Stiffs Mailbag: Austin Rivers, Will Barton, and the Denver Nuggets playoff hopes

DENVER NUGGETS VS GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS, NBA
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Answering Twitter questions from Denver Stiffs readers.

Welcome into the Denver Stiffs Mailbag! What a fun Game 4 for Denver Nuggets fans as the Nuggets prevented elimination and extended the life of their season for at least another couple of days. After the game, I asked Nuggets fans for questions on Twitter and hope to answer as many as I can here. Some of them, namely the trade and free agency questions, are inappropriate while Denver is still in the middle of a playoff series. There will be time for that, trust me.

For now, let’s get into some playoff questions!


Stephen Curry played 37 minutes off the bench on Sunday afternoon. Steve Kerr said that Curry is basically off of his minutes restriction which, yeah, 37 minutes is definitely a strong indication. There’s a very strong chance that Curry starts in Game 5 and plays close to 40 minutes. Up until this point, the Nuggets have started two guards, two forwards, and Jokić. Even if Jordan Poole goes back to the bench and the Warriors don’t go to their death lineup, there’s a strong case to be made that Denver should consider a change.

Austin Rivers was fantastic defensively in Games 3 and 4. He struggled, along with the rest of the Nuggets, in Games 1 and 2, mostly because it looked like he was trying to do too much. In the games in Denver, Rivers notably stuck to Curry and gave little thought to others while matched up unless a switch was forced. That helped Denver out a ton in avoiding advantageous matchups for Curry while Rivers was on the floor. Did they still happen? Yes, but Denver’s overall level of competence was given a nice boost.

If the Nuggets are serious about winning this series, Rivers has to be on the floor as much as possible to add a layer of perimeter defense. I’d personally start him over Jeff Green and stagger Rivers, Will Barton, and/or Aaron Gordon with the second unit.


If we’re just talking about the current Nuggets team, then Austin Rivers is definitely a part of it. He’s an ideal “type” of player for Denver as he has defensive versatility to guard on and off-ball against a variety of guards and smaller wings. Rivers can credibly match up with all five of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, and Draymond Green on a switch. He’s probably best on Curry or Poole in general, but the height difference isn’t as big of a deal with him against the other Warriors since he’s in the air space of shooters and Draymond doesn’t shoot the ball often enough.

To join Rivers, throw Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green out there at power forward and center. I know it’s not what people want to hear, but Jeff Green would be a great small ball center option in a switch everything defense, and he’s better against the Death Lineup at center than Nikola Jokić is. That’s why he replaced Jokić late in the fourth quarter for a possession, much to the aid of critics everywhere. JaMychal Green would also be a good option at center, but I don’t trust him to avoid fouling the way I do with Jeff Green instead.

Then, let’s have Monte Morris and Will Barton join Rivers in the backcourt. Everyone will yell at me for including Barton, but I just think he’s a more reliable perimeter defense option than Bones Hyland or anyone else on the Nuggets roster right now. It would be Jamal Murray in place of Barton if he was healthy, or Davon Reed if he was eligible. Neither of those things really count for this exercise though, so let’s go with the following:

Morris, Rivers, Barton, Gordon, Jeff.

It’s really not a daunting defensive lineup at all, but it’s what Denver has right now.


So, I watched back the possessions, and I will just say, everyone’s making a really big deal out of three or four possessions during a 48-minute long basketball game. Jokić got cooked on the perimeter switch but didn’t give up any threes in the process. One of the baskets he allowed happened when Gordon took a charge with his heels on the charge circle. Another was a stepback long two late in the shot clock, something Denver will live with every single time.

But, if the Nuggets are worried about it burning them going forward, they need to send the double team sooner. On one of the possessions, Gordon never came to double up top. On the next, he doubled fairly softly. Jokić and the Nuggets will need to use their length to disrupt any passes out of double teams, which likely means sending Gordon (or Jeff Green) as the doubler and helping out with the three guards on the back line.

The other option is for Jokić to press up on Curry to make sure he doesn’t take a three and coax Curry into a drive. A floater or contested layup is a better option for Denver than a Curry iso three against Jokić in my mind, and preventing Curry from seeing as many threes go through the rim as possible is a great way to survive longer in the series, even if it means giving up an easy two here or there.


To use a baseball metaphor, Jeff Green is a classic innings eater pitcher. He’s going to be relatively average most games. Solid in others. Elite teams will blow him up, but bad teams will stay bad. The same is true for Green as a starter for Denver. Jokić is the ace (and the closer at the same time) while other starters have stronger “stuff” to throw at the opposition.

This isn’t a good series for Jeff Green. He hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to make an impact offensively with the way the Warriors are defending. They don’t really double team all that often, and they’re much more disciplined on sticking to Denver’s cutting lanes than team in the regular season were. Because of that, Green’s often in the position where he’s standing in the corner spacing the floor. He’s tried scoring in the post on a couple of occasions, but it’s been iffy at best.

On defense, he’s had some good moments. He’s a smart veteran and sees the floor pretty well as a halfcourt defender, meaning that when Denver gets to set their defense, he’s going to do his job. Unfortunately, he’s been bad as a defender in transition, either not getting back in time to contest shots or running out to the wrong shooter and leaving someone else open.

Again, I’m not opposed to Michael Malone changing his starting lineup and starting Austin Rivers instead. It makes sense for a number of reasons. Still, Denver’s started this group for the majority of the regular season and entirety of the playoffs. They’ve also won three out of four first quarters, so it can’t really be that bad. Just don’t close with Jeff in place of Rivers. That was bad in Game 3.


Y’all really wanna know? It’s because the season isn’t over yet.

Fans have been quick to dismiss players they don’t like, especially Will Barton, in the Jokić era. I was one of those fans. Still am to be honest (cough Facu cough).

What I’ve learned in covering the Nuggets for six years is that worrying about the offseason and trading out bad options for new ones is really, really stupid. It might happen, sure. It also might not. I remember last offseason doing a bunch of work on NBA Draft and Free Agency profiles, writing content about why such-and-such player would be a good fit, along with how Denver could get that guy. In the end, the Nuggets brought back the majority of their team, exchanging Paul Millsap and JaVale McGee for Jeff Green and Bones Hyland (among other things). They re-signed Barton. He was the starter for the entire year, and he has the contract for next year.

It’s exhausting to pine away for change. It might happen. It might not. For now, I am choosing to support the team that Denver puts on the court and try to avoid my own personal biases from affecting my point of view. What seems clear to me: Will Barton isn’t the player he was last year or the year before. He’s regressed to a point defensively where Denver will probably consider trades in the offseason, and his offense isn’t as dynamic, nor as singularly helpful, as it was in years past either. He should probably be considered a backup going forward.

But that doesn’t mean he deserves to be thrown to the wolves. Nuggets fans should be better than that. Barton’s put his body on the line for his teammates, the organization, and the city. What did the fan base do with that when Barton was struggling? They booed him. It was sad and downright disrespectful back in the 2019 playoffs, and nobody has forgotten. Now, Nuggets fans are incensed at Will Barton…for what? Being unable to stick with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, or Jordan Poole? Taking a three in Game 3 when the Nuggets were down three points with a minute to go? Barton is currently third on the team in points and rebounds per game and fourth on the team in assists and steals. He’s shooting 40.9% from three-point range. Could he be playing better? Sure. Was it ever realistic to think he could match the Warriors scoring output or really slow them down? Not really. It’s also not realistic for any of the Nuggets guards to do either, let alone both.

So, why is everyone so incensed?

I personally will not be rooting for the downfall of Will Barton. I will be celebrating his game-clinching three in Game 4, as well as any other moments he has while on the court. Does he make boneheaded decisions on defense? Sometimes, but so do the rest of the Nuggets too. Barton doesn’t deserve the unending criticism he’s received, and I hope Nuggets fans will recognize that, even if it’s after he’s moved on.


I don’t think Malone’s lineups should be criticized too heavily in this series. The optionality is very limited, and the Nuggets aren’t really built to present a ton of options right now. Had Murray and Porter been back and PJ Dozier been healthy, then I might be more critical of the actual choices made. Right now, Denver’s starting Morris and Green, and the backup rotation is made up of a rookie point guard (Bones Hyland), a trade acquisition (Bryn Forbes), two minimum contracts (Austin Rivers and DeMarcus Cousins), and JaMychal Green.

There are three options beyond those bench guys: Facu Campazzo, Zeke Nnaji, and Valtko Čančar; however, Zeke and Vlatko aren’t great options right now. They haven’t played major minutes for a long time and just made their healthy returns in Game 82 of the season. If your “creative lineups” involve those guys, then they’re probably wrong.

So, what we’re really asking about here is, “can we make the lineups more creative than all of the starters and all of the bench?” Well, the starting unit has a plus-minus of -24 in 71 minutes. Four other lineups have played at least 10 total minutes in the series, and only one is positive: Bones, Rivers, Barton, J-Myke, and Cousins.

I’m just not really sure what constitutes “creative” in this case. Some seem to want a twin towers look with Jokić and Cousins. I’m here to say that’s lunacy. Perhaps more Bones with the starters in general could give a strong offensive punch. Maybe staggering Gordon with the second unit a bit more and removing the J-Myke minutes? Other than that, I’m not really sure how to be more creative than that with this group. It’s not a group that’s really ripe for experimentation. They do what they do well and don’t do other things if they can help it.


Championship. Gotta be better defending the perimeter, but Jokić and Gordon are keepers, as is Bones Hyland. Add in Murray and Porter and Denver’s basically set on the offensive end for a playoff run. After that, they just have to fill in the gaps defensively with players that can set up Jokić, Murray, Porter, and now Bones offensively.

It will be tough. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Finding legitimately impactful defenders is tough, and everybody wants one, two or six of them. Denver will need to devote resources to finding a defensive stopper or two, but if they DO find what they’re looking for, they’re in business.

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