As they’re currently constructed, the Nuggets starting lineup has only one glaring hole.
Nikola Jokic is an All-NBA center, Paul Millsap is an effective power forward with veteran presence, Gary Harris is a shooting guard who can play both ends of the floor and Jamal Murray is an emerging star at point guard. Those four spots, assuming Denver decides to exercise their team option on Millsap, are set for 2019-20.
But the last position, small forward remains a weak link.
Will Barton was supposed to fill that role, after signing a four-year, $53 million extension prior to the start of last season. But just two games in, he suffered a hip injury that would sideline him until mid-January. After returning, Barton just didn’t seem like the same player, averaging just 11.5 points per game while trying to work his way back into a rhythm with his teammates.
As painful as that was to watch at times, it paled in comparison to how he played during the postseason. After struggling mightily in the first three games against San Antonio, including a -23 plus/minus performance in Game 3, Michael Malone had no choice but to bench Barton. The change in roles didn’t help, as he continued to struggle throughout that series and the next.
In the Nuggets loss to the Trail Blazers, Barton was ineffective, to put it mildly. His poor play hit a crescendo in a Game 6 loss, when he posted a -25 in 26 minutes of play. These types of performances frustrated the fans, who even booed him at Pepsi Center during a 1-for-10 shooting effort against the Spurs.
But it wasn’t just the numbers that made Barton a target of the fans; it was also his style of play. The Nuggets succeed by playing unselfish basketball, which starts with Jokic. Barton, however, is more of a one-on-one, make-my-own-shots kind of scorer, which makes his minutes on the floor seem clunky.
Given his contract, it might be tough for Denver to move on. And if they stand pat, it’d be shocking if Torrey Craig remains the starter over the high-priced Barton, as was the case in the team’s final 11 postseason games.
But if the Nuggets do find a way to go a different direction, there will be plenty of options on the table who would be an upgrade. This year’s class of free-agent small forward is loaded with talent.
Top Five Available
1. Kevin Durant | Golden State Warriors – Durant’s free-agent status took a hit in Game 5 of the NBA Finals when he suffered an Achilles injury. Now, he might exercise his player option with the Warriors and get paid $31.5 million to rehab.
2. Kawhi Leonard | Toronto Raptors – Leonard also has a player option for next season, but most people expect his to opt out and hit the open market. He forced his way out of San Antonio to set up this scenario, something a title run probably can’t even derail.
3. Khris Middleton | Milwaukee Bucks – Middleton has blossomed playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, earning his first All-Star invite last season. Now, he can cash in, as his ability to score, rebound and defend make him a valuable commodity.
4. Bojan Bogdanovich | Indiana Pacers – In his fifth NBA season, Bogdanovich had a career year, averaging 18.0 points per game for the Pacers. He’s a premier shooter, but struggles on the defensive end of the court. So he needs the right pieces around him.
5. Harrison Barnes | Sacramento Kings – While his numbers have jumped since leaving the Warriors in 2016, Barnes has toiled in relatively anonymity in Dallas and Sacramento. An effective scorer anywhere on the floor, he’d be a nice piece for a contending team.
1. Trevor Ariza | Washington Wizards – At 34 years old, this veteran of seven NBA teams has some mileage on him, but he’s also been a part of some teams that enjoyed playoff success. He can knock down big threes and play solid defense, which is what the Nuggets need from this spot.
2. Kelly Oubre | Phoenix Suns – While not a great outside shooter, he is very good at cutting to the basket, which would make him effective in Denver’s offense. And at only 24 years old, he could grow into the position alongside the other young Nuggets.
3. Barnes – He’s already proven that he can play on a star-studded team, as he excelled as the fourth or fifth option in Golden State. And during those years, he watched firsthand as the Warrior made the leap from a playoff team to a title contender; that’s valuable experience.
Centers – With Nikola Jokic on the roster, there isn’t a huge need in the middle for the Nuggets. But the Millsap decision could have a domino effect.
Power Forwards – Depending on what the Nuggets do with Paul Millsap, this could be their No.1 position of need in 2019.
Next Week: Shooting Guards – Gary Harris is entrenched as the starter, but finding someone to compete with Malik Beasley as the backup might be good for the Nuggets
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