With the Denver Nuggets trailing the Los Angeles Lakers 2-0 in their best of seven first round matchup there have been a lot of questions regarding what the Nuggets need to do in order to get back into the series.
One of the most consistent points of contention between Nuggets fans all season long has been regarding the lineups and rotations. That debate has only intensified over the previous two games. Do the Nuggets need to go small and try to run the Lakers off the court? Do they need to go big to try to match LA’s size? Should Miller and Lawson play together? Some think Koufos should be benched, others think he is doing fine and Mozgov should be left to rot on the pine.
The truth is there simply is not enough information to make an informed decision meaning no one can honestly say he has the answer to any of these questions.
With all the injuries Denver has suffered and the midseason trade of a veteran known quantity for a young and flighty unknown quantity George Karl has never had the time to determine who plays well together and who does not. To make matters worse, he is blessed and cursed with a roster with several good players, but no great ones. He cannot even rely on having the same five players on the court to close out every game.
Add in a team as talented and long as the Lakers and the added pressure based on the knowledge that four losses will end your season and things become even more dire. If Karl takes a risk and plays an oversized lineup for a few minutes and it blows up in his face, it could cost the Nuggets a game and ultimately the season. If he goes the other direction and plays with an overly small lineup and things go poorly, the same thing can happen.
There is one thing we know and it was pointed out by Professor Hollinger today. The Nuggets starting lineup is atrocious, at least as a unit. A quick peek at the NBA’s stats website reveals that the starting five of Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari, Faried and Koufos is by far the most used lineup having played 22 combined minutes in the two games. In those 22 minutes, they have compiled a net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating) of -38.6. That means that the starters are outscored by 38.6 points per 100 possessions.
Denver cannot continue to trot out that same lineup to start both halves and expect to win.
If Karl is to change the starting lineup, should he do something minor such as replace Koufos, who has been one of Denver’s worst players in the first two games and the statistics bear that out, with Mozgov, who has been a statistical star (after every team has played two games Mozgov was eighth in the NBA in playoff PER at 27.68)? Or does Karl shake things up even more going with a small lineup, or on the other hand, a big lineup? Most likely, Karl will make a minor change such as removing the struggling Koufos from the lineup and then switch to a different lineup quickly if that minor alteration does not prove effective.
If we look at other lineups the Nuggets have used one thing becomes apparent, the Nuggets cannot play a convention lineup and hope to remain competitive. Whenever Denver has had a standard lineup, such as their starting five, with one point guard, one shooting guard, one small forward, one power forward and one center, they get obliterated. Once again relying on the NBA stats tool in looking at lineups that have been on the court for at least four minutes together if Karl does not do something unconventional the Nuggets get pounded. The only conventional lineup that has fared well is Miller, Afflalo, Brewer, Harrington and McGee. That group has posted a net rating of +12.4. Other such combinations have been horrific. The evidence seems to point to the fact that Denver must go unconventional in order to keep the games close.
The question is does that mean Denver must play small all the time, or are they simply using the wrong conventional lineups? For starters, no pun intended, the limited data for these first two games of the series suggests that the Nuggets would be considerably better playing Mozgov with the starters (something I have maintained all along).
That being said, I do agree that Denver cannot expect to play conventional ball from whistle to whistle and make this a competitive series. Denver must play small for large segments of the game and there is evidence to suggest that certain pairings seem to work. For example, when Miller and Lawson are on the court together, and they have played together for 31 minutes in the first two games, Denver has a net rating of +10.8.
However, unconventional does not have to mean small. There is another unconventional option that Denver has not explored as of yet and that is to put two centers on the court together and combat the Lakers’ size with a big lineup. The interesting thing about a big lineup is Denver does not have to sacrifice their running game in order to test it out. A lineup of Lawson, Gallinari, Faried, McGee and Mozgov would still be able to fly up and down the court. Mozgov is the slowest player of that quintet, but he is still much faster than Bynum and runs the floor very well. That group should also be able to prevent LA from scoring in the paint forcing the Lakers to take more jumpers. It then stands to reason the result would be more misses and I would certainly expect a group with Mozgov, McGee and Faried to control the boards allowing them to get out and run.
The argument against that group is that they would not be able to score in the half court. Guess what, Denver has not been able to do that anyway. Not to mention Denver has done a great job on the offensive glass and I expect those five players to collect plenty of their own missed shots.
Of course, it does not matter what you or I would do, only what George Karl will do. Keeping in mind that putting the wrong lineup on the floor for even just a few minutes could result in the end of Denver’s season makes it unlikely Karl will attempt such a tactic. I fully expect to see Koufos removed for Mozgov and after that it will be the Miller, Brewer and Harrington show off the bench. McGee will get some run, but you will see plenty of undersized lineups as Denver attempts to run the Lakers off the floor at the Pepsi Center and win game three.
Update (9:42 Mountain): Links!
I forgot to link to Zach Harper’s very good piece on HoopSpeak that addresses this situation.
I had the chance to discuss Game 3 with Andy Kamenetzky over at Land O’Lakers and I asked him from the Lakers’ perspective, what kind of lineup would scare them the most.