© 2024 ALLCITY Network Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Nuggets’ depth, or lack thereof, forced Michael Malone into an uncomfortable spot last season.
Hunting wins, Malone cut his rotation down to eight and sometimes seven players at the end of December. Initially, the results were positive. The Nuggets strung together a memorable three-game winning streak where Denver disposed of the Trail Blazers, Warriors and Jazz in a span of five days. But a short rotation also came with consequences. Predictably, the Nuggets got fatigued.
Malone pulled the plug on his new-look rotation after the Nuggets’ 107-102 loss to the 76ers, where he doled out 234 of 240 available minutes to Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Nikola Jokic, Will Barton, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee. That night Harris shot just 1-5 from three-point range and Barton was so fatigued that he took a seat on the Pepsi Center hardwood during breaks in the action to try and catch his breath.
A thin bench shouldn’t be as big of an issue for Denver this year. The Nuggets enter the season with 11 players they’re comfortable playing meaningful minutes. However, that doesn’t mean all 11 will play.
Here’s who’s in and who’s out and who’s on the bubble of the Nuggets’ rotation to start the season.
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris
Behind the Nuggets’ five starters, three bench players are assured minutes. Monte Morris only logged 25 minutes with the Nuggets last year and is in for the biggest jump in playing time out of this trio. He looks up for the challenge.
The 23-year-old doesn’t have many NBA reps under his belt but operated at Summer League and throughout the preseason like a play0ff-tested veteran. Morris handed out 25 assists in preseason action to just seven turnovers and was the glue that held an impressive Nuggets second unit together. He’s a true point guard in every sense of the word — someone who can generate 2-on-1 opportunities with ease out of the pick-and-roll and set his teammates up for open shots around the three-point arc. Over the course of the last few months, Morris has earned the trust of Denver’s coaching staff as well as his teammates.
“The thing about Monte is he rarely makes a mistake,” Barton said. “That’s what you need from your backup point guard and your general off the bench.”
Morris could play anywhere from 10-20 minutes a night and will begin the season as Denver’s backup point guard with Isaiah Thomas still rehabbing from hip surgery. He’s firmly penciled into the Nuggets’ opening night rotation.
Trey Lyles was the focal point of the Nuggets’ bench unit throughout the preseason, and he’ll continue in that role to start the year. In five preseason games, Lyles was spectacular on the offensive end of the floor. He averaged 12.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists in just 23.6 minutes per game. Lyles also put his playmaking ability on display, registering four or more assists on three separate occasions this preseason after only hitting that mark three times in 73 games last year.
Lyles is set to fill the role Barton occupied last season off Denver’s bench as its go-to second unit scorer who can get hot from the floor in a hurry. The 6-foot-10 forward can take his man inside and out. He knocks down long-range threes with an effortless flick of the wrist, and Lyles’ thick frame helps him back down defenders and create separation on the block or mid-post.
“The guy can do it all,” Malone said.
The Nuggets want to play Lyles at least 20 minutes per night. When Lyles hit that minutes threshold last season, he averaged around 15 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field.
Lyles should also see minutes alongside Denver’s other four starters this year. Throughout the preseason, Lyles was typically the first sub off the Nuggets’ bench, and if that continues, he’d mesh well with Murray, Harris, Barton and Jokic on paper. Denver outscored its opponent by 19 points in the 82 minutes that lineup played together last year. Surprisingly, it was that group’s defense, not its offense, that carried them.
The final lock for minutes on a game-to-game basis off the Nuggets’ bench is Mason Plumlee. Denver’s backup center looked more athletic and mobile this preseason after offseason surgery to repair a core muscle injury. He shot 25-37 (68 percent) from the field in the preseason. Twelve of those 25 field goals were dunks. Behind Jokic, Plumlee gives the Nuggets one of the better 1-2 punches at center in the league.
The 28-year-old will log most of his minutes next to Lyles in Denver’s front court but could play alongside Jokic as well. The Nuggets outscored their opponent by 72 points in the 487 minutes Jokic and Plumlee played together last season and were impressive on the defensive end of the floor, only surrendering 100.9 points per 100 possessions.
On the bubble
Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez
“Is there an ideal number of players you want to have in your rotation this season?” I asked Malone at Monday’s practice just two days out from the Nuggets’ regular-season opener.
There’s not, according to Denver’s coach, who went on to say that he doesn’t see a scenario where he can play 10 or 11 players consistently.
“I think the luxury of our roster is we have a deep, deep squad,” Malone said. “And you look at the play of our players throughout the preseason, some tough decision will have to be made.”
That tough decision looming for Malone centers around three players vying for the ninth spot and final spot in Denver’s rotation: Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez. The odds are that two of Beasley, Craig and Hernangomez won’t get consistent minutes on a game-to-game basis.
How will Denver determine who out of that trio will play on any given night?
“I think it’s almost going to be situational,” said Malone. “That night, what do we need? Do we need defense? Do we need shooting? Do we need energy? And those guys all have to be ready. Nothing is promised. Nothing is given. Stay ready and when your number is called go out there and play to the best of your abilities.”
All three of Beasley, Craig, and Hernangomez showed well at times this preseason. Beasley was shooting 12-18 from three-point range in prior to his 0-5 performance Friday versus the Clippers. He also took care of the ball this preseason, turning it over just five times. The 21-year-old has the highest ceiling and the most two-way potential out of this group of three, but can he maintain the same level of performance all game long?
“Malik, it’s always the challenge of consistency,” Malone said.
Malone knows what he’s getting with Craig, who appeared in more high-leverage situations than Beasley or Hernangomez last season. He’s not the shooter than Hernangomez is and doesn’t have the raw talent of Beasley, but he’s consistent and will scrap, claw and do the dirty work Denver needs from its ninth man. Craig impressed in the Nuggets’ preseason matchup against the Clippers, pulling down five rebounds in 21 minutes and recording two blocks.
Can Craig shoot in the mid-30’s from three this season? If he can, then he could take the final spot in the Nuggets’ rotation and run with it.
For Hernangomez, it starts with his three-point shot and ends with his reliability as a perimeter defender. He’ll have to shoot it as he did in Denver’s preseason opener against the Lakers when the bouncy swingman hit 5-8 threes on his way to a game-high 19 points. The 2-9 stretch from distance didn’t help his cause or his confidence.
“He’s a guy who works so hard, when he misses shots sometimes he gets down on himself,” Barton told BSN Denver. “But I always tell him, ‘It’s a long season. There are going to be games where you’re going to miss. You’re going to be fine.’”
Defensively, Hernangomez is more adept at guarding fours, but he’ll have to hold his own against opposing small forwards to stay on the court this season. If he gets an opportunity, you get the feeling he could run with it.
***Isaiah Thomas (right hip surgery), Michael Porter Jr. (low back surgery), and Jarred Vanderbilt (right foot surgery) will start the season on the Nuggets’ inactive list. All three are without a timetable to return to basketball activities.