Today marks 33 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.
Question 14: What will be the best lineups for the Denver Nuggets to feature next season?
As the Denver Nuggets start the process of returning to the city and preparing for training camp, a lot of new faces will be showing up. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. make their returns to the court. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown are two veterans that the Nuggets are adding to the mix. Christian Braun is hoping to make an impact as a rookie.
It’s close to an entirely new group around Nikola Jokić. Last year, Monte Morris, Will Barton, Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers, P.J. Dozier, and JaMychal Green were in Denver’s opening night rotation. All are gone, and the newcomers will shift Denver’s identity in a radical way. The shooting is better. The defense is better. The lineups make more sense.
But which lineups are those? Which groups of players will play together the most? Which lineups will be the most successful?
Here are seven lineups that I’m predicting will be Denver’s go-to units throughout the 2022-23 season:
Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Porter, Gordon, Jokić
This starting lineup is the one Nuggets fans have been dreaming about for a long time. Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon played just 121 minutes together during the 2020-21 season across five games. The Nuggets had a plus-minus of +44 in those minutes, which equates to a +16.8 Net Rating.
Basically, the Nuggets were historically good when they were healthy.
Now, the Nuggets return two star scorers in Murray and Porter. Joined them are Gordon and Caldwell-Pope, the defensive specialists with offensive traits that accentuate what the Nuggets do well. They join the two-time MVP in Jokić, who’s in the prime of his career.
The Nuggets should hope that this lineup exceeds 50+ games and 1,000+ minutes next season. They will need that time to establish chemistry, but it will also likely be their most potent minutes for the 2022-23 regular season. There will be a need for rest and injury management, but it shouldn’t stop the Nuggets from dominating when that quintet is on the court.
The Defensive Trust Group
Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Brown, Gordon, Jokić
This lineup is important for two reasons. First, if Porter needs some rest time or is forced to sit out with injury, this group gives the Nuggets a potent defensive look surrounding the Murray-Jokić duo. Second, if Porter is struggling to keep up defensively or is simply having an off night as a scorer, the Nuggets have a Plan B in Bruce Brown.
This will most likely be Denver’s best defensive lineup. Though teams can look to spread the floor against Jokić, the Nuggets are surrounding him with high IQ, versatile athletes with defensive chops. The rotations should be crisp, and the contests should be potent.
If this group can’t find a way to defend in the playoffs, the Nuggets will have an issue. Fortunately, I feel strongly that they can make it work.
The Offensive Trust Group
Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Brown, Porter, Jokić
Just as the Nuggets have a group they trust defensively, they should have a go-to lineup in offensive situations. Bruce Brown replaces Aaron Gordon in this unit, pushing Porter to power forward and offering boundless space for Jokić to find cutters and shooters. Though Gordon could certainly help make the offense potent himself, Brown is a great cutter in his own right and adds a layer as a ball handler. He’s also a better free throw shooter than Gordon for his career.
This is a lineup that the Nuggets can go to against smaller teams when there isn’t a big wing/forward to guard offensively. Teams like the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns play plenty of three guard lineups. Though Gordon will often be out there instead of Porter, having an elite shooter space the floor will help the Nuggets to keep pace against elite offenses.
Bench + Porter
Bones, Brown, Braun, Porter, Green
The next few lineups mix in additional bench players, though none of them are “all-bench” lineups. The Nuggets have three strong scorers in their starting lineup, and the best way to maximize their abilities may be to stagger them with the second unit and provide some oomph for those groups.
For this configuration, the Nuggets go small with Porter at power forward and Jeff Green at center. Bruce Brown and Christian Braun on the wings give this lineup some structure defensively. The real key, though, is Bones Hyland. He and Porter make logical sense together on the floor, running two-man game with pick-and-pops, spacing the floor for each other, and going to work in isolation.
The plan during the 2021-22 season before Porter went down was to stagger him with the second unit and bolster a group lacking scoring talent. The same problems, and potentially the same plan of attack, face the Nuggets this season. We will see if they can put that plan into action.
Bench + Murray
Bones, Murray, Brown, Green, Nnaji
Now that Murray is back too, the Nuggets can mix and match different combinations. One of the duos that has Nuggets fans excited is Murray and Bones playing together. Both are creative scoring guards with a flair for the dramatic, and a bench lineup featuring both of them could win the Nuggets some games.
Add in Bruce Brown as the ace defender on the second unit and two versatile bigs in Jeff Green and Zeke Nnaji, and the Nuggets are looking good.
How much time Murray spends with the second unit is unclear. He used to play significant minutes with the bench group though. In the bubble, the Nuggets almost always had one of Murray or Jokić on the court at all times. With Murray playing the way he was, the Nuggets even managed to make up some ground in those lineups. Perhaps the Nuggets go back to that look this season.
Bench + Jokić
Bones, Brown, Davon, Nnaji, Jokić
The final bench lineup includes Nikola Jokić, and it’s one that Nuggets fans should be relatively familiar with after last season. Jokić + four reserves was a look the Nuggets often utilized at the end of first and third quarters. In 121 minutes with Jokić as the only starter on the court, the Nuggets were somehow +11.
In this configuration, Bones and Brown are the regular guard duo. Davon Reed and Zeke Nnaji are the forwards, big bodies that don’t need the ball on offense but can make shots when open. Defensively, there should be enough length and athleticism surrounding Jokić to cobble together a reasonable defense. If Bones develops the way many think he will, average is all the Nuggets need defensively.
Could this be a lineup the Nuggets consistently use toward the end of first and third quarters once again? Absolutely. The Nuggets rely upon Jokić heavily, and this is the strongest example of that.
No Point Guard, No Problem
Brown, Caldwell-Pope, Porter, Gordon, Jokić
Finally, an unconventional lineup the Nuggets may consider in games when Murray rests. Jokić is so good as an offensive fulcrum that the Nuggets don’t need traditional structure around him to be successful. In order to play the highest level of defense they can, the Nuggets might need to take Bones off the floor in various situations.
Porter being out there gives the Nuggets another high volume scorer. The other three players – Brown, KCP, and Gordon – would operate much in the same way they do around the Murray-Jokić duo. High level defense, off-ball scoring, and doing the dirty work may be enough in some situations. In exchange, the Nuggets would have multiple quality guard and wing defenders to deploy against strong offensive attacks.
Hopefully, the Nuggets don’t need to use this lineup too often. It’s a nice change-of-pace though, and other teams would be thrown off by Denver’s size and athleticism on the perimeter.