Who Should Play and When? [Updated]

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.

The following two tabs change content below.
  • evan

    Good insight. Can’t wait for game 3. Nuggets are going to come out stronger in the fist quarter and take games 3 and 4 and make this a series.

    Also, that’s a HUGE lineup. JS. a 6-10 guy at 2 guard? Lakers will look small… WHAT?!

    Go Nuggets!!

    • evan

      Also what kills the Nuggets, that a lot of people are overlooking, is when the team’s respective benches are in… Save Gasol. He tares the Nugget’s bench players up offensively, but the Nugget’s bench players score… Well.

      The Nuggets need to find a ‘Gasol stopper’ and throw him in when the benches are on the court and the Nuggets will make a little run.

      • allAround

        I aggree that Nuggets need to stop Gasol . I think that this is the main cause of ús not winning. But how to stop him if he is doubled he gives the ball if he is 1vs1 he scores. I guess a way to stop him is to make his team players not to give him the ball. If we leave space the ball to go to Bynum and then double him then perhaps we win something since Bynum has shown that he does easily mistakes when he is doubled

        I want to add also that Al is someone that should be benched according to my opinion .

        Anyway those are the keys for me and we are called to discuss about KK and Mozz :(

        Regarding KK and Moz , Moz is scoring more since he is taking the ball however he still does not take ribs. I am very interested to see him starting today can he box out ?? KK is not trusted from anyone even from us I would say , eventhough the whole year proved him shelf in hard situations. Anyway we are discussing for the least influantial players that we have only because some Mozz funs filled up the comments board last night

  • Fraser

    Why hasn’t the bird played in months?? He is timofey with more desire to block shots and play D… Exactly what we need!

  • John L.

    stop blaming karl. no one gives credit to mike brown, because he does not need it. he has players that are built to make moves. the nuggets are 6th seed and they are ranked that way because thats the way they play! phil jackson never had a mediocre team when he won any of his rings.

  • John L.

    I am a Nuggets fan so you know. Although I see heart I do not see enough talent. Something every blogger her fails to address. George Karl is not the problem. We have not had a lineup that can play well together for a long time!

  • Henry

    Line up of Lawson Gallinari Faried McGee and Mozgov is great .. except for the face that Faried cannot defend at the 3, he’ll get beat off the dribble and as we’ve seen get more lost on D.

    • Henry

      I’d put Brewer in for 6-8 mins with that line up to defend Kobe. I still believe JHam should have a go at the end of the first half to give us instant scoring (maybe). The kids got game.

    • DH

      I agree, if the Lakers have Barnes at the 3. I would replace Faried with Brewer or Afflalo. But if it’s Ebanks, I think Faried would be fine. Ebanks has mostly been a spot-up shooter in this series.

    • christopher

      that team would just not be able to score. The paint is packed enough as it is when the Nuggets play anybody but Harrington at the 4, with three non-shooters on the floor it would be awful.

  • Kieran McCarthy

    Making adjustments based on a two-game sample size has as much predictive value as reading tarot cards. Mozgov’s stats over two games (in limited minutes) don’t trump a career of ineptitude. The lineup data could be useful, but you should consider data over the course of the season, not just two games.

    • DH

      Here’s what I take from what Jeremy is saying (combining what he says here with what he explained in a previous post)… I think he’s saying that the stats back up what he saw from earlier matchups with the Lakers, and what he’s seen so far in this series. The stats are just further evidence of what is already obvious. They are not his main reasoning.

      In my opinion, the stats “over the course of the season” don’t matter much because the Lakers present a unique challenge that doesn’t apply with any other team. I don’t know why two marginal players like Moz and KK cause such heated debate and high emotions from fans, but I think if it’s looked at objectively, there’s no doubt that Moz is the better option against Bynum. To me, it is as clear as day from what I’ve seen in this series. I think George has it backwards. When Moz comes in against the Lakers subs, it’s a complete waste – even a detriment. KK would be the better option there, and Moz would bother Bynum more when he’s playing. That’s not to say that Moz is better in general. KK outplayed him over the course of the season, for sure.

      One other thing about the stats… Of course, two games is generally a poor sample size, to say the least. But in a series that can last as few as 4 games, you have no choice but to look at who is performing in the first two games and who is not. And when the stats verify what your eyes already tell you, you really need to pay attention, IMHO.

      • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com Jeremy

        Thanks DH, that is exactly correct. There stats are not enough after just two games. When looking at five man lineups, most have only played together for 4 or 5 minutes so far in the series. Looking at the season as a whole statistically does not do much more for us. Denver played the Lakers four times, but only once with their current roster.

        Karl could start Mozgov and he could do worse than KK has. However, the data, stats and empirical, have shown that Moz has a much better chance of doing well than KK does.

  • http://yahoo mile high

    Tks Jeremy, for being objective and realistic. I think basically Karl will do what u’re suggesting because we have already had some of that late in Game 2 and it seemed to have worked.

    Have no illusion. The start of game 3 will be tough and it can get ugly no matter who’re the starting 5. The pressure is immense and our team is young. Add to it the most important factor that the Lakers will throw everything at us to try to take control of the game asap, I am no prophet but I think we can be behind 10 points or more again despite of all our best effort and intention.

    However, as long as we don’t stop doing what we are good at and keep running at them, we can get back in the game and close it out strong.

    The most important thing is to prepare for the worst and keep plugging. Let’s go Nuggets!

  • JudenSmithFan

    Stone for defense.

  • highflyer222

    no bird = no win.

    Hes on the team for a reason….use him. He can be the gasol stopper and block shots in the paint. Also a huge home court energy guy.

  • highflyer222

    it just makes no sense. Karl had mentioned in an interview before this series bird would get minutes. You absolutely have to use a player like bird against the Lakers. Maybe not vs OKC or Dallas but against LA you must!!

  • Thomas

    To conclude that the starting line-up is atrocious and that the Miller-Harrington-Mcgee as center line-up is the best based on 2 road games is absolutely invalid from a statistical standpoint. The sample is way too small and the 2nd unit mostly does not match up against the same Lakers starting unit.

    Put that 2nd unit mentioned in the article to start and we will get run out of the building.

    The point is that we have no clear roles, rotation or strategy – we have a lame excuse of an old coach who relies on (bad) instincts and personal preferences.

    If we had Pop as coach, JHam would be a major component of his strategy. Faried would have played much more often and early and would have built his confidence even higher and learned from regular season mistakes. Brewer would play much more.

    If we had Thibodeau as coach, we would never play small ball, and we would have some kind of semblance of a good defense and slightly less efficient offense. In the balance, we would be a much more dangerous team.

    The point is that this is all too predictable with Karl, even his lame excuses at this point of the season. No chance of success with him, ever. Guy is just a bad coach, from all facets of the game.

  • http://Denverstiffa R3Almiz

    Best line up is McGee, Dre, Lawson, gallo, and faried. Faried has been respectable on gasol as has McGee on Bynum. Other thing no one talks about is the fact that we have four 7 footers, that’s 24 fouls to use on Bynum and gasol!!!! Bynum has proven to be easily frustrated so the hack tactic should have been used all along. Nugz fans always complained that we never had enough size vs lakers and now that we dude dumb @ss Karl allows old habits to negate that fact. I love Karl but its time for him to go, his post season record is atrocious.

    • DH

      Yeah, our guys definitely haven’t figured out the “no layups, no dunks, make ’em earn it at the line” playoff philosophy – especially against Bynum. There have been way too many times where a hack would have been the smart play and we just gave up the easy basket.

  • DH

    Unfortunately, making drastic changes could result in the game being over early, as Jeremy alluded to. That’s why it is unforgivable, to me, that Karl did not use 2-center lineups occasionally during the season to prepare for a likely meeting with the Lakers or Thunder. I would love to see Moz and McGee together, for example. But how can Karl trust that lineup when he refused to use it all year long? I still think he needs to try it, but not to start the game. We cannot afford to dig another hole early (does everyone realize that we’ve outscored the Lakers if you take away the 1st quarters?).

    Two other things that I believe Karl should have done during the season, so that we could trust them now, are…

    Use JHam more. We lost the second game because we could not make open shots, and JHam is a shooter. Could JHam hold his own on defense in this series? We don’t know, because he wasn’t used enough to get a good read.

    Use Gallo at the 4 every once in a while. Gallo can do everything Al can do, only better (although I admit Gallo struggled with his shot this year). So for those games where Al is obviously off, and Karl insists on using the more offensive-minded lineup (i.e., no Faried), why not let Gallo get some experience in that role? That would have come in handy last game, when Al’s shot was off, his rebounding and defense were killing us, and George didn’t want to put Faried in. Honesty, I think if Karl had used either Faried or Gallo for most of that long stretch in the second half where Al couldn’t compete on his one leg, we would have won the game.

    So now our options are limited, because it’s almost impossible to suddenly use lineups that haven’t been tried much – or at all – all year, and have those lineups be effective against a very good team in the playoffs.

    To start the game, I would only replace Kofous with Mozgov. We have three starters who are expected to score – Ty, AAA, and Gallo. In each game, 2 of the 3 have been terrible. If we don’t get good offensive games from at least 2 of them, we will lose. What I’m saying is that the answer for the starting unit is for those three to start playing the way they are capable of playing. Otherwise, we don’t stand a chance anyway.

    As for small-ball vs. conventional vs. tall-ball, we need to mix it up. Any look that we give the Lakers over and over again, they will eventually carve up. For example, Miller and Lawson together have had some good stretches. But although Miller has been surprisingly decent on Kobe at times, if we try that for more than a few minutes, Kobe will destroy him. If we use two centers, it will take the Lakers time to adjust. But they will eventually adjust if we go to that lineup too long.

    Again, I don’t think we can make huge changes. What I want to see is this…

    Moz on Bynum

    Brewer getting good minutes (he’s been a spark every time)

    Less Al (the Lakers definitely do pay attention to him, so he still needs some minutes, just less of them – or use Gallo in that role)

    If our shooters absolutely cannot shoot again, play JHam

    Otherwise, we just need to play better. If we had gotten only an average performance from a couple of guys in the last game – rather than an awful performance – we would have won.

  • al68

    La inteligencia y las buenas decisiones que suele tomar en el campo Gasol solo se le quitan a base de mucho juego duro y muchas faltas (tenemos 4 centers y 2 PF en total 36 faltas para hacer), ya lo decia su entrenador en españa defiende duro no van a pitar mas de 30-35 faltas en un partido. Cuando le hicimos mas daño a LA cuando teniamos el equipo mas duro de los ultimos años ademas de un jugador inteligente como Billups.

    Creo que Brewer debe jugar mas minutos en menores espacios de tiempo ya que es el que mas desequilibra el juego tan previsible de LA. No hacer 2×1 ni a gasol ni a Bryant si a Bynum que tiene muy poca vision de juego arriesgando a dejar tiros abiertos de los bases y SF de LA.

    Jugar menos minutos con big Al y sacar a Hamilton si siguen sin entrar los tiros exteriores he intentar abrir la defensa de los lakers que no hemos conseguido ningun dia.

    Necesitamos un gran tirador hoy para ganar el partido ademas de paciencia y no pensar que el partido se gana o se pierde en el 1º cuarto.

  • John

    The problem with using a 2 center line up, is that the Nuggets have not used one much in real games. Look at what happened when they tried a press for the first time. People were out of position. If Moz and McGee, or Moz and KK are not use to playing with each other (or with the other 3 players), roles not not as defined, and more mistakes will happen. They have enough trouble figuring out how to cover for a double team now, with players that are use to playing with each other, that it will be a complete mess.

    The time to try something like this would have been the regular season. That was not really possible because of a) the condensed schedule limited practice time, b) injuries limited when players were available and c) the Nuggets losing streak (becase of a and b) did not allow time to try something different and risk losing even more games.

    Given that, I would still like to see Denver try something like this. Denver is not going to win any championship, and most likely will not advance past LA. They are playing for next year. No reason not to try something, and get a taste to see if it would work at all.

  • DH

    By the way, I think it would be just outstanding if we would actually jump on top of the Lakers early this time, instead of the other way around. If we could get up 10 or 12 early, I would like to see what happens. Would Kobe start forcing a few shots? Would Bynum get frustrated? Would Sessions try to do too much? If Ebanks missed a couple of shots, would he start to get hesitant? Would Brown feel like he has to make some kind of change? Maybe nothing would change and the Lakers would just play their game. But I would like to see how it would play out.

  • Thomas

    Our best chance tonight is if we get a monkey to wear a nice light grey suit and wear a Karl mask and the real Karl eats some really bad Taco Bell or Subway 1 hour before tip-off.

    Give the monkey a dartboard, put the players name scattered across, and give him a few darts to define PT for each player and rotations.

    Better yet, put Kobe behind the dartboard.

    Repeat strategy and Karl’s dining choices for the next 4 games and we have a 35% of coming back and winning the series.

    Just don’t praise the monkey too much, otherwise he will be rewarded with a 5 year contract and will start using 2-guard line-ups, small ball tactics and blame players for post-season failures…

  • J.J.

    Good article, and good comments. I agree with John, that 2 center lineups won’t work. We haven’t practiced with it, and without any real scoring threat from any of our centers, it makes our offense anemic and perimeter-oriented, as they just clog the paint.

    For what it’s worth, I think much more McGee, much less Koufos. More Miller. And as much as I hate to say it, because he plays hard and gives so much energy, much less Faried, especially at crunch time. With the Lakers size, he is just a detriment. Still gets a few rebounds, but can’t come close to defending Bynum or Gasol. And, his size allows their bigs, especially Gasol, who is a great passer, too many passing lanes – he just throws it over Faried, to cutters or for spot-up threes. Plus, Faried really offers nothing on offense, save for a few transition dunks, which others could do as well.

    Start McGee, get Al in quickly for Faried, and then sub in Mozgov and Miller, with a dose of Brewer from time to time. Leave Koufos on the pine. Get Gallinari off some screens and get his shot going, so he can open up space going to the basket. And of course, run, run, run (which requires the Lakers to miss A LOT more shots).

    But really, even with all that, L.A.’s bigs may be too much, and we won’t win any games if they keep shooting so well (and especially if Bryant is going to keep hitting ridiculous contested threes at the end of the game). He’s clutch, no doubt.

    • Thomas

      Trust me, with Al on the line-up jacking up one shot every 2 possessions, generating no offensive rebounds and being abused on D, along with Miller that plays no D and can’t shoot to save his life, we will have even less chance that we have than by playing them significantly less.

      Faried will give you many offensive boards if he gets 35+ minutes. He has been effective, even though we lost both games and everyone is on his skin for a couple of mistakes. If I had a Dollar for every sh*t shot and bad decision Al Harrington has taken in his long and unproductive career…

    • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com Jeremy

      JJ, the lack of game experience and most likely practice time as well for a two center lineup is true. The thing is, most of the lineups Karl is putting on the court have not played a great deal together throughout the season.

      I hate when the Nuggets try to pressure full court for that reason, they look like it is the first time they have tried it. However with two centers in the game, all you want them to do is hang around the paint the way Gasol and Bynum do. That should not take much practice. Everyone should know how to defend the pick and roll so that should not be an issue.

      I forget who said that Karl should have played more with a lineup like that during the season to get some experience with it and that is completely true.

      Denver should not be in the situation of having no idea what would happen with a big lineup. We should know if it would work, what it does well, what it struggles to do well and when to use it. As it is, we have absolutely no idea. That is inexcusable.

      For all we know a big lineup could dominate the Lakers, but because of the fear of the unknown, it will never be implemented.

  • Omar

    ot but……Just hypothetical, but wouldn’t it be awfully smart if our front office moves gallinari during the draft for a high pick and then goes and gets Nicolas Batum. We could probably put up a nice package in a s&t if portland does not want to depart with him as well. This would make some sense as our front office was pretty high on batum. We get the best of both worlds, a high draft pick and a new small forward to replace gallo(who is possibly even in terms of production, probably better defensively.) Getting a pick from lets say sacramento at #5 for gallo and then signing batum to a deal similar to gallos. We would probably have to move ham and one of our bigs to portland but that would be absolutely genius of our front office. We draft robinson or drummond at #5 and then sign kirk hinrich. We draft the best player available at #20 or possibly combine our 2 seconds and our late 1st to move up a few spots. Plus we would also still have chandler, we could trade him to portland instead of ham or keep him.

    mcgee/drummond/mozgov or kous kous

    plus we would still have #20 to add another player and our 2 seconds

    • Guy

      I think the Nuggets should be open to trading any of their players although Gallo is their most versatile and one of their better defenders. I would also take a look at trading with New Orleans. They have 2 lottery picks and I wonder what kind of offer it would take to get them. I like Batum but I think Portland does too. I don’t like Drummond. The guy should have dominated @ UConn and half the time you didn’t even know he was on the floor. Kind of reminds me of Benoit Benjamin.
      Although I admit I haven’t seen much of him I’m intrigued by Moultrie @ 6’11”. I think his stock is going to rise as we get closer to the draft. I’d start with either Lawson or Gallo & the #20 and add whoever I needed to get it done. Depending on where the picks fall, chose from MKG, Moultrie, Bradley Beal, Lillard or Marshall assuming NO doesn’t win the lottery. Going young would be a step back in the short term but in the long term hopefully it would increase our talent level at at least a couple of positions.

  • Zorba

    I’m almost sure that if there must be two centers, these are McGee and kk. They can run the court and pick crucial rebounds. You can’t really say that it’s kk’s fault if the Nuggets have been such horrible so far… Just take a look at gallo’s or Faried’s stats…

  • http://www.roundballminingcompany.com Jeremy

    I agree with the comments to play Hamilton although that will not happen while the game is competitive. He is Denver’s second best three point shooter and they need someone who can come in and make threes. At least give him a few minutes to see if he is hot. If so, that could change the game around. Plus he is a decent defender and rebounder. Give him a chance.

  • DH

    From the Denver Post…


    Karl has started Kosta Koufos at center in the first two games. He said he probably would again tonight but hadn’t made up his mind.

    “I’m pretty sure I’ll start the same way, but I could start Timo (Mozgov), just a different rotation. Our starts have been kind of painful. But in the same sense, I don’t think I want to mess with the bench because the bench has been so powerful.”


    I still contend that not only would Mozgov play Bynum better, but Koufos might be better against Hill than Moz is. So, both the starting unit and the second unit might be better off if Moz starts for Koufos.

    • Omar

      george karl is offially a dumbass. koufos is getting killed inside. we always have bad starts in the 1st and the 3rd which is when koufos is in. Were down 2-0 you have to change something.

      • Ray

        So we base this off a 15 minute sample size?

        I mean Kouf had played them fine in the regular season, and it’s not like they are losing a ton with Kouf as opposed to Moz. People are reading too much into his +- without realizing he’s one of four guys on the court.

  • Kieran


    First of all, I’d like to say that I love this site and your writing and analysis in particular.

    But on this point, from a stats perspective, I think you’re just wrong. It’s fine to say that the career and year-long statistics from Mozgov, McGee, and Koufos should be disregarded because the Lakers present a unique match up. I disagree, but that’s a perfectly fine argument.

    But to say that there is any statistically significant evidence that Mozgov will outperform Koufos against the Lakers is simply wrong. The evidence is PER and plus/ minus over two games and extremely limited minutes for both. It’s like polling six people at a bar and predicting an election result. The error rate from a 15-minute sample size is far too great to have statistical weight whatsoever. It might be anecdotally compelling to you, but that is not really statistical evidence.

    Nor is last night’s victory really evidence that it was the correct strategy (though plenty of people will conclude that). I might shave only on mornings when it rains, but that doesn’t mean my shaving causes the rain. Mozgov had a -8 plus/minus in 13 minutes in a game when the team won by 15. That evidence doesn’t prove my point any more than the previous data proves yours. But it sure doesn’t argue in favor of Mozgov being the one factor that caused the turnaround.