The post-Melo Nuggets have always been defined by their depth. Denver didn’t just attack you with a killer lineup, they did it with waves of them. They were a machine full of interchangeable gears, a confluence of equally skilled players that elevated the whole through sheer numeracy, and yet whose uniformity ironically tended to serve as their downfall in the postseason. But perennial regular season success is clearly something this team is still trying to strive for and the various transactions of the offseason reveals a similar desire for the “next man up” depth that has been the team’s staple for three years.
A look at what Denver’s offseason reaping produced has unearthed a comforting familiarity in terms of the depth but some trepidation in how these particular gears fit together. Questions about potential lineups range from the mop-up crew all the way to the starting unit, and many of these queries center around Brian Shaw’s unique (and currently unknowable) set of principles, what does he value most in his players? The following is a list of potential lineups Denver could throw out over the course of the season, their pros, their cons, their function, and – most importantly – the likelihood of their success.
The Pace and Spacers: Lawson-Foye-Chandler-Arthur-McGee:
- Premise: The name is pretty self-explanatory, this lineup provides the maximum amount of shooting and spacing while maintaining “competent” defense. Lawson runs a pick-and-roll with Darrell Arthur while Foye and Chandler spot up behind the three-point line and McGee’s pogo-stick is coiled at the ready in the short corner. Or Lawson runs a pick-and-fade (credit to Mike Prada of SBNation) with Chandler as Foye stands in the corner, Arthur spots up on the opposite elbow, and McGee lurks along the baseline. Spacing for slashers and JaVale dunks, and shooting to keep the defense honest.
- Pros: Arthur and Chandler provide the always useful dual skill set of good pick-and-roll finishers who can double as solid floor spacers, one through the mid-range shot (Arthur) and the other through the three (Chandler). Foye shot just north of 40 percent from three last year, Lawson is an elite pick-and-roll ball handler, and McGee is…well not exactly a floor spacer but someone who needs to be accounted for around the basket. Chandler and Arthur are capable wing defenders and can get away with (for a limited time) guarding bigger fours.
- Cons: As with any lineup where the main rim protector is JaVale McGee, defense is going to be a major concern (this is going to be a running theme, so buckle up people). Larger power forwards (the ZBo’s and Aldridge’s of the world) could wear down Arthur and rangy guards with pick-and-roll competency (basically every point guard in the league) could cut through Denver’s rather defensively-challenged backcourt. Additionally the core function of this lineup is dependent upon Arthur’s return to his 2011 jump shooting form, Chandler to retain last season’s three point shooting stroke (an outlier in terms of his career), and an improvement in McGee’s ability to position himself where he doesn’t cripple the spacing. That’s hoping for a lot of stars to align.
- Projection and tweaks: An extreme amount of shooting is almost always fun. This is a lineup that would shoot a ton of threes, run up and down the court like hell, and leaves the amount of cringeworthy defense to a relative minimum. This is a counter unit, one to combat a zone-scheme, and is best utilized against bigger, slower lineups who can’t burn Denver with post threats. Once Gallo is healthy, he and Chandler are interchangeable and Fournier could take the place of Foye depending on whether Denver needs a secondary pick-and-roll operator or not.
Itty Bitty Mining Committee: Lawson-Robinson-Hamilton-Faried-Hickson:
- Premise: More or less a “why not” last resort to combat a team going small, a growingly frequent occurrence in the league. Stack the lineup with shooting and then follow that up with two rim-running blitzers who can crash the boards on all missed jumpers.
- Pros: The spacing with Lawson, Robinson, and Hamilton allows two effective roll men space to perfect their craft. Robinson runs a high pick-and-roll with J.J. Hickson as Ty and JHam run a cross-screen along the baseline with Faried ready to set a surprise down-screen on the weak side. There are too many offensive weapons for everyone but the stringiest of defenses to pay attention to.
- Cons: Defense. If there would be an over/under placed on Denver’s defensive rating when both Faried and Hickson share the floor it’s hard for me to think of a realistic number I wouldn’t go over on. Compound that with two undersized guards in Lawson and Robinson and a wing in Hamilton who’s banishment to the bench had almost everything to do with his poor defense, and you get maybe one of the worst “regularly” used defensive lineups in the league.
- Projection and tweaks: This is a lineup that needs to be used with precaution, it’s crazy fun but it’s the kind of fun you get from juggling flaming chainsaws on a unicycle. This is a change-of-pace lineup that should be used to shift the pace, but not to sustain it. Counter a team trying to go small by outdoing them or punish teams that go big, but don’t give someone time to exploit the the innumerable holes that will be present on defense. If you want to push the boundaries of running and apathetic defense you can move Faried to center and slot Chandler or Gallinari at the four.
Hulk Busters: Miller-Fournier-Gallinari-Hickson-McGee:
- Premise: Denver didn’t go big very often under Karl, and when they did it was with varied results. While teams who possess a significant size threat are few and far between they’re still out there and it’s always useful to have a counter. McGee and Hickson provide enough size to check larger front courts, Per 82games Gallinari held opposing small forwards to a lowly PER of 14 on average, and Fournier is a pressure valve for the spacing.
- Pros: For all of Dre Miller’s many faults it’s undeniable that he knows his way around a lob and both JaVale and J.J. provide the perfect pair of finishers. Fournier loops around the basket after a Gallo-Hickson double screen on the strong side while JaVale slips his screen for Andre Miller and charges to the rim awaiting the lob.
- Cons: The death of spacing. Even with two good shooters on the floor, it would take a lot of precise screening from the bigs to get the defense worried about losing one of them. Hickson and McGee shrink the floor and the only compensation Denver has for that is the physical size they bring on defense. We already know of McGee’s foibles on defense but Hickson on the back line may be even worse.
- Projection and tweaks: Denver will likely try to combat bigger lineups with going small and hoping for the best. The floor shrinking of Hickson and McGee may not be worth their size advantage. Much of this lineup’s playability comes from the optimistic assumption that this particular frontcourt will learn to be better screeners and/or at least one of them develops some semblance of a jump shot. A potential tweak could be to switch Miller with Lawson for more shooting but then the backcourt defense becomes an even bigger problem.
The Closers: Lawson-Miller-Chandler-Gallinari-Faried:
- Premise: Coming up with a “best” lineup on this roster was nearly an impossible task, every combination was ceding something vital (usually defense). But, if I had to pick a closing lineup, it might as well be this one. The reasons are simple enough: Lawson and Miller are both excellent ball handlers, Chandler and Gallo are the best screen-and-shoot guys on the team, and Faried is there to do all the things that makes Faried great.
- Pros: The lineup is extremely versatile, the potential pick-and-roll combinations are endless, and the spacing is good. Lawson-Gallinari screen-and-rolls were run constantly in crunch time last year to great effect and this is the perfect lineup to feature that kind of play.
- Cons: Putting Faried at center is just asking for a team to run all over you on offense. It’s not just a size disadvantage (although that is a big part of it), it’s the fact that you’re trusting the back line to someone who has yet to show a great grasp of the basic help-and-recover scheme every rim protector needs to know to succeed. Not to mention the fact that Miller and Lawson are helplessly hopeless to opposing backcourts with two competent shooters (Steph Curry just hit another three).
- Projection and tweaks: The poor defense is just going to be something this team has to live with. Slotting Faried at center establishes a layup line for the other team but it also lets him destroy on offense and helps unlock the kind of play that runs opponents out of the gym. I made this lineup the closing one not just because it’s what I think will be the most effective, but because it’s the one that most embodies this team’s motif. Offense for the sake of defense, because there is little other choice. A potential tweak if the opposing team has a Dwight Howard-like center who Faried has literally no chance of guarding is to replace him with McGee or even (gulp) Mosgov.
I expect that this is a team who will throw out many more variations to these lineups in Denver’s never-ending quest to out-depth opponents. This exercise, perhaps more than anything else, made me miss the players Denver lost this offseason, how easily a gaping defensive hole could be plugged by Iggy’s inclusion or how Koufos could be inserted into any frontcourt and you’d instantly feel better about it.
But it also made me excited for the possibilities of what’s to come, of the all the unknown things that make up this roster. This is a season of brutal regression to be sure, but it’s also one of promise, if only for the fact that we’re seeing something new.