Denver Nuggets: 3 Ways to Make Room for Isaiah Thomas

Denver Nuggets(Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Denver Nuggets(Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Just like that, the Denver Nuggets’ roster takes one step closer to completion with the return to action of IT on Wednesday night.

Thomas, 30 is seeing his first game action for the Denver Nuggets and his first basketball action in 10 months following surgery on a hip that’s kept the dynamic guard sidelined for much of the last two seasons.

His return was met by praise from around the Association but nowhere were people more hyped than in Denver. The anticipation has been building for several days, culminating in Isaiah Thomas‘ elevation from OUT to Doubtful on Tuesday and Thomas’ own tweets on Wednesday morning leading all to believe he was going to play.

Official word came after shootaround and while we waited for the Sacramento Kings to take the floor against the Nuggets, the Denver Broncos dropped their own bombshell, deflecting the cycle but not the excitement.

So here we are, IT is back and the Nuggets are faced with the task of finding effective minutes for a crowded backcourt.  The emergent play of Monte Morris and Malik Beasley have complicated and already difficult rotation.  When Gary Harris returns after the All-Star break, it’s going to become Thunderdome in the Nuggets backcourt. 10 men enter, four men leave.

Assuming no more injury to Denver’s guards, you have Jamal Murray, IT and Morris at the point with Harris, Beasley and Torrey Craig at the two-guard.  Adding to the wing surplus are Will Barton, Craig, Juan Hernangomez and rookie Michael Porter Jr. at the small forward.  Something is going to have to give, there are simply not enough minutes to play all of the talented Nuggets without ill effect.

Here are some solutions that may make it easier:

First:  With Monte Morris playing so well, it’s hard to imagine taking him off the court for anyone.  Morris, according to The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider is hitting 79% of his patented running one-hand shots, often referred to as a ‘floater’. He is second in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio and always seems to strike the right balance between aggressive scorer and facilitator.  He is a true point guard but still has some flair.

Jamal Murray is the established starter and barring injury or collapse, that isn’t going to change.  So, to find IT minutes under these circumstances, coach Malone will have to be creative but more importantly, the Nuggets will have to test the team dynamic they show so much pride in.

The Nuggets could start Morris at the point and Murray at the shooting guard with Thomas and Beasley following.  Barton platoons at small forward with Craig situationally.  Millsap/Lyles at the four, Jokic starts at center and Plumlee returns to his backup role.  This gets everyone on the floor but asks one starter (Murray) to change position and another (Harris) to move to the bench.

Second:  Michael Malone is usually much more methodical in rookie development (Morris is for all intents-and-purposes a rookie).  See Malik Beasley‘s path as evidence. Sometimes, though, a player is too good to deny as was the case with Jamal Murray.  Morris may need to step aside and allow the Nuggets to stick with the more traditional starting lineup of Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Jokic. The second team would be IT, Beasley, Craig, Lyles and Plumlee.

While this option bolsters the starting lineup a bit, the second team suffers unless Thomas returns to Celtics Thomas form.  If that’s the case, the second team is formidable with both the scoring threat of IT and the defense of Craig and Plumlee.

This second team would drive Denver fans batty at times, they would be energetic and athletic but they would also be inconsistent.

Third:  There are going to have to be some hard looks taken at some of the Nuggets. Trey Lyles is a popular whipping boy but he’s played well of late and has a lock on the backup power forward spot for the foreseeable future.  Where serious questions are going to arise are with Will Barton, who has been reckless and turnover prone since his return from a lengthy injury.  His shot is generally not falling and honestly, the Nuggets look to have outgrown his play style.  Denver doesn’t need an energetic but inefficient presence, they have seemed to overcome the offensive funks they had fallen into early in the season, a place where Barton has excelled for Denver.

This team is too talented to endure unsteady play, particularly on the wings.

If Isaiah returns to form and plays to his considerable potential, there’s also going to be questions surrounding the starting point position. As important as Murray is to the development of this team, he is 21 and volatile.  Thomas may be impossible to deny minutes and the only way IT gets 30+ is from a starting position. Considering Isaiah’s size, Gary Harris would have to be on the floor at the two for defense.  In this scenario, Jamal would have to accept a move to the bench and a reduction in minutes.  So, IT, Harris, Beasley, Millsap and Jokic starting with Morris, Murray, Craig, Lyles and Plumlee to follow.

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These are indeed good problems to have and there’s a lot of assumption built into this.  We assume that nobody else gets injured, we assume that Thomas plays at a level comparable to his near-MVP season.

Regardless, it is going to be a wild ride sorting this out but one thing’s for sure, we are in line for some fantastic basketball.