Why isn't this guy in the game?
You don't have to be a Denver Nuggets fan to want to see more of center JaVale McGee. His athleticism and ability to make spectacular plays on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor are simply unmatched by other human beings his size.
That’s why there’s a campaign for the hyper-athletic big man to start: He’s a fan favorite, as even his basketball blunders are extravagant. In January, Denver Post Nuggets reporter Benjamin Hochman tweeted a nickname for McGee:
Koufy with two early fouls, here comes JaVale McGee who fans call: JaVale "Why Doesn't He Play 48 Minutes" McGee.
— Benjamin Hochman (@nuggetsnews) January 21, 2013
That might be a little too long to stick.
The Nuggets’ starting five of Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos have played the fourth-most minutes of any five-man unit in the NBA this season. That unit trails only the starting fives of the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Koufos as a starter. The 24-year-old is shooting 59.6 percent from the field while scoring 8.0 points, grabbing 6.6 rebounds and blocking 1.4 shots per game in 22.6 minutes. He plays solid defense and, with 2.5 offensive rebounds a night, is a consistent presence on the boards on both ends of the floor.
McGee just has a higher ceiling.
In just 18.7 nightly minutes, he’s managed to be one of the NBA’s most productive shot-blockers on a per-game basis, swatting 2.0 shots per appearance. JaVale’s also grabbing 2.0 offensive rebounds and 4.8 total boards while shooting 57.4 percent on seven shots per game.
There are reasons why he puts in a lot of work with the second unit, including his chemistry with 36-year-old Andre Miller and head coach George Karl’s inability to trust him and Faried as a defensive duo in the frontcourt.
Miller’s on-court relationship with McGee is a wonderfully cohesive yin/yang dichotomy of veteran production and young upside, steady point guard play and springy big-man highlights, ground-bound precision alley-oop facilitation and high-flying fantastic finishes.
Lawson is also a willing and capable lob-passer, though—and more likely than Miller to be leading the Nuggets two or three years down the road.
Koufos is locked up for two years following the present season at $3 million annually, while McGee will cost Denver eight figures against the cap for this and the next three seasons.
Barring a trade, JaVale is more likely to be the franchise cornerstone up front than Koufos. It’s hard to pay both players that kind of money with all four of the other current starters providing reasons to take home lucrative paychecks.
General manager Masai Ujiri likes his core in the short and long-term, which is why he didn’t make a move at the NBA trading deadline. But he also noted that Denver is “not a contending team,” and that patience is required when dealing with the NBA’s third-youngest squad (via NBA.com).
That view may be too pessimistic—especially if Denver locks up home-court advantage for any round of the playoffs—but if the Nuggets are looking to succeed in the future, it makes a lot of sense to give more minutes to the guy with seemingly unlimited potential in McGee. Extended run now should make him better in the long run.
It’s especially imperative to pair McGee with Faried more often so that they can improve upon their defensive deficiencies for a playoff run. Coach Karl called out the pair on that end of the floor early this season, so it stands to reason that he may already be more comfortable with them playing together heading into the playoffs.
But he still hasn’t endorsed it.
Unfortunately, the pattern may be cyclic: Faried and McGee are probably not going to get much better together without added time with one another and playing behind a consistent rotation of perimeter players in front of them. The singular substitution of JaVale for Koufos accounts for about one-seventh of the amount of court time that the starting lineup has occupied this season.
Those five guys have also failed to even make it on the floor together in over 20 regular-season games in 2012-13.
If the 25-year-old McGee is expected to be the team’s future starter—as his $11 million average salary suggests—he should probably log more minutes with the team’s present young core.
For more Denver Nuggets analysis and opinions, follow Jamal on Twitter: Follow @StatManJ