Analyzing the Denver Nuggets’ lineup versatility for the 2019-20 season

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

Throughout the summer, fans and analysts have focused on the quiet offseason that the Denver Nuggets have enjoyed. With the only roster departures being players that weren’t in the team’s playoff rotation, there wasn’t much to discuss when it came to roster overhaul. However, the Nuggets made one of the best additions in the entire league this summer when it came to the addition of Jerami Grant.

Few players fit Denver’s style of play and timeline better than Grant, who projects to begin the season as the team’s backup power forward. It isn’t just what Grant brings to the table as an uber-athletic, oversized wing defender and 3-point shooter, it’s also what he unlocks for head coach Michael Malone when it comes to lineup versatility.

Since Paul Millsap joined the Nuggets for the 2017-18 season, Denver has lacked another positive-impact defender to consistently throw out alongside Millsap in the frontcourt. While Gary Harris continued to improve as a defender in the backcourt and Torrey Craig emerged as a serious defensive presence on the wing, Malone wasn’t able to include another defensive-minded player in the frontcourt. Jerami Grant is that player.

With Grant in the fold for the 2019-20 season, the Nuggets will have some decisions to make when it comes to what lineups to play at certain stages of a game. What is clear, however, is that Malone will certainly have more choices to pick from when ironing out his rotation and go-to lineups. Let’s take a look at some lineups that could see some run in the upcoming season.

1) Murray, Harris, Grant, Millsap, Jokić

This lineup represents the “starters with Grant” group. The possibility of including Grant in the starting lineup for some added defense is certainly intriguing, especially as it would allow Will Barton to return to a bench creator role, where he has thrived in recent seasons.

There are a few reasons to think that this lineup won’t receive much playing time together next season. First, Grant’s career trajectory has led him to play almost exclusively at the four and five positions. Last season, Grant played 0% of his minutes at small forward, and that number was only up at 17% during the 2017-18 campaign.

As the league has continued to emphasize floor-spacing, Grant has continued his shift towards the power forward position, with small-ball center serving as his secondary spot on the floor. While some teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks appear to be going all-in on lineups with plenty of length and size amid all of the offseason changes, it remains to be seen if Denver will follow.

Additionally, the lineup most comparable to this suggested group deployed by the Nuggets last season lineup was the starting group with Torrey Craig at SF. That lineup struggled mightily on offense, as it posted a 100.5 offensive rating in 199 minutes of action, which would have ranked last in the league by nearly four points per 100 possessions. It should be pointed out that uncharacteristically cold shooting seasons from Harris and Jokić made it tougher on Denver’s offense to consistently space the floor. It should also be noted that this same lineup with Barton at small forward posted a 114.1 offensive rating and a +7.8 net rating last season.

Despite those concerns, there are definitely situations that could call for this lineup. First and foremost, it would be a very strong defensive lineup for Denver. With Craig in the lineup along with the other four starters, the Nuggets had a 106.4 defensive rating, which would have ranked fourth in the league last season. Given Grant’s length, wingspan and athleticism, there’s reason to believe he can be an even more impactful defender in the starting lineup alongside Millsap and Harris.

The offense in such a lineup also shouldn’t suffer such a significant downgrade from the regular starting lineup that includes Barton. If Harris and Jokić bounce back to shoot above-average from three (especially Harris, who connected on at least 39 percent from beyond the arc in the two previous seasons prior to 2018-19), Millsap can serve as a third shooter from outside, while Grant roams around the court to finish around the rim, especially from the dunker spots(the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline). Jokić is a master at finding other big men around the rim for open dunks and layups, as seen in the video below:

Grant displayed his awareness of where to be on the floor at all times, and even in a cramped Oklahoma City offense, he positioned himself near the hoop to receive passes:

At 39.2 percent 3-point shooting on 3.7 attempts per game last season, Grant also provides a fairly significant increase in floor-spacing. If the offense can bounce back as a result of Grant’s presence coupled with some improved shooting from Harris and Jokić, the defense should be more than worth it to deploy this lineup at times throughout the season.

2) Murray, Beasley, Grant, Millsap, Jokić

This lineup represents a 2019-20 version of a lineup that had a lot of success last season. Involving a combination of bench players and starters, this lineup includes enough offensive firepower to support what should be a dynamic defensive duo in Grant and Millsap.

During the 2018-19 season, this lineup with Craig in Grant’s spot posted an offensive rating of 126.7 and a defensive rating of 103.9 in 140 minutes of action. Both marks would easily rank best in the league over the course of a season. With Beasley’s elite shooting spacing the floor for the Murray- Jokić duo, Denver’s offense couldn’t be stopped during the minutes this lineup was on the floor. As mentioned above, given Grant’s 3-point shooting and finishing around the rim last season, one would expect him to have a greater impact on Denver’s offense, especially in this lineup.

If Harris struggles from deep again this season, Beasley’s 3-point shooting (40.2 percent on five attempts per game last season) becomes even more valuable and would provide more space for Murray and Jokić to attack.

On the defensive end, this lineup would allow Grant and Millsap to join together to guard some of the best-opposing wings and bigs across the Western Conference. Last season, the duo of Millsap and Craig posted a 104.3 defensive rating when on the floor together, which should certainly be repeatable with Grant in Craig’s place. Given the success that this lineup had with Craig last season, it should certainly be given a look in 2019-20.

3) Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap, Grant

As mentioned earlier, Grant has continued to spend more time at the four and five positions in recent years. This proposed lineup would provide Malone with a nice mix of offensive firepower and defensive versatility and can be used when Jokić needs a breather or Denver faces a team that thrives in small-ball situations.

According to Cleaning the Glass, 17 percent of Grant’s minutes in the 2017-18 season came at center, and the Thunder were +7.9 in those minutes. While that net rating dropped to -3.9 this past season (with only seven percent of Grant’s minutes coming at center), there is reason to believe that this lineup will have all the right ingredients for success.

On the offensive end, Murray, Harris and Barton can more than handle the playmaking for the unit, while Grant’s ability to thrive in transition can help the unit push the pace. Also, while Grant and Millsap haven’t been knockdown shooters over the past couple of seasons, all five players in the lineup can capably hit 3-pointers, which would provide enough floor spacing.

On the defensive end, this lineup has plenty of intrigue because it would allow three of Denver’s top defenders play together. While Harris can focus on guarding the best opposing perimeter player, Grant and Millsap can thrive as a blitzing frontcourt pairing. If Denver really needs a late-game stop, inserting Craig at the small forward position would form a lineup full of length and versatility.

Although Millsap doesn’t block shots on a regular basis, he has quick hands and exceptional awareness to make the right play on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, Grant is an exceptional shot blocker for his size, as he has averaged at least one block per game every season he has been in the league. His long wingspan and jumping ability allows him to defend the rim in ways few other forwards can in the league.

This small-ball lineup is a key piece to the puzzle that Denver has been missing in recent seasons. Now that Grant is in town, Malone certainly has the right players to mix into different lineups depending on the situation. For a Nuggets team that had a quiet offseason relative to other Western Conference playoff teams, their key addition certainly unlocks a lot more than the eye can see at first glance.

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