For Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone, finding lineups that produce winning basketball has been a tall task without Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic.
That shouldn't come as a surprise, though. Millsap and Jokic are the Nuggets' two top players, and two of their most gifted playmakers. Jokic leads Denver this season in plus-minus, and Millsap is unequivocally the Nuggets' best defender.
The duo has also been featured in Denver's five most-used lineups this season. The Nuggets' default starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Millsap and Jokic — has logged a team-high 224 minutes this year. While they've played a lot of minutes together, Malone also likes to stagger Millsap and Jokic when healthy so one of them is on the floor as much as possible.
But in their absence, Denver has struggled, much like most teams would do without their two best players. The Nuggets' most-used lineup over their last three games consists of Murray, Harris, Barton, Chandler and Faried. That combination has been great offensively, scoring 120.9 points per 100 possessions. But on defense, that five-man unit is surrendering 122.4 points per 100 possessions. Collectively, they're a plus-one in 22 minutes, per NBA.com.
Denver didn't play that lineup in their first game without Jokic against the Lakers, but that group played Dallas even in 15 minutes earlier this week. Malone then started that group in New Orleans, and Denver got out to a 24-18 advantage before the Nuggets' bench entered. The Pelicans closed the six-point margin. The score read 33-all by the time the second-quarter buzzer sounded at Smoothie King Center.
That same pattern has unfolded countless times this season even when Millsap and Jokic were healthy. Denver's starters get out to a good opening few minutes only to have its bench lose the lead. It's part of the reason why the Nuggets haven't led at the end of a first quarter on the road since their Oct. 27 win in Atlanta — Denver's fifth game of the season.
Small sample size aside, a lineup that has worked for the Nuggets over their past three games is one that's comprised of Murray, Harris, Barton, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee. That group has played 11 of the 15 total minutes they've spent on the floor together this season over Denver's recent stretch without Jokic and is a plus-14.
Against the Lakers that group was a plus-17 in just six minutes. but only played two minutes against Dallas and finished a minus-one. In New Orleans, Denver turned to that lineup for just three minutes and were a minus-two. Denver could try and recreate some of the magic that combination found versus the Lakers in Orlando.
This lineup could provide somewhat of a bridge from Denver's starters to bench if the Nuggets again go small against Orlando and start Kenneth Faried.Lyles has played well since his minutes have increased in Millsap's absence. Since Millsap was hurt in Los Angeles on Nov. 19, Lyles is averaging 9.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. The 22-year-old is shooting a healthy 48.3 percent from the field and 44.0 percent from three in 20.8 minutes per game.
Surrounding Mudiay with the right pieces
It's difficult to craft a pure bench lineup without Millsap and Jokic for obvious reasons. Pairing Emmanuel Mudiay with another ball handler like Barton plus floor spacers in Harris and Lyles with Plumlee might be Denver's best path forward both offensively and defensively.
That lineup logged 12 minutes over the Nuggets' past three games, and has only been a minus-two. They played three minutes together against the Lakers and were a plus-four. Against Dallas they were a plus-two in seven minutes but were run off the floor in New Orleans to open the fourth quarter.
Sub Malik Beasley for Lyles in that scenario and Denver could also find success. Three-guard lineups have been some of Denver's best groupings over the past three games. Murray, Harris and Barton are a plus-eight in the 50 minutes that they've shared the floor as of late.
Luckily for the Nuggets, Jokic is expected to return to Denver's rotation soon as he recovers from an ankle sprain, and he'll bring some clarity to a muddled rotation. Denver is a minus-128 in the 524 minutes Mudiay has played this season but is only a minus-16 when he shares the floor with Jokic.