JaVale McGee may be one of the Denver Nuggets’ newest additions, but since his acquisition at last month’s trade deadline, he has also visibly been the team’s most ardent supporter, the first player to jump up off the bench and rally behind his teammates when they make big plays
When I asked head coach Michael Malone on a media call how important it was for the Nuggets and their players that McGee instantly became the team’s biggest cheerleader since being dealt to Denver, he said, “It speaks a lot about JaVale’s maturity, and his understanding that it’s not about me, it’s about the group.”
“JaVale’s been phenomenal,” Malone added. “His energy, his positivity, supporting guys whether he’s playing or not, his voice in the locker room, it’s just been really fun to watch. And I appreciate it so much, and I told him that.”
But given the logjam of Nuggets bench bigs, with longtime starter and four-time All-Star Paul Millsap now primarily playing backup center, and last offseason’s free agent addition JaMychal Green alongside at power forward, Malone’s admiration for McGee has not yet translated into significant playing time.
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Including his Nuggets debut on April 4, McGee played a total of just 55 minutes in five games through Denver’s recent win over the Houston Rockets, out of a total of 15 games he has suited up for.
But the time has come for that to change, and for Malone and his coaching staff to expand McGee’s role, playing him more consistently from game to game in bigger minutes.
With the caveat that McGee’s limited playing time leaves a very small sample to draw data from, according to Cleaning the Glass the Nuggets have been outscoring opponents by 27.4 points per 100 possessions (a metric also known as net rating, which roughly speaking is a pace-adjusted approximation of per-game numbers).
On the flip side, Nuggets lineups when both Millsap and Green are on the court have been in the red, with a minus-1.9 net rating, which speaks to Denver’s bench struggles since the trade deadline, when as a whole they’ve also had a minus-0.8 net rating.
In reality, however, this is a case in which, framed in the never-ending “eye test vs. analytics” debate, what is plainly evident by just watching the games may speak even louder than the figures in the chart above.
The attributes which JaVale McGee provides – playing above the rim, a lob threat, a vigorous roll threat, and high-end rim protection – are unfortunately simply qualities that neither Green nor Millsap possess.
Malone acknowledges as much.
“As far as getting him on the court, yeah definitely,” Malone replied when I asked if Denver’s success with JaVale McGee on the court had given the Nuggets cause to consider expanding his role.
“He brings something completely different to the game that JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap just don’t have. That’s not a knock on those guys, but they’re not seven-footers that are dynamic rollers and shot-blockers.”
The key word in play here is “dynamic,” where Denver’s lineups featuring both Millsap and Green have too often been just the opposite.
As the video shows, these lineups have tended to be stagnant, with a lack of dynamic player and ball movement as most players stand around the perimeter, and the team struggles to generate quality shots.
Contrasting that with the pick-and-roll actions the Nuggets have run with McGee reveals a night-and-day difference.
Even when McGee is not directly part of the scoring, his involvement in PnR actions palpably creates more dynamic looks for Denver’s offense, here drawing the defense away from the weak side to open up Austin Rivers for a three-pointer:
Denver’s other big free agent addition Facundo Campazzo has been starting in the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending ACL tear as well as hamstring injuries which have sidelines Will Barton III and Monte Morris. But in his usual role off the bench, with his superlative playmaking abilities, he’s the perfect running partner for McGee in PnRs, where they’ve formed some instant chemistry.
McGee’s dynamism comes through in other ways which can’t be replicated by Green or Millsap as well, as with this baseline spin move into a big dunk that came off the offensive rebound:
…or this dunk which did not beat the shot clock, but exemplifies McGee’s more vigorous, energetic game:
Despite being seasoned veterans, Millsap, Green and McGee have all displayed the kind of team-first, selfless mentality which embodies Nuggets culture.
But that doesn’t necessarily make Malone’s bench big conundrum any easier. Even among the humble, egos are involved and all three players want to contribute to the team’s success.
“I’m not sitting here expecting JaVale McGee or Paul Millsap or JaMychal Green to be happy if they’re not playing on a given night,” Malone acknowledged.
“But they do have an obligation and a responsibility to their team and their teammates,” he added.
With the most notable example being Malone’s decision to make Nikola Jokic Denver’s permanent starting center in December 2016, a longstanding pattern for Malone in making lineup changes is that he often is slower to make them that many fans might hope, but that he allows scenarios to play out to the extent that the evidence has been collected which demonstrates the need and validity of switching things up.
Malone has expressed eagerness to get McGee more time, so it may be the case that in fairness to Millsap and Green he has wanted to give their pairing a full and fair chance to succeed before moving McGee up on the depth chart. If so, we may be nearing the point where Malone can approach Millsap and Green with the data showing the need to play McGee more.
On the media call, Michael Malone said, “It’s just a matter of finding opportunities for JaVale to go out there and help us in any way that he can.”
If the Nuggets want more successful bench production, then the time has come for Malone and his coaching staff to make a point of increasing those opportunities, giving McGee more consistent playing time in every game from here on out, and infusing Denver’s bench with the dynamism and above-the-rim play that he is uniquely equipped to provide.