NBA Position Battles: Who Should Hold Down the Forward Spots in Denver?

Missing the services of Paul Millsap, which players should the Nuggets turn to at the forward positions to get themselves back into a playoff spot?

Every season, there comes a kind of breaking point across the Association, and I think it's safe to say that we've reached it for this year.

Over the last two weeks, we've seen an outbreak of player-versus-player altercations. One of those ended in the Houston Rockets taking a run at Austin Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers' locker room. The other -- a missed Arron Afflalo haymaker -- was fortunate enough to result in nothing more than a two-game suspension.

Clearly, frustrations are coming to a head in a few spots around the league, but they haven't all led to physical confrontations.

Among others, the Cleveland Cavaliers are a team with issues on the floor. A number of anonymous players reportedly told some media members that the current roster isn't talented enough to compete for a title. So, naturally, Cleveland is at the center of several trade rumors involving a trio of candidates.

Whether it's the Cavs, the fights, or a combination of the two, one thing is certain: the Denver Nuggets' Mile High problems are flying under the radar. Denver is slipping of late, and it has everything to do with coach Mike Malone's struggles to find the right combination of players in the Nuggets' frontcourt.

The Nuggets' Way Forward

Everyone knew that things would have to change when Paul Millsap went down with a wrist injury back in November. Millsap, a four-time All-Star, isn't a guy who is easily replaced. It didn't take long for that to prove true as the Nuggets struggled to find a rotation of power forwards. After getting out to a 9-7 start, Denver went 3-2 in their first five games without the services of Millsap, with the two losses being blowouts.

It was at that point that things got worse. Star big man Nikola Jokic went down with an injury of his own and missed seven games to start the month of December. The team went a respectable 3-4 without Jokic, and after his return, the Nuggets went 6-4 in their next 10 and, on January 5th, reached as high as the 6 seed in the Western Conference. Since, they've lost six of eight and have fallen outside a playoff spot by a full game.

That's left Malone to question his starting lineup. An injury to Jamal Murray messed with Malone's ability to experiment on Wednesday, but his lineups on Tuesday and Friday showed us what he's trying to do.

On Tuesday, Denver's starting lineup consisted of Murray and Gary Harris in the backcourt, along with Will Barton, Wilson Chandler and Nikola Jokic. Friday's lineup didn't include Barton but instead had Trey Lyles in his place, with Chandler sliding over to small forward. The Nuggets won the first game and lost the other, but there's much more to look at than wins and losses.

Lineup Minutes Off Rating Def Rating Net Rating
Murray-Harris-Barton-Chandler-Jokic 21 111.8 100.1 11.7
Murray-Harris-Chandler-Lyles-Jokic 19 104.6 105.8 -1.2

Both lineups played about the same amount of minutes in the games they started, but not so surprisingly, the winning lineup outperformed the losing one over a span of 100 possessions -- offensively, defensively and overall. Is there more to it than just a one-game sample, though?

Since Jokic returned from injury just over a month ago, here are Denver's four lineups that have played at least 50 minutes together and include the core of Murray, Harris and Jokic.

Lineup Minutes Off Rating Def Rating Net Rating
Murray-Harris-Chandler-Lyles-Jokic 55 117.0 98.0 19.1
Murray-Harris-Barton-Chandler-Jokic 53 116.6 111.2 5.3
Murray-Harris-Chandler-Jokic-Plumlee 160 107.5 106.5 1.0
Murray-Harris-Barton-Lyles-Jokic 54 102.0 104.7 -2.7

Of the four, Tuesday's winning lineup has actually performed fairly well, but they've been exploited a little on the defensive end. They've rebounded at an elite level, so that hasn't been the issue. Rather their lack of height and length has allowed teams to score 58 points in the paint with an effective field goal percentage of 55.9% in 53 minutes. For comparison, the Plumlee lineup has limited teams to 52.3% effective field goal percentage and 140 points in the paint over 160 minutes.

By net rating, Denver's best lineup has included Chandler at small forward and Lyles in Plumlee's spot next to Jokic. That lineup brings a good balance of offense and defense, allowing a mere 38 points in the paint in 55 minutes. Meanwhile, Lyles has helped the Nuggets shoot their way to an effective field goal percentage of 56.9%, compared to a 52.8% clip for their opponents. Add in that opposing teams have logged a turnover rate of 17.2% versus that group, and you get the recipe for a highly effective, even-keel starting five.

Basically, this comes down to Lyles outplaying Plumlee. Not only is Lyles ranked second to Jokic in win shares per 48 (.154), but he's averaging 18.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 threes per-36 minutes of action. And he's shooting 50.8% from the floor and 42.2% from three in the process. Plumlee's averaging a double-double with 12.4 points and 10.4 rebounds per-36, but he hasn't hit a single three and has an offensive rating 15 points worse than Lyles'.

Despite the lineup's lack of success on Friday, Malone should go back to the well and hope for the quintet to produce the way it has for the majority of the last 35 days. Rolling with that group is Denver's best chance to stay in playoff contention until Millsap returns.