Here’s how Denver’s new forward duo gets the job done
The biggest worry without Michael Porter Jr. was that offense would be difficult to come by going forward.
When Porter re-injured his back on November 6th, exactly one month ago, there were more than a few people that thought Denver’s season was over. Adding Porter’s injury to that of Jamal Murray, who won’t be back until February at the earliest, seemed like a death knell for Denver’s title hopes while placing their playoff hopes on a razor’s edge. Things didn’t get any better when P.J. Dozier also went down for the season with a torn ACL, Nikola Jokić was out for a week (Denver lost all four games he missed), and now that Bones Hyland has missed several games to both ankle injuries and health and safety protocols.
So, the Nuggets should be done, right?
Well, anything is possible when Nikola Jokić is involved, and he doesn’t appear to be going quietly into the night. Joker is averaging 26.1 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 6.4 assists this season, shooting an absurd 59.0% from the field, 38.7% from three, and 75.9% from the free throw line. He’s maintained a Player Efficiency Rating of 34.5, the greatest of all-time, a Box Plus-Minus of +14.1, the greatest of all-time, and is on pace for a Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) rating of 10.4, which would rank amongst the greatest Michael Jordan and LeBron James seasons in history. What Jokić is doing right now is unprecedented for a center, and he’s carrying the Nuggets to the promised land in the process.
And yet, he still needs teammates. Jokić will be the first to tell local media after an elite performance that none of this happens without a great team behind him, and he’s (mostly) right. The contributions coming from Will Barton and Monte Morris this season are fairly obvious to spot. Jokić needs pick and roll and dribble handoff partners, and both Morris and Barton have excelled in that regard. Barton is in the 82nd percentile in pick and roll scoring efficiency this year. Morris is in the 76th percentile as a pick and roll scorer and the 75th percentile in dribble handoffs. Both are above average in spot up situations as well. They’ve done their part around Jokić and deserve the majority of the credit offensively stepping up next to Jokić.
But the real story of the Nuggets this season has been the dynamic duo of Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green. That’s not something I thought I would write before the season, but it’s absolutely true. The Nuggets have been at their best when Jokić shares the court with Denver’s two most versatile forwards, and his impact on them has been just as impressive:
The real curious factor here: the Nuggets have a +11.7 Net Rating when Jokić is on the court with Uncle Jeff and NOT Gordon, as well as a +12.2 Net Rating when Jokić is on the court with Gordon and NOT Uncle Jeff. In addition, Jokić has played just 14 total minutes with both Gordon and Uncle Jeff OFF the floor, so it seems that the Nuggets have found something they’ve liked and are sticking to it.
The duo of Gordon and Green in it of itself isn’t a special one. They’re both power forward sized for the modern NBA. Gordon has the athleticism and on-ball defense to guard small forwards and most guards, while Green has the perimeter jumper to prevent opponents from packing the paint offensively. However, they aren’t remarkable at any one thing offensively or defensively.
That’s the thing though: as a duo, they’re good at just about everything a complementary tandem needs to be good at.
Size and physicality on mismatches
One of the best reasons why the duo of Porter and Gordon would work so well is the need of the defense to guard one of those guys with a smaller player. Jokić would identify the mismatch, help that player get to the front of the rim with passes, and then they would capitalize with elite touch around the rim.
Gordon and Uncle Jeff have many of the same built-in advantages against undersized players, and it shows up in many ways. The play below against the New York Knicks early in the first quarter helped set the tone for how easy Denver’s day was going to be with Gordon getting an easy layup off a no-look Jokić pass.
In the next play, Jeff Green operates in much the same capacity against the smaller Miami Heat player. Morris can’t find the passing angle, so he passes to Gordon in the slot, who then throws the high-low pass from a better angle after Jokić joins the party to remove his defender from help responsibilities. Easy catch. Easy bucket.
There are certain aspects of basketball, especially given the rule changes this year, in which being bigger and PLAYING bigger will yield better advantages than in years past. The Nuggets are playing like a big boy team with the Jokić, Gordon, and Green trio. They have the skill level to score in other ways, but the first option is always to get a layup around the basket in any way they can.
On the season, the Nuggets are shooting 66.0% on shots within five feet of the basket. That ranks third in the NBA, and it highlights two things. First, the advantage of having Jokić is that he puts infinite pressure on the rim by being an elite post player and an elite passer. Second, there have to be players who can finish through moderate contact, and both Gordon (69.6% within five feet) and Uncle Jeff (65.5% within five feet) can do just that. Jokić himself shoots an absurd 75.4% within five feet as well, meaning Denver has a trio of high quality finishers that improve when they get switched onto smaller players.
Skilled enough to capitalize on advantages
Another tenet of the Jokić offense is building upon advantages. Whether it’s a switch onto a smaller player, a slip of a screen into open space, a back cut, or something else, Denver (and Jokić specifically) isn’t often content with capitalizing on just one advantage. Instead, they wait for the defense to make a mistake to get the best shot they can.
Denver’s post play is a great example. It often takes advantage of smaller players, and when the help comes, the Nuggets are more than willing to make the extra pass. Jokić is the king of passing out of double teams, and on the play below, he faces a modified triple team and is more than happy to hit Gordon in the corner, who’s shooting 45.8% on corner threes this season.
On the next play, Gordon is the one pressing the advantage against his former team. He posts up Terrence Ross who clearly doesn’t have the strength to keep him out of the paint. Gordon stays aggressive enough that Mo Bamba is forced to help off Jeff Green in the corner who, after a slow start to the season, is up to 40% shooting corner threes. He calmly drains the wide open shot created off a mismatch opportunity.
The Nuggets know enough about pressing advantages that they’ve forced really good defenses to break on more than one occasion this year. The three-point shooting has come and gone, but the rim pressure hasn’t. Rather than settle for an open three off a Jokić pass, Uncle Jeff uses the advantage to feint a pass to the corner and drive to the rim instead, euro-stepping around a shorter defender for an easy layup.
When a team like Denver is without two offensive players as talented as Murray and Porter, it can be easy a natural reaction to try and replace them in ways that worked for those two. It’s impossible to replace their shooting talent though, and the Nuggets have adapted to become a more grind-it-out group, working the shot clock longer and searching out the best shot they can find. Denver has the highest frequency of shots attempted with four to seven seconds left on the shot clock, as well as the third highest from zero to four seconds. It isn’t always a great thing for their shooting efficiency, but it’s often better than settling for subpar looks.
Denver’s defense has taken a hit in recent weeks, exasperated by losing Dozier for the season and losing Jokić, the anchor of their defense, for a week. When he plays though, Denver’s defense is legitimately good. With Jokić ON the floor, the Nuggets have put together a 100.4 Defensive Rating. For comparison’s sake, the Utah Jazz have a 103.6 Defensive Rating with Rudy Gobert, the Warriors have a 100.6 Defensive Rating with Draymond Green, and the Milwaukee Bucks have a 100.1 Defensive Rating with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
To be clear, this isn’t placing Jokić in THAT class of defensive players, just pointing out that the Nuggets are doing something right while Jokić is on the floor.
Gordon is probably the biggest key. He’s a whirling dervish on backside rotations when he wants to be, breaking up lob passes, minimizing air space on shot attempts, and simply playing smart team defense. Here, he identifies the play the Knicks are going to run and breaks up the lob attempt by Mitchell Robinson, a notorious lob specialist.
In much the same way, Gordon breaks up a shot attempt by Bam Adebayo by keeping his eyes up. P.J. Tucker is exiting out to the opposite corner, and Gordon knows that he isn’t a threat on the play. So, he takes a peak, sees Jokić getting screened by Barton’s defender, and rotates over to add an extra bit of resistance to make Bam’s shot attempt almost impossible.
Next, Jeff Green is defending Tucker in the dunker spot and knows he’s in good position to help the strong side. Gordon closes out hard to Max Strus, forcing a rotation by Jokić off of Dewayne Dedmon, forcing a rotation by Green off of Tucker to contest the Dedmon layup. It isn’t the best contest, but when an offense creates an advantage situation like that, it’s Green’s job to make the shot as hard as possible. Green forces Dedmon to change his shot mid-air, and that’s enough to force a miss.
Finally, going all the way back to the Dallas Mavericks game, the Nuggets defended Luka Doncić very well, and while Gordon gets most of the credit, both Jokić and Jeff can share some credit too. Timely rotations and big bodies prevented Doncić from getting easy shots around the rim, and the below floater attempt was entirely due to high level awareness from Green’s, who’s athletic enough to still rotate and make that play.
It isn’t always about speed and strength with Gordon and Green. It’s about knowing when to apply the speed and strength they do have, whether it’s at the point of attack, while rotating to cover the interior, or closing out to prevent the open three. Both players have done a fantastic job of fitting into Denver’s defensive scheme and covering for Jokić’s weaknesses in open space. They close up those gaps with smart positioning and awareness, which is all anyone can be asked to do.
Will Denver’s newest dynamic duo maintain their high level performance for the entire season? It’s possible that they falter at some point. Jeff Green is 35 years old, and Aaron Gordon is currently shooting 35% from three-point range. Both are in a comfortable situation right now, but there are definitely reasons to be concerned with Green averaging over 29 minutes a night since entering the starting lineup.
Still, the Nuggets should be thankful that they added two versatile, complementary forwards to the group. After being guard heavy for a number of years, the Nuggets needed dynamic size and athleticism to make up for deficiencies in their system. Trading for Gordon last March and signing Green in the offseason were both great moves, and they’ve saved Denver’s season in the wake of Porter’s long term injury designation.
They play well next to Jokić, and they accentuate Jokić’s strengths while mitigating some weaknesses. In the face of uncertainty and change, simplification can be the entire difference.