A few weeks back I wrote a piece about the Nuggets and their incredibly deep roster. Back then, finding minutes for players was a good problem to have. Will Barton, Garry Harris and Paul Millsap were getting healthy and Denver was winning games in the process. The “problem” or question, rather, was who loses time when they get back to full strength. Malik Beasley, Monte Morris, Trey Lyles, Torey Craig and at times, Juan Hernangomez were all adding significant minutes and playing like they deserved even more. That all being said, we knew Barton, Harris and Millsap would get their starting jobs and appropriate time in the rotation back when ready. With Mason Plumlee, Morris and Beasley off the bench first, it was conceivable that Mike Malone could fit everything together like a well designed puzzle. Sure, Juancho, Craig and Trey Lyles would see a decrease but ultimately, the Nuggets had the perfect situation and everyone on the team understood what was expected of them.
ENTER Isaiah Thomas. Don’t get me wrong, I love the player. He’s a joy to watch and his incredibly difficult end to the 2017 playoffs had me rooting for him beyond just the basketball court. Not only did injuries plague his every step, he lost his sister, Chyna, in a car accident the night before a Boston/Chicago playoff game. I lost my brother that same year, same month actually, so to say IT has a special place in my heart is an understatement. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to get up and play in one of your biggest games of your career the day after such a tragic accident. The emotions that poured from him in warm up had me sobbing like a baby.
That being said, professional athletes are ultimately judged on their ability and overall fit within their organization. When Denver signed him in the offseason for a year I thought it was a pretty good move. When healthy, he would be a backup to Jamal Murray and provide the necessary playoff experience when the time came. He would be like the point guard version of Will Barton. A guy that can play team basketball but is at his best in a 1 on 1 situation. Having a few guys like that on your roster can change the pace and add a spark. However, month after month went by and Thomas’s return date kept getting pushed back. The sudden emergence of 21 year old Monte Morris caused many fans to nearly forget about the 2 time all star and when the talk of Thomas’s return ramped up, most found themselves wondering if that was something the Nuggets really needed. They didn’t and they don’t.
I’m not putting the recent 3 game losing streak squarely on IT’s shoulders; that’s beyond unfair. Nikola Jokic is committing pointless fouls again, Harris has yet to bounce all the way back from his plethora of injuries and the bench, once considered a huge strength, has failed to maintain leads. But make no mistake, Thomas’s lack of production is certainly not something to ignore. He has his moments, those “how did he do that” moments but he’s not the guy that lead the Boston Celtics to the top of the East just a couple of years ago. He still looks rusty but if that was the only issue, I’d be more lenient. Shaking off the cobwebs is only a small part of what IT’s increase of minutes does and will do for this team.
Take Morris and Beasley, for example. According to Joel Rush of Sportsmoney from the beginning of the season to February 11th, both players had net ratings of 5.7 and 5.2, good for fourth and fifth on the roster. With Thomas in the lineup, those ratings have plummeted to 1.6 and 2.3. Coincidence? I think not. Not only are we seeing less of Morris (25 min per game has dropped to 18) we are seeing a lack of flow, perhaps a lack of confidence. Before Thomas was activated, Morris was the first or second guard off the bench depending on the matchup. He ran the offense, at times, better than Murray. After all, he’s more of a true PG. Now? He looks hesitant. Still very solid for a 21 year old, but hesitant nonetheless. Perhaps there’s a concern that if he doesn’t do something quickly, the veteran PG, Thomas, will take his spot. This was my main concern with IT’s presence; would it stunt Morris’s growth? The answer seems to be obvious.
Before Thomas was cleared to play, he stated that he didn’t want to be just a piece to the puzzle, he wanted to stand out. “My job is not to fit in,” he told Mike Singer of the Denver Post, “it’s to stand out, no matter what team i’m on.” I tend to think about another Free agent signing in Paul Millsap; arguably the biggest free agent pickup in Nuggets history. He wanted to be a part of what Denver was building and perhaps give them the extra boost to get into post-season play. He had no illusions that he would be the superstar that would be the focal point. I’m not saying that Thomas believes he is “the man” but a comment like that sure doesn’t scream team player.
Mike Malone loves Thomas. The national media loves him. Fans desperately want him to be the next redemption story. Unfortunately for IT, the story is and needs to be about Nikola Jokic, Garry Harris and Jamal Murray. The story needs to be about a deep bench with countless team players willing to “fit in.” The story needs to be about the Nuggets first trip to the playoffs in 5 years. With 42 wins and 20 games to go, Denver is certainly a playoff team. But we are in the tune-up phase. The final stretch. The time for lineup experiments and wishful thinking is over. Morris and Beasley need more time and Thomas less. At this stage, IT should be more of a backup to the backup. Waiting for his all star like qualities to make an appearance in 2019 is foolish. Even if he shows us a glimpse of what he used to be, he’s likely a one and done Nugget. He’s not part of the “process.” It’s time for Malone to give up and go with what works. Go with what kept you in the top 2 of the West for 80% of the season.
That good problem to have is now simply a problem. At least until IT continues to soak up minutes from more deserving guys like Monte Morris and Malik Beaskley.
‘IT’ is time to move on.