Nuggets Notebook: Denver’s new starting lineup, the Jokić and Hyland pairing, and more

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The nature of the Denver Nuggets’ 2021-22 campaign has created intriguing storylines, statistics, trends, lineup combinations, and more. What better way to break down some of those emerging topics than a new recurring content series?

Well, welcome to a new series of articles on Nuggets.com that we’ll be calling Nuggets Notebook! Throughout the season, each installment of the Notebook will take a look at various trends, statistics, and film from recent games in hopes of covering all potential angles of the Mile High squad.

The 2021-22 campaign has been a rocky ride for the Mile High squad so far, with several injuries to key rotation pieces often leaving the Nuggets shorthanded as they battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference. As of Sunday morning, Denver sat at 13-13, good for seventh in the standings.

Some key results from the team’s injuries have been the use of a new starting lineup, the pairing of rookie guard Bones Hyland and reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, and the emergence of a valuable wing defender from the G League, all of which will be discussed in the first edition of Nuggets Notebook!

Early returns on the Bones/Jokić pairing

One of the most exciting developments of the season so far has been the flashes from Hyland.

The 26th pick in this year’s NBA Draft has dealt with several absences due to injury and COVID protocols, but when he has been on the floor, Hyland has showcased his ability to get buckets and thrive within the team’s offense.

The 21-year-old currently owns averages of 8.3 points and 1.7 assists per game on a 53.1 true shooting percentage, which is pretty impressive for a rookie guard that also owns a 24.2 usage percentage.

Hyland certainly projects as an instant-offense guard for years to come for the Nuggets, which would be a nice boost alongside the team’s core players. Of course, there haven’t been many opportunities to see Hyland alongside Porter Jr. this season, and fans will have to wait a little longer for a glimpse of the Hyland/Murray pairing in the backcourt.

However, we have received some limited action for Hyland and Jokić on the court together, and the results are certainly a welcomed sight for Denver and its fans. In a small sample size of 186 possessions per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with the two on the floor own a +16.2 net rating and have thrived on both ends of the floor, posting a 114.5 offensive rating and a 98.4 defensive rating.

Perhaps even more encouraging has been the chemistry that the two have already shown when sharing the court, something Hyland even hinted at before the season started.

“It was like (NBA)2K, you could tell the connection,” Hyland said back in September when asked about his initial opportunities to play with Jokić. “You could just tell the connection; it was just clicking instantly.”

That connection has certainly carried over to the regular season, as the two have played well off each other, often resulting in easy buckets. Hyland has quickly shown an innate ability to play off the ball and cut towards the basket when the reigning MVP has the ball, as seen in the play below from last week’s game against the Pelicans.

In the clip below, Hyland looks like a seasoned pro playing off Jokić, as a quick cut towards the rim opens up a narrow passing lane for the Serbian big man to deliver the dime.

Hyland’s floor-spacing has also been a key element of Denver’s offense when the two are on the floor together. With Jokić being one of the best passers in the league (and quite frankly, of all-time) in finding corner shooters, Hyland has been the beneficiary of some quality looks from deep.

Although not as frequently, Hyland has returned the favor to his big man, with one of the top plays of his rookie season being a sweet, impromptu dime to Jokić in transition against the Atlanta Hawks.

Uncle Jeff and the starters have thrived

When Michael Porter Jr. went down earlier in the season with a back injury, it opened a second spot in the starting lineup for a reserve player to occupy. Of course, the first spot was known and expected to begin the season, with Monte Morris stepping in to fill Jamal Murray’s role as the starting point guard (if people even specify positions anymore).

Well, Porter Jr.’s starting spot went to Jeff Green, Denver’s marquee free agency signing from the summer that was previously operating as the team’s backup four/five (depending on who you considered the center between Jeff and JaMychal Green).

The results have been incredibly impressive for head coach Michael Malone and the Nuggets. The starting lineup of Morris, Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, Green, and Nikola Jokić currently owns a +15.5 net rating across 385 possessions this season, per Cleaning the Glass.

That five-man group has excelled on the offensive end, posting a 126.8 offensive rating, good for the 89th percentile. For reference, the Utah Jazz currently own the top offensive rating in the league this season at 119 points per 100 possessions.

Green has also thrived individually in this new role, owning averages of 10.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game on 63.2 percent true shooting in 15 games as a starter. In his nine games off the bench, the 35-year-old veteran averaged 6.7 points per game on a 49.7 true shooting percentage.

“I think Jeff is playing at a really high level,” Malone said following practice in New York City on Dec. 3. “The one thing I don't think Jeff gets enough credit for, he is the ultimate pro. He stays ready. He plays alongside Aaron and Nikola, he can be a backup five for that second unit, play off the ball, moving, defending, (he’s) just a really good all-round basketball player, who's a tremendous veteran.”

Digging deeper at the numbers, this new starting lineup has rarely turned the ball over (just 10.9 percent of possessions) and has been effective in getting to the charity stripe, owning a 16.6 free-throw rate (compared to 14.2 for the Nuggets overall this season).

And although this starting group takes fewer 3-pointers (31.4 percent of total shot attempts) than Denver’s overall 3PA frequency of 37.5 percent, this lineup has thrived around the basket. 34.9 percent of the shot attempts have come from within four feet of the hoop when those five players share the court, and those shots have fallen at a 70.4 percent clip.

For reference, The Nuggets have shot 68.2 percent at the rim this season and have taken 31.3 percent of their overall shots from that area of the floor.

It will be interesting to see how this new starting lineup continues to perform moving forward, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, where the results have been mixed. On the season, Denver owns a 110.6 defensive rating, but that number rises to 111.2 when this new starting five is on the floor. Of course, the explosive offense during those minutes more than offsets the slippage on the other end of the floor.

Davon Reed steps up to the plate

Given the numerous injuries Denver has had to deal with throughout the season, an opportunity arose for Davon Reed to join the Mile High squad on a 10-day contract, with his Nuggets debut coming in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks.

It didn’t take long for the 26-year-old wing to make his mark on the team, as Reed chipped in with nine points (on perfect 3-of-3 shooting from downtown), four assists, and two steals in 24 minutes off the bench.

Although his role has reduced in recent games, Reed has continued to provide stellar defense on the wing, a much-needed addition to a Nuggets rotation that is without PJ Dozier. Although they aren’t a surefire indication of good defense, Reed does have at least one steal in each of his five games with the Nuggets and has averaged 1.4 per game during this stretch, with the film backing up his ability to cause havoc for opposing offenses.

In his second career start Saturday night against the San Antonio Spurs, Reed did the dirty work and filled the stat sheet with seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals in his 17 minutes of action.

On the offensive end of the floor, Reed’s main responsibilities include knocking down open 3-pointers (60 percent on a tiny sample) and moving the ball effectively (seven assists in five games), both of which he’s done well enough to earn consistent playing time on the second unit.

Mini Nuggets

- Don’t look now, but Denver’s offense is quickly rising up the charts. Since the Mile High squad began its seven-game road trip, they have had the fourth-ranked offense in the league.

- A big portion of that success has been fueled by hot 3-point shooting. The Nuggets shot 39.9 percent from deep over the seven road games, which resulted in 14.7 made 3-pointers per game.

- Denver has also moved the ball extremely well during this hot offensive stretch, averaging 29.1 assists per game dating back to the Nov. 29 game in Miami.

- As Denver’s offense continues to find a rhythm, it will be interesting to track the team’s offensive rebounding. After ranking in the top three in offensive rebound percentage in each of the past six seasons, the Nuggets rank 26th this season as they’ve focused on sharpening their transition defense. Something to keep an eye on moving forward…

All numbers and statistics as of 12/11.