Top teams prize continuity. In an era in which superstars change teams constantly, bringing back the bulk of a contending roster gives such teams a tremendous advantage. The Denver Nuggets did so this offseason. They retained their 10 leaders in minutes played while adding supplementary pieces like Jerami Grant and Bol Bol to the team. Most teams in that position would seek to change as little as possible, but the Nuggets are open to one fairly big change coming into the season.
The Nuggets have four obvious starters: Jamal Murray at point guard, Gary Harris at shooting guard, Paul Millsap at power forward and Nikola Jokic at center. Coach Mike Malone revealed Monday at media day that the Nuggets would have an "open competition" for the fifth starting spot at small forward. He named four potential candidates for that job: Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr. and Juancho Hernangomez.
Barton was the team's regular-season starter at small forward last season. He missed 44 games due to a hip injury suffered early in the year, but he retained the job upon his return. Barton, at 6'6'' and 190 pounds, has more of a shooting guard's body, but the Nuggets made a major investment in him with a four-year, $53 million contract.
They have not yet made such an investment in Craig, who will be a restricted free agent next summer. Craig replaced Barton in the starting lineup during the postseason due to his superior defense. His overall effectiveness depends on his jump shot. His 3-point percentage improved to 32.4 percent last season, but he shined in the playoffs at 47.6 percent. Expecting him to shoot that well in the regular season is unrealistic, but if he can even come somewhat close, this job is his to lose.
For now, at least. The Nuggets hope that Porter Jr. can one day claim it for himself. The No. 13 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft was, at one point, the No. 1 ranked player in his high school class. Back injuries cost him several draft slots and his rookie season, but in terms of raw talent, he is by far the best forward on this roster. Starting for a contender as a rookie might be a bit much to ask, but eventually, if Porter lives up to the hype, either this job or Millsap's will be his.
Hernangomez has been a victim of Denver's superb depth in recent years, but he is coming off of a stellar World Cup run for Spain that saw him shoot nearly 58 percent from the field and over 40 percent from behind the arc. He has ideal size for the small forward position and would see far more minutes on a less competitive team, but someone has had to be the odd man out in recent years, and that has been Hernangomez.
Two other names to watch, depending on matchups, would be Grant and Malik Beasley. Grant is really more of a power forward, but he can defend small forwards well enough to do so should the opponent call for it. Beasley is a shooting guard, but if Barton is a candidate to start, the ascendant Beasley should get a look as well. He averaged 15.7 points per game in a 23-game stretch that included all 18 of his starts last season. Like Craig, he is headed for restricted free agency after the season, so evaluating him is critical.
The stakes on this positional battle are extremely high. Given Denver's overall depth, the difference between winning and losing is not simply going to be about who gets to start. Starting-caliber players are going to find themselves without a consistent role in the Nuggets' rotation. Denver has a chance to win a championship this season, but Malone has to nail this decision if that is going to happen.