Staking A Claim: The Big Man Rotation

Staking a Claim is a new column that will be taking a look at all things Nuggets through the eyes of an outsider. As those who follow me on Twitter know I am a Bucks fan, so it will give Nuggets fans an opportunity to see things through the eyes of someone who follows the team closely but isn’t necessarily a fan. Please leave any subjects that you would like to see addressed in the future in the comments below or send them to me on Twitter @Matt_Cianfrone.

As the Nuggets have caught fire recently on their way to winning 13 straight games things have finally come together in the frontcourt, as all five of the main minutes getters at the center and power forward spots have taken turns playing well.

This week I wanted to take a look at that front court rotation and talk about a couple things I like and don’t like in that rotation.

Before I get into my opinions, there are a few stats that I want to take a look at so that the rotation can be understood a bit better.

So far this year the bulk of the Nuggets time at power forward has been split between three players. According to Kenneth Faried gets 48 percent of the team’s minutes at power forward, Danillo Gallinari has played 28 percent of the team’s minutes there and Wilson Chandler has gotten eight percent of those minutes despite missing a bit of time earlier in the season.

At center things are similar as just three players there make up the bulk of the minutes. Kosta Koufos leads the pack by playing 40 percent of the team’s minutes at the position, and is followed by JaVale McGee who gets 35 percent of the minutes and Faried who plays 11 percent.

The center minutes distribution really surprised me. For a while I had been clamoring for more Koufos minutes but looking at the center distribution my thoughts have changed a bit. While I still believe that Koufos should get more minutes, the amount more is less than I had been asking for.

The reasoning for that is simple. As I and others have said before Koufos is vitally important to the Nuggets defense as he constantly makes the proper rotations, cutting off drives and rolls to the basket and forcing extra passes that the length and energy of Gallinari, Idoudala, and Faried can capitalize on and turn into easy baskets. It also allows Faried a bit more room to gamble for weak side blocks because Koufos has slowed things down a bit. Faried excels at those high flying blocks and the rotation differences in Koufos and McGee explain a bit why the Nuggets defense is so much worse when McGee and Faried share the court.

The other minutes distribution I would change comes in the form of Gallo and Chandler. While Chandler has been incredibly effective lately his numbers at small forward are actually much better than his numbers at power forward and vice versa for Gallo and his numbers at the two spots.

Gallo shoots at a much better clip at power forward then small forward (55 to 47 efg%) grabs two more rebounds and turns the ball over almost two less times per 48 minutes.

Chandler on the other hand shoots better at the small forward spot (48 to 40 efg%) grabs two more rebounds, and fouls less.

The numbers make sense for a couple reasons. Gallo isn’t the most athletic player in the world so at times he can struggle with quickness, something that he sees more and more in today’s wing defenders. By moving down to the power forward spot it allows him to utilize his ball handling ability to take the more lumbering big men off the dribble. It also allows him to get more clean jumpers as he can spot up and typically be left open as the big men defending him hesitate to be pulled that far from the basket. It really just seems like a better fit for Gallo’s talents than asking him to take someone like Kevin Durant, Tayshaun Prince or other good wing defenders off the dribble.

On the other hand Chandler is an incredibly strong physical player who is at his best when he gets to the rim. While recently he has been on a tear taking bigger players off the dribble the transition to a few more minutes at small forward shouldn’t hurt due to his strength. As we saw last night with Kevin Durant, most wings will just bounce off Chandler on drives and his strength allows him to finish once they do. His athleticism is also useful at the position allowing him to be incredibly dangerous on cuts and dives to the basket all the chance at a big dunk is always present.

What all the numbers showed just strengthen my belief in a few things.

First, Koufos should be on the floor to close games most nights and should probably get a few more minutes, up into the 25 per game range. The Nuggets are basically five points better per 100 possessions defensively with Kosta on the floor and if the Nuggets are in a close one late that defense cannot be on the bench. The fact that the Nuggets are also four and a half points better offensively with Koufos on the floor is just an added bonus.

Secondly, Gallinari needs to see more minutes at power forward. His skill set just seems to fit a bit better there as it allows him to exploit mismatches on the perimeter that he just doesn’t have on the wing. The fact that he rebounds the ball well only helps in this case as it allows him to play with either Koufos or Faried as the combination should have no problem rebounding since all three are so good at it. In fact it could allow him to play more with McGee since he is able to pick up a bit of the slack. Gallo also defends better at power forward, holding opponents to only a 53 perrcent efficient field goal percentage as opposed to 56 percent at small forward. While Gallo probably can’t survive 30 minutes a game a power forward he could probably thrive playing just a bit more there then he does right now.

Third, JaVale’s minutes are probably perfectly ok where they are at the moment, with the catch that if he is playing very well one night he should get more minutes for that game. The Nuggets are worse offensively, 4 points per 100 possessions, with him on the floor and only marginally better defensively, 1 point per 100 possessions. When JaVale is having a monster game George Karl should get as many minutes out of him as possible, otherwise let him do his usual thing of a highlight or two and a mistake or two and live with the results.

Finally, Faried is probably fine where he is. Offensively he is better at center where he uses his quickness to his advantage to get cleaner looks and finishes better (64 to 54 efg%). Defensively he is better at power forward, as he is already a bit undersized playing power forward at 6 foot 8 and at center that becomes even more of a problem. But in the end the energy, activity and athleticism Faried brings to the lineup is something that the Nuggets thrive on and needs to be on the floor as much as possible, while still keeping him fresh.

What all this information proves though, is one thing. While a big man rotation of Faried, Koufos, McGee, Chandler and Gallinari may not seem intimidating to some causal fans, the Nuggets make it work and work well. And recently they have made it a great strength.

No matter what you need the Nuggets have it with this group. Athleticism, strength, energy, shooting, finishing, sound fundamentals. Someone in the rotation has it.

The scariest part though, is that the best is yet to come. There is one thing all five players have in common.

There is room for growth. The levels of potential growth may be different but each player has something they can improve on.

And when that happens the decisions for George Karl and his staff on who to play will be made harder.

Fortunately for them it means the Nuggets will be made better.

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  • Charliemyboy


  • GB

    Great analysis, I think this matches up with what the eye-test tells us as well. Someone just needs to get George to put Koufos out there in the 4th quarter, teams have been closing leads pretty much automatically against our small ball lineup in the 2nd and 4th quarters.

  • George

    Great article!

  • SD

    Taking a look at some of the 5-man unit stats, it is pretty clear that Faried and McGee on the floor at the same time is disastrous to the defense.
    I agree that Koufos needs more minutes.

    • http://espn herpderpnuggets

      I think the main part of that is the lineups that gk has on the floor…it drives me nuts every time we have gallo or chandler playing center

  • CoryW

    Really appreciated this article Matt to simply put it. Agree that Gallo needs more minutes at the four and maybe even play next to Chandler with him at the three. Thoughts?

    • Matt

      I wouldn’t mind it if defenses played Gallo as the four. What could happen is defenses play Chandler as the four man and leave him open outside. If Chandler then falls in love with his jumper and goes cold the defense wins. By playing him with threes it almost forces him to attack more which is better for him and the Nuggets. I would try it and see how teams defend it but if they play threes on Gallo and fours on Chandler I would try to limit their minutes together to best take advantage of the match ups at other times.

  • Kalen

    Thanks for the analysis Matt. I’ve said several times this season that Gallo seems to be better at defending power forwards than small forwards. The numbers you present corroborate that notion. Also on McGee: There are just some games he needs to play more, as you said. Last night was one of them. Koufos may rotate better but he’s not intimidating the way JaVale is, nor does he possess the ability to alter shots at the rim the way JaVale does. When the Nuggets are facing very athletic guards (or teams) who rely on penetration, JaVale is simply a better option. When he was in the game last night the Thunder totally changed their plan of attack and resorted to more perimeter shots. That’s exactly what you must do to defeat them.

    • Kyle


      I agree with what you said about keeping McGee in those instances but I think GK and crew don’t for a good reason. There is a pretty good chance that we will see these guys in the post season. I think they are kind of hiding their hand a little bit. I would much rather, as a coach myself, potentially take a loss in the regular season to gain film. Now since we don’t have them on the schedule again they will have to figure out how to get around McGee in te postseason, in a place where you can’t afford to be figuring things out.

      The thing I have noticed most this season, and especially lately is opposing teams have no clue on what the nuggets are doing. They start with a plan and it works well but we add an element or two and throws their gameplan out of wack.

      I think GK and crew knows all those things and have their ace in the hole still. If you don’t need it, why use it.

    • will

      There’s no stats that show that McGee’s defense is superior to Koufos’.

    • Matt

      My thing with JaVale is this. He is a streaky defender in the way that some guys are streaky shooters. If he gets a block or two early he seems to get locked in and his rotations become so much better. If he doesn’t he goes block hunting and everything breaks down for him and then eventually he tries to make up for it on offense and that becomes a problem too. It is less of a problem when OKC has Perkins on the floor because of how generally useless he is so I would almost match JaVale with Perk all the time in the playoffs so that he can get into a good groove on that end and ride his hot rotations. But in a series against like San Antonio I think Koufos needs to see the most minutes because one rotational breakdown there and they will kill you on it. It should be interesting though and it is encouraging that the rotations are getting better and the block hunting is going down. Also I would love to see JaVale get some minutes with Kosta. Let Kosta’s rotations see if they can limit the mistakes that happens when JaVale gets overly agressive hunting for blocks.

  • Chris

    I love this! Gives me chills thinking about what would happen if that last rotation played to its real potential. That’s NBA Finals type stuff.

  • Rob

    Fascinating. Great analysis, Matt. Glad to have you on this team. Wish someone would send this piece to George Karl. And if this season doesn’t make at least a casual Nuggets fan out of you, you don’t have a heart!

  • Dillon

    Great article. I was not aware of the discrepencies based on what position they were at. I don’t usually say this, but I agree with you 100%. The last two nights emphasized your Gallo Chandler points perfectly.

    Chandler had his way with the Chicago bigs, and Gallo couldn’t get anything going against Durant or Sefolosha.

    I am still begging for an article about the Denver pick and roll defense. Why don’t we hedge???? Last night we had great success when we hedged and trapped or just hedged. When we didn’t hedge, Westbrook would either turn the corner or split the defenders and get to the rim.

    Why do we defend like this??? Does Karl think he doesn’t have the defensive personel that are disciplined enough to rotate weakside? Explain… Please!

    • Matt

      Thanks for the kind words. I will see if I can get something together on the pick and roll rotations for sometime in the near future. I have to see if Joel can pull some video for me to use. I will keep an eye on it the next few games for examples to use.

  • theo

    Great work Matt. Really spot on description of how our bigs work best. Have felt the same way about Gallo at the 4 but didn’t realize it until recently. Kept thinking all year, ‘what we need is a stretch 4 than can shoot from the perimeter’ but didn’t dawn on me until about a month ago Gallo could be that guy. He’s actually fairly effective getting dribble penetration and easy shots in the paint or foul shots when up against a slower 4 or other big. Most 3’s in the league now are just so crazily athletic on D it almost takes a very quick point guard to break em down.

    One quick addition. Been struggling to find a good comparison to Chandler’s game and finally came up with one: Sarunas Marciulionis, one of the first Euro players in the league with the Warriors back in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Chandler is bigger and stronger, but Marciulionis had a very similar, very physical, barrel to the cup with folks bouncing off kind of wing game. Had nice handle and could also shoot from the perimeter. Chandler better defender and rebounder, but Chandler game looks so much like SM’s on the offensive end–really fun to watch a super strong and physical wing just blow through (not by) people on the way to the rim. SM had injury issues as a result of that style of play; sadly, looks like Ill Will does too….

    • Matt

      Yeah the more I watch Gallo the more I am starting to lean that the Nuggets are misusing him a bit. He is a great fit as a stretch four because he lacks great athleticism for wings and teams have caught on. Going back to that article I had a few weeks ago with his numbers with Ty or Iggy off the floor they are still way down and recently he has struggled because it seems like teams are not helping as far off of him. If he can’t get plenty of room to work with on the catch he really has no way of getting by many wing defenders. Using him against 4s though gives him that ability and should help things out a lot.

      • mike

        The problem with using Gallo as a stretch 4 for more than 10 minutes a game is his rebounding and discouraging penetration on defense. If you had someone like Tyson Chandler instead of Mcgee who was a dominant defensive rebounder it could be done, but they already are poor on the defensive boards (Mcgee is embarrassingly bad for his size because he is constantly hunting backside blocks) Faried is the only one who is above average on the Defensive boards for a big and he doesn’t have the size/length to consistently effect shots in a half court defense.

        • theo

          True about the downside on D with Gallo at the 4. A trade off to get more overall production?

  • magster

    This was an awesome read! Gallo seems like a perfect 3, so who would guess that he’s better at 4?

    I would also commend this article/video breakdown from mike Prada of SBnation and Bulletsforever regarding our halfcourt offense.

    3 players out of bounds on a Miller iso!

    • Native Nugget

      That is a sweet bit of insight on the Nuggs. This Roundball article in addition to this particular link did more to further my understanding of the game that any single previous post. Makes me appreciate the subtleties of the game and it’s why I come back to Roundball! Thanks.

  • will

    If Nuggets played Koufos 25 minutes a night for the rest of the regular season it would be interesting to see if his plus/minus declined. If not, then why not play him 30+ minutes in the playoffs?

  • Cephus

    You bastards are making it harder & harder to be an avid fan ( thank you) !

  • Giovanni

    Great work boys!!!
    I’m proud of you…

    My biggern concern is the lack of concetration on inbound plays and the last minute of a quarters..

    Keep on rolling Nugs…

  • Stunt

    Excellent work! Both this and the previously linked SB Nation piece have verified a few of my gut feelings, and taught me some other things as well. Let’s keep the streak alive.

  • Ackdog

    Nice work Matt. Stay away frim the grades though :)

  • CJP32

    What is the best defensive closing unit? My thoughts are:

    PG – Iggy
    SG – Brewer
    SF – Chandler
    PF – Gallo
    C – McGee

    Theres a lot of length, rebounding and athleticism there.

    • mike

      Some issues with your thoughts I have:
      Gallinari shooting better at the 4? Is it because he has a better advantage because they lack speed? Yes of course. But also it is about spacing. None of the Nugs traditional bigs can shoot beyond 8 feet. It clogs up the lane and Lawson, Gallo and Chandler have shot much worse at the rim than in previous years. I don’t know if this is a causal relationship but there seems a correlation. And when Gallo plays the 4 one of the two potential shot blockers is not waiting for him (as he is trailing gallo trying to catch up)

      Also the stats don’t account for who Gallo is playing on defense whether it is starters or bench would play a huge role in his ability to affect efficiency. Im not saying you are wrong but that is a possible factor.

      • CJP32

        Yeah I was referring to the best defensive unit, obviously time outs and FT substitutions are made for offense (where McGee and Brewer would come off for Ty/Miller and/or Faried). But in crunch time with a 1, 2 or 3 point lead, this is the unit I would want on the floor for defensive purposes.

  • Landry

    Been advocating for Gallo to play pf at the start of games so that Kenneth could learn some perimeter d, however Kenneth has yet to execute the fundamentals of nba schemes unlike chandler as matt proved with the numbers. Always thought the manimal’s defense was the key to our playoff success. The manimal takes center stage at pf as chandler’s shoulder should keep him out a week.

    Mission win all the games!!! 60-22 GO!!!!!!!

  • Jim

    Really Interesting. Didn’t the Knicks also have a ton of early success with melo at the 4 this year? I like it. I like gallo driving to the basket and with his handle and speed he could blow by larger, slower players all night.

  • theo

    Nothing to do with this thread but nowhere else to post it. Concerns the Heat and Nugs streaks. Hope bloggers here will make some noise since we seem to be getting some national attention today. Seems like half the talking heads think the Nugs are serious contenders.

    Heat streak? Beating up on pathetic eastern conference teams, most of them cellar dwellers. Only 2 games v western conference teams–both on the road–during the stretch, a win v OKC and Timberwolves.

    Nugs streak is full of wins v the best of the west and multiple eastern conference playoff teams.

    The Nuggets, and every other really good team in the west, would be the 2nd seed in the most current edition of a 15 year eastern conference record of relative mediocrity. Miami in the west is just another team at the top of the conference. Great players and will probably win it all, but, talking about streaks, no comparison. The Nugs road to this many wins more difficult.

    Make some noise please.

    • Henry

      Didn’t the Heat also beat the Grizzlies during this streak?

  • AllAround

    Hi ,

    long time for me to wright smt .
    This was a good reading .

    What I think is that nuggets are quite lucky to have this kind of combo players , that can play on several spots. For me the really good plus of it is that Karl can adjust front lines for bigs
    1) depending on the opponent
    2) depending on the the player’s performance

    Besides the above and not taking account each opponent , I ll speak for Gallo only since he is my fav ….

    Regarding Gallo’s position. I believe Gallo should play at the beginning as 3 and try to post opponents more. By this way Gallo can take more fouls and send players to bench . However, such kind of plays you need your team mates and GK to set them. But this is not something that is happening right now…. Nuggets plays are based on penetrations.

    When Gallo plays at 3 then you should have a good defense inside your rim . Since you know that a fast 3 from opponent can pass Gallo and create instability in your paint . In such scenarios your team should rotate well having at first your 5 , or one 7 footer, to close the path and the rests rotate fast and to look after for the extra pass ….

    However as the game moves on , Gallo should move to 4 . On Offence he can pull his defender outside since he can shoot and by that he is making space to Ty to run to the basket. In such a scenario Ty can either finish or give the extra pass to KK?Faried if the opponent 5 close his way.

    However, when moving Gallo to 4 you should pay attention on the opponents current 4 and the faul trouble that may cause to Gallo.

    Overall , I can understand why the starting line up is
    with Gallo at 3 KK at 5 and with Faried at 4, since Manimal can rotate faster . However I think that at the beginning we can try taller line ups that with Gallo , McGee and KK. With this we can
    1) force our opponents to start their game with long range shoots. Since inside the rim we have to scary 7 footers

    2) We can move at the beginning the game into the paint. Our bigs , with post moves might take some easy first fouls that can create damage later on to the opponent. I think we can follow that plays on Lebron …

    In any case the above is some ideas more to the existing Nugs play. However I do believe that Nugs and GK are so far so good . Personal opinion , GK has done a great job and to me this team can go really far. The only grey area for me is close games when time is running out. I am really affraid of miller’s choices there. Ball should not be in his hands in such times.

  • Fraser