Denver Nuggets Season Preview: How will the small forward rotation play out?
Perhaps no other question will define the Denver Nuggets’ 2019-20 season more than the eventual answer to this question. Denver has four comfortable starters set for the upcoming campaign, but the fifth starter at small forward is up in the air.
Last year, Will Barton entered the season as the starter, but an early-season injury saw him miss multiple months of action. As a result, Juancho Hernangomez and Torrey Craig split the starting duties with Barton out. After he returned from the injury, Barton worked his way back into the starting spot, only to see Torrey Craig enter the starting lineup midway through Denver’s first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, all three players are competing for minutes, but a new face in Michael Porter Jr. will also add another option at the three spot. Add in Malik Beasley’s presence as a potential small forward in small-ball lineups and Jerami Grant’s ability to defend opposing wing players at a high level and you can see why there are so many questions surrounding the position.
Let’s start by making one thing clear. The starting lineup with Barton in it thrived last season. The unit posted a +7.8-net rating in the 430 minutes of action it saw in 2018-19, an elite number for a first unit. Barton possesses capable ball-handling skills and can also serve as an off-ball shooter when players such as Jamal Murray or Nikola Jokić have the ball in their hands.
Although he may give up some weight and height advantages on the defensive end, Barton has good length and quickness to keep up with opposing wing players, especially as teams continue to deploy undersized guards at the small forward position in hopes of finding more floor spacing.
If Barton can bounce back to his pre-injury form, he is a formidable fifth starter for Denver. During the 2017-18 season, the 28-year-old forward averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. Barton also connected on 37 percent of his 3-pointers that season.
When it comes to Craig, he provides physical defense and length on the wing while on the offensive end, he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to contribute. Craig’s defense in the playoffs against the likes of DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard were vital to Denver’s extended postseason run.
Craig’s activity on the defensive end would create a formidable defensive trio in the form of Gary Harris, Craig and Paul Millsap. On the offensive end, the hope is that Craig’s 3-point shooting increases and both Murray and Jokić can shoulder the creation responsibilities.
Juancho Hernangomez thrived as a starter during the 2018-19 season. In 25 starts, the 24-year-old forward averaged 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds per game and he knocked down 42.5 percent of his 3-pointers.
Hernangomez can provide 3-point shooting and size at the small forward position, and he has developed strong chemistry with Jokić on the offensive end, which leads to easy baskets around the rim for the 2019 FIBA World Cup champion.
Porter Jr. could develop into Denver’s starting small forward in time but given the amount of quality veterans in the rotation, a patient approach to his development will likely be taken this season. Offensively, Porter Jr. has the right mix of size and shooting to play on-or-off the ball. On the other end of the floor, Porter Jr.’s size should help him in certain matchups as he navigates the defensive end in the NBA.
Finally, it must be mentioned that if Denver needs crucial defensive stops, Jerami Grant could see some time at small forward, especially if he continues to develop his 3-point shooting. Last season, the 25-year-old forward shot 39.2 percent from beyond the arc and has looked confident taking (and making) 3-pointers throughout training camp and the preseason. While it would be surprising to see Grant play at small forward regularly due to some floor-spacing concerns, he may be Denver’s best option defensively on the wing, which could impact the rotation.
It’s clear that Denver has a surplus of quality players that can play the small forward position. While Barton has thrived in the starting lineup in previous seasons, other players stepped up last season to help the Nuggets continue thriving in the regular season. Malone has some decisions to make regarding the rotation, but once again, Denver should boast some of the best depth in the NBA, especially at the small forward spot.