The Denver Nuggets might lack a bonafide superstar, but the team has something a lot of other teams don’t — depth at pretty much every position. Even with injuries to some key players, Brian Shaw has a lot of pieces he can throw into different lineups and he experimented quite a lot early in the season. The rotation is pretty solid now and with a decent sample size we can begin to examine the trends.
(Disclaimer: the data and stats for this piece are collected from NBAwowy and NBA.com and could be a tiny bit off since some of the numbers do not include the last game or two.)
Putting together lineups can be tricky. You need to put the best possible starting lineup on the floor, but at the same time have a couple of guys coming off the bench who gel together well and can carry the load while the starters are resting. A pairing that has been quite effective so far this season is that of Nate Robinson and Andre Miller.
Robinson and Miller couldn’t be more different as players. Dre is calm and collected, sluggish yet fundamentally sound. Nate is erratic, explosive and energetic. Despite their contrasting skill sets, the two have worked very well as a backcourt duo.
The Robinson-Miller two-man lineup is Denver’s 11th most used two-man unit in terms of minutes. None of the 10 two-man lineups which the Nuggets play more than Nate and Miller post a positive +/- per 48 minutes, while the two guards are putting up an imposing +11.2 per 48 when they share the floor. Let’s take a look at why they are so good together.
Miller-Robinson lineups put up just 97.8 points per 48 minutes, but allow their opponents a superb 86.7 points per 48, limiting them to 0.369 field goal percentage. No, this is not because either Miller or Robinson are elite perimeter defenders. Sure, Robinson is capable of making some game-changing plays with an emphatic block or steal, but it’s the big men that are featured in the same lineups that make them a great defensive unit. The offensive numbers are slightly misleading as well, as the Miller-Robinson lineups are just as efficient as other two-man units, but they generally run at a lower pace.
By far the most popular lineup that features both Nate and Dre is one in which they share the floor with Jordan Hamilton, Darrell Arthur and Timofey Mozgov (the second-most used lineup after the starting unit). Arthur has been exceptional defensively and Mozgov has also been very solid, especially when compared to the debilitated interior presence of J.J. Hickson. Robinson and Miller have also been part of similar lineups with Wilson Chandler and Evan Fournier replacing Hamilton, as well as three-guard lineups with Ty Lawson, but they generally have Mozgov and Arthur to thank for the spectacular defensive numbers.
Looking at the on/off figures, Miller and Robinson are both more efficient when they play together than when one of them is on the floor and the other is on the bench. Here are the numbers:
(True Shooting percentage, Usage rate, Points Per Play, Points Per Shot, Field Goal Percentage)
Nate Robinson when Andre Miller is ON the floor :
52.6 TS, 26.6 USG, 1.10 PPP, 1,05 PPS, 42.2 FG%
68% of his FGA are jumpers worth 0.98 PPS
Nate Robinson when Andre Miller is OFF the floor:
49 TS, 24.1 USG, 0.99 PPP, 0.98 PPS, 38.8 FG%
70.6% of his FGA are jumpers worth 0.75 PPS
Andre Miller when Nate Robinson is ON the floor:
52.4 TS, 16.3 USG, 0.95 PPP, 1.05 PPS, 47.4 FG%
Andre Miller when Nate Robinson is OFF the floor:
52.5 TS, 17.8 USG, 1.01 PPP, 1.05 PPS, 42.9FG%
Here is what the numbers tell us:
The offensive numbers for Andre-Nate lineups might not be great, but they are actually quite effective, as the Nuggets have multiple halfcourt threats on the floor. Miller can operate out of the post, either as a playmaker or trying to create a shot for himself, while Nate is great moving off the ball and can also beat guys off the dribble. Add to the mix the fact that Arthur is a pick-and-pop threat and Mozgov sets great on- and off-ball screens and Denver’s offense becomes unpredictable. Take a look at this possession:
This possession features a lot of the things I just mentioned. Let’s break it down.
The Robinson-Arthur pick-and-pop fails and the Nuggets look for other options.
(Apologies for this picture, the text is not that clear. Click on the photo to make it more clear. Also it’s Hansbrough not Hansbrought)
When Nate gets the ball back he has enough space to pull up for a three and pump-fakes DeRozan. Nate actually does this quite a lot. He has an extremely quick first step and even if his defender doesn’t fully commit, just a regular closeout generally gives Robinson enough momentum to get a head start and drive past his opponent. That’s exactly what he does in this possession.
Naturally, the Raptors come over to help and Nate kicks out the ball to Miller for a wide-open three. Miller has never been a great 3-point shooter but is actually shooting over 50% from beyond the arc this season, perhaps because he has been very selective with the shots he takes and only really shoots when he is wide-open.
This possession is interesting in the sense that it shows how quickly that particular lineup can adjust in the middle of a broken play. After the initial pick-and-pop falls through, Arthur, Miller and Hamilton all do a great job spacing the floor. Each player occupies an open space on the floor and after DeRozan is rendered useless the Raptors have to either concede an open shot or an open floater.
In that play Robinson was the primary ball-handler. Miller was mostly stationary on the right wing/corner. When Miller is handling the ball, Robinson is generally running around off-ball screens and Miller is actively looking to find him. Sometimes it’s as simple as the following play.
Again, Mozgov deserves a lot of credit. Thanks to his wide frame he generally sets very good screens that often swallow the defender.
In the first clip we saw Robinson use a pump-fake to get his defender in the air and then explode to the basket. He doesn’t always use the pump-fake but he regularly applies a quick hesitation move to catch his defender off-balance. He does so against the Knicks on this possession:
Hickson sets a screen on the left wing for Miller, who slowly makes his way to the top of the key. Bargnani and Felton (who is helping off Robinson) both close down the middle of the floor to prevent Dre from driving to the basket. This gives Robinson a lot of room to operate with and he collects the hand-off from Miller.
Take notice of the very brief moment that Robinson spends in the air. He squares up to the basket and is looking at the hoop. This little fake puts Felton on his heels, as you can see in the shot above, and Robinson is already accelerating to the basket before Felton can even move. Nate proceeds to use Hickson’s screen and gets past Bargnani with ease and finishes with a layup.
Miller has assisted Robinson 18 times this season. No other Nuggets player has set Nate up more than four times. Miller has learned to find Robinson in his sweet spots and looks for him on a regular basis. The first play we reviewed featured a side pick-and-roll with Mozgov and Miller, before Dre kicked the ball out to Robinson, who then created the action off the dribble. Robinson could easily have pulled up for a decent shot if DeRozan didn’t close out so quickly, and Miller often finds his teammate in good spot-up situations, as illustrated in the play below.
Other than using different types of pick-and-roll action and off-ball screens to set up Robinson, Miller quite often finds him in transition. Robinson loves sprinting up the court as soon as the defensive rebound is secured and while Miller is not quite as fast, he is more than capable of finding Nate when he occupies a good spot on the floor. Here are two examples.
There are several conclusions that can be drawn from the piece above. First of all, the Miller-Robinson two-man unit’s defensive and +/- numbers are a little misleading, since the two guards are not great defenders and are mostly featured in lineups with other defensive anchors. Miller is slow and Robinson is a little inconsistent defensively, but he has gotten a lot better on that end of the court, perhaps thanks to the time spent with Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls. The per 48 minutes offensive numbers are also not amazing but can be mostly attributed to the fact that Miller often walks the ball up and slows the pace down.
Still, the matter of the fact is that the Nuggets, as currently constructed, rely heavily on Robinson’s energy off the bench, especially when the starters are struggling, and Miller is capable of bringing the best out of his backcourt partner. Nate’s efficiency decreases significantly when Miller is not on the floor with him and that’s mostly when we see him jack up the stepback fadeaway jumpers which we love or hate, depending on whether they go in.
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