap declines at all, expect Grant to start several games for the Nuggets this season.

Paul Millsap (Power Forward, 34)

The defensive engine of this Nuggets team last year was Paul Millsap. While not putting up incredible numbers, his presence on the court, his veteran leadership and skillset allowed the Nuggets to take a leap on the defensive side with an (almost) full season of healthy Millsap. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus stat, which estimates how much better  a team was defensively with any given player on the court, indicates how valuable Paul really was. He scored a 2.74, which is greatly above average, wedged between Al Horford and Marc Gasol, two big men known for defensive impact. As Millsap’s shooting has evolved, his impact as a floor spacer has helped the Nuggets a bit, shifting away slightly from a iso-post scorer to a stretch big. It is true that Millsap isn’t a Jerami Grant, knocking down 40% of his threes but he’s grown. However, at age 34, there isn’t much reason to expect improvement from 3. Hopefully for the Nuggets, Paul can dodge any aging effects while staying healthy, as his defensive presence will continue to fit well with the Nuggets. Millsap should start the year at the Power Foward, but the Nuggets may lean towards Jerami Grant as the season gets deeper. Millsap’s $30 million dollar contract comes off the books at the end of the season, so he may be available as a salary matching trade asset, being more replaceable, with Grant waiting behind him.

Gary Harris (Shooting Guard, 24)

The potential of this brilliantly talented shooting guard may be the key to the Nuggets success this year. Harris has always struggled with injury, but *if healthy*, can be a legitimate third star on this Nuggets team. Gary has always played lockdown defense on guards and smaller wings, even able to bother slightly bigger wings. His offensive potential is what could really put Denver over the top. in 2017-18, Gary averaged 17.5 PPG on an absurd .570 EFG%, and 40% from 3. Injury caused a very large drop in those percentages, but his defense never changed. In peak form, Gary’s finishing at the rim is elite, and his shooting from 3 is automatic. He’s the perfect guard in this system. Assuming a healthy return for Gary, he could be a legitimate offensive weapon, capable of spotting up for Jokic anywhere on the floor, making acrobatic layups on cuts, and even adding some secondary ball-handling. Mike Malone may want to reduce his minutes to keep him healthy for the playoffs, but there’s no doubt that he’s the starting shooting guard with incredible potential to be a 3rd star on the Nuggets.

Jamal Murray (Point Guard, 22)

I don’t think anyone expected Jamal Murray to grab a max contract. He’s only 22, but he’s shown flashes, albeit inconsistently, of being a true star. At times in the Portland playoff series last year, Murray caught fire and outplayed even Damian Lillard. At other times, he gave up key turnovers and played matador style defense. His ceiling is very high certainly. Some of Murray’s age 21 season numbers side-by-side with (ironically) Damian Lillard’s at age 22 are encouraging.

Murray    –    Lillard

Pts/36:  20.1       –      17.8

EFG%:  .502       –     .501

3P%:    . 367       –     .369

It’s not exact obviously. Lillard facilitates better and Murray grabs rebounds better. It is crucial to Denver that Murray takes a leap in efficiency, especially around the rim and from the arc, as well as defense if they hope to make a deep run this year. Murray’s Pick&Roll game is already well established with Jokic, but he needs to be a more efficient spacer and cutter if the offense is to see it’s maximum potential. Murray’s defense is his most glaring flaw, but that aspect may not be the focal point for Murray. All things considered, he’s the point guard of now and the future, and Jokic & Murray are going to be household Denver names for years to come.

Nikola Jokic (Center, 24)

I seriously will not be able to write enough about Jokic here. He’s obviously the team superstar. The offense runs through him. His passing, triple threat scoring, and very underrated defense lands him as a top player in the NBA, and right now, the best player in international basketball. The Joker’s shooting numbers from 3 dipped from 39% in the 17-18 campaign, to 30% this last season, but then jumped back to 39% in the playoffs. With a healthy roster (knock on wood), Jokic should have no problem keeping his shot at a higher level that he’s capable of. He improves on defense every year, utilizing his incredible vision and large frame to hinder opponents. Jokic was 4th in MVP voting last season, earning a spot on the All-NBA First team. I expect nothing less than a repeat performance of last year, and will not be shocked if he even improves on what he’s already done. He’s proven himself as a legitimate star, and that his style of play will work in the NBA playoffs. The face of Denver basketball should carry the Nuggets to another highly successful regular season, and hopefully follow up with an equally successful post-season.

 

Recap:

The Nuggets are potentially the deepest team in the league. Their second unit is unlike any other in the NBA. The construction that the Nuggets have done with this team has been perfect, placing the perfect players around one of the more revolutionary talents in the league. The process is not complete, but a dynasty is forming. This might be the greatest Nuggets team we’ve seen yet and I expect it to be, and it won’t be just for a short while. This team will be in the upper tier of the league for a while.

 

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