It’s hard to know how much to extrapolate from the first couple games of the season, as the morning dew from the new year still lays damp upon both arena and player alike. But if there has been any clear takeaway from Denver’s first two games it’s that the front court rotation is a rolling tire fire right now. No front court combination has logged more than 26 minutes together and Brian Shaw is currently juggling the unwieldy number of five big men in and out of the rotation.
The starting pair of McGee and J.J. Hickson is perhaps the most egregious miscalculation and the one who’s change seems the most immanent. Offensively, neither Hickson nor McGee seems to understand how to properly space the floor, despite J.J. being a threat in the pick and pop.
Here the Nuggets run a play to isolate JaVale on the left block (an inadvisable set, but that’s a different article) and J.J. not only literally runs into Ty Lawson, he follows that up by planting himself uselessly in the middle of the paint just as McGee is making his move. This move renders the weak side of the floor completely inert and places his defender, Aldridge, in perfect position to help on McGee.
The defense, as it were, is even worse. It’s hard to see J.J. Hickson in the play below because he is being completely swallowed by a Wes Matthews screen. Meanwhile, LaMarcus Aldridge (Hickson’s man), has a good 10 feet of space to leisurely get off the mide-range jumper he is extremely adept at nailing.
Hickson did a fair job versus DeMarcus Cousins in the post Wednesday night, but anytime Sacramento or Portland ran his guy through a screen, things fell apart very quickly. McGee’s minutes were once again frustratingly limited but the frustration should probably be directed at the player who has once again failed to change his enthusiastically superfluous ways and not the coach who’s job it is to win games. Over the duration of his 23 minutes of playing time this year, the Nuggets have posted a disastrous defensive rating of 120.6 points per 100 possessions, a number aided by the antics of someone who still does things like this in his sixth season in the NBA.
Alternative front court duos included McGee and Faried — just as bad as the McGee-Hickson pairing for the same reasons — Mozgov and Faried; and Hickson and Arthur. Hickson and Arthur closed out the game against Sacramento, more out of necessity than meritocratic reward for their play, but the pair cannot really be looked at as a long term solution. Arthur is a solid defensive player in his own right but he has some egregious tendencies (shown below) that do not get covered up in the slightest when he is played alongside Hickson or McGee.
Faried and Mozgov have, rather surprisingly, meshed together the best out of the group. Their net rating in 26 minutes (plus-22.1) is slightly misleading as they’ve mostly gone up against bench units thus far, but Mozgov especially has shown some signs of defensive life among a group of center options otherwise devoid of any. For a mobile big he still lingers below the foul line too often and his offensive game is probably always going to be somewhat raw, but he uses his length in much smarter ways than McGee and he’s fit in the flow of the offense much more seamlessly than Hickson or Arthur.
The answer to these glaring front-court questions remains an enigma in the macro sense, although Chandler and (eventually) Gallinari’s returns should help the spacing on offense and help soak up solid minutes at the power forward spot versus smaller teams. But at the moment the Nuggets face a true conundrum. The player they fired the coach of a 57-win team over and traded away a cheap, solid two-way center for, is not earning the minutes that were so lavishly carved out for him. The undersized power forward who doesn’t fit the new system is still somehow outplaying the newly acquired asset who was supposedly good enough to take that player’s starting spot.
There may be 80 games to go, but it’s already nearing decision time for Brian Shaw and the front office. Do they proceed as planned and give more minutes to JaVale and J.J., and hope that development comes, even at the cost of wins? Or do they admit that the plan executed during the offseason was misguided by giving the jobs to Faried and Mozgov, and burying $16 million worth of assets on the bench yet again.
Denver still has a bit to go before they get to that particular crossroads and Chandler’s return, as well as an increased sample size, should help shake somethings out. But the Nuggets are already a third of the way to their home loss total of last year and with a Western conference this competitive, the timing on this decision could make all the difference.