DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 2: Trey Lyles #7 of the Denver Nuggets grabs the rebound against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 2, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Analysis: The Nuggets are Quickly Finding Lineups That Work With Jokić and Millsap Out

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

Aside from figuring out more positive information about the mental toughness and perseverance level of his basketball team in its win over the Lakers on Saturday, Nuggets coach Michael Malone and the coaching staff also began figuring out something just as vital – which player combinations and lineups might work while Nikola Jokić and Paul Millsap are out due to injury.

There were four five-man combinations that logged at least three minutes of time together that turned in very solid offensive, defensive and net ratings.

1. Will Barton, Gary Harris, Trey Lyles, Jamal Murray and Mason Plumlee
That quintet had a 108.7 offensive rating, 58.3 defensive rating, and a 122.4 net rating.
They logged six minutes played.

2. Barton, Harris, Lyles, Emmanuel Mudiay and Plumlee
They had a 150.3 offensive rating, 100.0 defensive rating, and a 50.3 net rating.
The logged three minutes of action together.

3. Kenneth Faried, Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, Murray, Plumlee
This was the Nuggets’ starting lineup on Saturday, and it had a 119.7 offensive rating, a 76.8 defensive rating, and a 42.9 net rating.
They played 15 minutes together.

4. Harris, Hernangomez, Lyles, Murray, Plumlee
This five had a 101.5 offensive rating, 87.2 defensive rating, and a 14.3 net rating in three minutes played.

Expect to see much more of these combinations going forward, particularly in Dallas on Monday night, where the Mavericks – like the Lakers – aren’t an especially big team. There will be a lot of small ball lineups on the court, and the Nuggets as currently constituted are equipped to handle them.

Plumlee was the common thread through all of those lineups, both offensively and defensively. He was a plus-28 in a season-high 31 minutes and had six assists in a performance that helped the offense run smoothly and, individually, “was the anchor” of the Nuggets defense, Malone said.

“That’s what I think people forget – that when we traded for him a year ago we were bringing in a big man that was averaging four assists per game for a playoff team,” Malone said. “Mason in the high post, we ran a lot of the same stuff we do with Nikola, and he made great reads.”

Plumlee’s assists against the Lakers were more of the great read variety than running offense through him. There was one play, however, where Plumlee manned Jokić’s customary spot at the top of the key, directed traffic, and then lasered a bounce-pass dime to a cutting Gary Harris for a layup. The other five assists were all reads and kickouts when his post-ups or drives were stopped. Plumlee made great decisions with the ball, and delivered on-target passes all night long. He had just one turnover. It was the kind of play that glued a ton of different combinations together.

“Guys were really cutting well,” Plumlee said. “And (the Lakers) are a switching team, so anytime you get a team that switches a lot you’re going to get a lot of backdoor (cuts) and stuff.”

The two-man combination that stole the night was Plumlee and Lyles, and it really wasn’t close. To Malone’s eye as he watched from the sideline, the duo passed the eye test with such flying colors that he mentioned how much he liked the pairing, unsolicited. Film review and number crunching did nothing but buoy Malone’s initial thoughts. With an offensive rating of 151.0 and a defensive rating of 77.3, the Nuggets were in good hands on both ends of the court when Lyles and Plumlee were on the court, and the duo played 13 minutes together.

The chemistry between those two isn’t difficult to figure out. Plumlee is a playmaking big. Lyles is a shot-making forward, and was the recipient of one of Plumlee’s assists on Saturday night. This combination was a home run, and is very likely to see more time together in the foreseeable future.

“Obviously, a lot of our offense that we have in was with the mindset of having Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokić and now they are out,” Malone said. “But, I do think we can still run a lot of our offense through Mason, to be a facilitator. So, I still think we have that ability within our offense, and I think Mason is more than capable of doing that.”

In general, however, the bulk of the Nuggets playmaking and facilitating is temporarily switching from the front court to the backcourt. Against the Lakers, Harris, Murray, Mudiay and Barton combined for 14 of the Nuggets 26 assists. Harris had six himself, and Barton will be leaned on for more decision-making responsibilities.

“I think what we did the other night (against Chicago) you’re going to see a lot of,” Malone said. “Will Barton is kind of our de facto playmaker. To me, he is a really good pick-and-roll player. Will is a guy that can also play that role.

“We need both Jamal and Emmanuel to step up and help us out without our starting frontcourt, who we play through extensively and expected a lot from. So, now, if you have no Wilson (Chandler), no Paul and no Nikola, what a great opportunity for other guys to step up.”

Saturday’s game was a big step in the right direction in settling in on effective lineups with the stars out.

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter