Former Denver Nuggets head coach George Karl always used to press that the starting lineup didn’t really matter, and that the end-of-game lineup was far more important. He had a point, but we all know everyone wants to be the starter. If nothing else, starting provides a morale boost for the players to have and earn the title starter.
The Denver Nuggets already have four starters set in stone for next season (barring injuries): Ty Lawson, Randy Foye, Danilo Gallinari, and Kenneth Faried. However, that last frontcourt spot is currently a dilemma for head coach Brian Shaw, and the job is up for grabs between JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson, Timofey Mozgov, AND Darrell Arthur. It’s good to have depth, but in finding the starting center Shaw has some work to do.
J.J. Hickson was the starter for the majority of the season at center last year after McGee got injured, and he was solid. JaVale McGee is supposed to be an emerging force at the position, and he was ultra-efficient in his last healthy season. Timofey Mozgov played fantastic after Hickson’s season-ending injury, and Brian Shaw has showed a lot of love for the Russian. Darrell Arthur played the least minutes of the group, but he is the team’s best defender of other bigs right now.
Of course, a lot will go into the decision that we can’t plan for right now. Training camp, injuries, and any offseason trades all could alter the final decision. However, with each player having at least one full season as a Nugget we’ll use the numbers to see who earned the spot as of right now. Starting with the stats here is how the four stack up. To make it easy to compare, the numbers below are averaged to show each player’s stats if they played 40 minutes a game.
McGee: (2012-13 season): 20.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, .7 assists, 4.4 blocks, 2.5 turnovers.
Arthur: 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.6 blocks, 2.0 turnovers.
Hickson: 17.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 blocks, 2.8 turnovers.
Mozgov: 17.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 2.3 blocks, 2.8 turnovers.
The stats show why the Nuggets and Masai Ujiri were high enough on McGee to make him the Nuggets second-highest paid player, and that efficiency makes him the front runner for the job. Given the outside pressure that comes with his salary that he needs to start, I think he’ll end up winning the job. However, McGee’s never played more than 27.8 minutes a game in his career, and his asthma is a cause of concern if he starts getting starter minutes. It’s a job he’ll have to continually prove himself as the starter.
Making the choice a little easier, the Nuggets actually list Hickson and Arthur as forwards. Hickson said he was happy to move back to his real position (forward) after playing center in Portland before he got to the Nuggets. Arthur is a bit undersized to play defense on the Dwight Howards and Anthony Davises of the league. So those two will provide depth at center if needed, but neither will be that final starter.
So, does Mozgov have enough to overtake a healthy McGee? The numbers above are comparable, but if we adjust the stats to reflect Mozgov’s excellent play after Hickson’s ACL tear (since March 21), he’s even closer to McGee: 19.9 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 2.9 turnovers per 40 minutes.
Mozgov’s efficient last month has him neck and neck with McGee’s efficient 2012-13 season. Brian Shaw’s system worked wonders for Mozgov, and Shaw is known for developing bigs so it’s not hard to imagine Mozgov getting even better with another training camp under the head coach. So, we have a fun training camp ahead of us with this battle going down.
However, if McGee comes into camp 100 percent and performs on par with his last healthy season he will get the job. His blocking prowess gives McGee the slight advantage right now. The pressure is on the $10 million man to earn it though, and if it becomes too much Mozgov will take the job right away. The fight should make each player better, and the center position will be a strong point for the Nuggets next season with the combo and depth of Mozgov and McGee.