Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw has a lot of work to do in figuring out his starting lineup for the 2014-15 season.
With all the injuries last season, 15 different players started at one point. It was a constant moving puzzle for the first-year head coach.
How tough is it to solve now? Well, 10 of those 15 guys return, Danilo Gallinari is back in the picture, Arron Afflalo puts the Denver uniform back on, and Shaw has two first-round picks in Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris.
Then again, this is a good problem to have. There’s great depth on this roster.
Luckily for Shaw, some of these positions are no-brainers. But there are others that have three guys who all legitimately deserve playing time.
Let’s see which guys should start.
Easy decision—Ty Lawson is the leader and floor general of this team. Lawson has only missed three starts over the last three years and will be the man at point guard.
What looks different is the bench. Nate Robinson returns, but Andre Miller is completely out of the picture, and Aaron Brooks signed with the Chicago Bulls.
According to Nikos Varlas of Eurohoops.net, Erick Green, one of Denver’s second-round picks from the 2013 NBA draft, will sign a multiyear deal with the Nuggets.
Green spent last season overseas with Montepaschi Siena in Italy. He posted 10.9 points on 51.2 percent shooting in just 20.9 minutes during Italian League play, according to DraftExpress.com. Green followed that up with 16.6 points on 50 percent shooting and 2.6 assists in 27.6 minutes during summer league (per NBA.com).
After the injury bug plagued the Nuggets last season, which eventually led to Randy Foye starting a few games as the primary ball-handler, you knew general manager Tim Connelly would address the depth here. He did just that and made the right choice in promoting Green with his recent success.
Look for Lawson to get around last season’s 35.8 minutes, when he put up a career-high 17.6 points, 8.8 assists and 1.6 steals. Robinson’s 19.7 minutes should increase slightly, and Green will be waiting his chance in case someone goes down.
This is one of two complex positions to break down. The Nuggets have three shooting guards all capable of playing quality minutes out of the gate in Afflalo, Foye and Harris.
Afflalo spent his last two years with the Orlando Magic and racked up a career-high 18.2 points last season. As Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post points out, Afflalo’s efficiency has improved as well.
In Orlando, Afflalo’s shooting efficiency improved from 2012-13 to 2013-14, where he went from 6.2 shots made on 14.1 attempts to 6.4 made on 13.8 attempts. But it was his 3-point shot that had the most eye-popping leap. In 2013-14, he took 60 more than he hoisted up the year before – and he made an unheard of 56(!) of them.
How much would this help Denver? Dempsey elaborates.
The Nuggets were 19th in the league in shooting last season, hitting 44.7 percent of their shots. But the difference between third and 19th was a mere three percent. That would mean the Nuggets would have to get up around 47 percent next season, and an effective Afflalo would go a long way toward getting them to that number.
Even though Foye started 78 games last year, Afflalo is the best option. While he’s trending in the right direction from distance, he’s also a more diverse scorer and provides a little more length.
This leaves Foye and Harris.
Foye has the upper hand with his NBA and Nuggets experience.
However, after giving up a 28th-best 106.5 points last year, this team must get better defensively. Harris guarded exceptionally well at the collegiate level and did so effectively at summer league.
Look for both guys to get a handful of minutes for the first couple of months, but I expect Foye to get more as the season progresses.
If there’s one wish Nuggets fans have heading into this season (outside of winning an NBA championship), it’s that Gallinari and Wilson Chandler stay healthy.
Gallinari hasn’t played since tearing his ACL on April 4 of the 2012-13 season. Chandler has battled several injuries in his three-and-a-half years with the Nuggets, and his 62 games in 2013-14 were a career high with the franchise.
Gallo gets the nod here.
Not only was he missed last year, but his absence in the 2013 playoffs against the Golden State Warriors was a big reason why Denver couldn’t get into the second round.
Gallinari’s versatility on both sides of the ball with his 6’10” frame is crucial. Remember, this is a guy who can shoot the three, drive and post up—then guard small forwards on the perimeter or power forwards down low.
Chandler will go back to the bench. With Robinson and Foye next to him to help stretch the floor, Chandler should be able to get more quality looks off of ball movement and screens rather than isolation.
With Gallinari and Chandler filling out the primary rotation at the 3, Quincy Miller will be on deck.
Once Kenneth Faried got on the other side of last year’s trade deadline, his game went to an All-Star level.
With his motor, fundamental development and slightly improving defense, “The Manimal” has earned the permanent starting job at power forward.
But who’s behind him? J.J. Hickson finally moves back to his more natural position at the 4, and there’s Darrell Arthur.
This is tough. Hickson recorded 21.4 points and 16.6 rebounds per 100 possessions last season. Arthur might be Denver’s best overall defender and is very effective in the pick-and-pop.
Hickson will be the primary backup to Faried, but Arthur will get mixed into the rotation too. Arthur is too valuable to just sit on the end of the bench, and he’ll be put in at different times depending on the opponent and who’s on the floor.
Here’s the second interesting call for Shaw—Timofey Mozgov, JaVale McGee or Nurkic?
Mozgov made tremendous strides last season and put up a career-high 9.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 21.6 minutes. He earned his starting job last year with his well-rounded game and always showing up ready to go.
McGee was supposed to be last year’s starter, but he suffered a leg injury that only allowed him to play the first five games. He’s another project for Shaw and the coaching staff to work on, but his combination of size and athleticism puts a tremendous amount of pressure on opponents.
Nurkic was Denver’s first pick in the 2014 NBA draft and just finished playing for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Under-20 European Championship. His team won the title, he earned the MVP, and he averaged 21.4 points, 12 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in eight games, per Nuggets.com.
I think Shaw will try all three guys and not pick a permanent starter right away. He knows Mozgov is on a roll, McGee needs time to get better (and improve his trade value), and Nurkic needs an opportunity to show where he’s exactly at against NBA competition.
Mozgov will likely be the guy in the end simply because he’s the most consistent and is really flourishing under Shaw.
However, he won’t play more than 25 minutes, and McGee will get just under that amount off the bench. Nurkic will have his moments early on, but since he’s young and still needs some time to get used to the NBA, it makes sense if he sat more down the stretch.
This gives the Nuggets a starting five of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried and Mozgov.
The second unit would be Robinson, Foye, Chandler, Hickson and McGee. Arthur will be used at times, and Nurkic and Harris will be given some minutes here and there, which leaves Green and Miller sitting most of the time waiting for a chance.
This way, each lineup provides great balance—scorers, high-energy guys and rim protectors—yet the starting five is by far the most dominant.
Unless noted otherwise, all statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com