The Nuggets need more from Aaron Gordon and Will Barton down the stretch

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

With the status of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in question, the Nuggets need their complementary pieces to fill the void in the meantime.

Nikola Jokić is carrying a lot on his shoulders.

Averaging over 26 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists per game, Jokić has been the rock of the Denver Nuggets organization for some time now, the foundation around which they’ve built their team. He won MVP last year. He might win it again this year, and some are calling him the best player in the NBA.

(I am “some” people. I think he’s the best player in the world.)

Still, basketball is a team sport. Five players play in concert to win games. When those players get tired, others step in and shoulder the burden themselves. It’s never, ever enough to have just one great player. At least, not at the highest levels of the NBA.

The Nuggets were embarrassed on their home floor on Sunday night against the Boston Celtics, losing by 20 points. They trailed by 25 at halftime, and it got so bad that head coach Michael Malone benched the entire starting unit to begin the third quarter. Malone cited poor effort and simply taking a beatdown at the hands of the opponent as the primary reasons.

I can think of another reason: the starters had absolutely nothing for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Some of the possessions in the highlight reel above are simply astounding. Aaron Gordon was caught and stuck to every screen Robert Williams set like it some sort of velcro. Will Barton was out-quicked, outmuscled, and lost his assignment on several possessions. Nikola Jokić was involved in the action almost every time and was out of position almost every time. Monte Morris and Jeff Green weren’t anywhere near the actions on most plays because they weren’t supposed to be. It was almost entirely Barton, Gordon, Jokić, and the bench unit guys that got absolutely cooked by a better team.

It’s no wonder Michael Malone wanted to try something else. Anything else.

The truth of the matter is that the starting lineup hasn’t been particularly good for awhile. Outside of a blowout win against the Washington Wizards, the Nuggets starters have just one single plus-minus performance that’s been positive since March 9th against the Sacramento Kings…and it was Davon Reed, who’s not usually a starter. Within the last 10 games, Will Barton has played seven and had a positive plus-minus just twice: against the Rockets and Wizards. Aaron Gordon has had more positive contributions, but he’s also shooting 16% from three-point range with a noticeable dip in defensive impact as well. Monte Morris has mostly maintained his scoring and production, but his recent dip in shooting efficiency over the last few games has coincided in dips with other starters, which is simply bad timing. Jeff Green grabbed three rebounds total in the 57 total minutes he played between the last three games, getting outworked by players that simply wanted it more.

There’s no better visual for Denver’s current roster pecking order than the points per game averages in the last 10 games.

In some ways, it’s great to have several players capable of averaging double figures while surrounding a star. Jokić will almost certainly get his, but it doesn’t have to be one player or another that steps up every night when several players are able to pick up the slack. Whether it’s Monte Morris or Will barton or Bones Hyland or Aaron Gordon or someone else, the Nuggets will find a way to get to 110 points on most nights.

That formula falls through against the best teams in the NBA though.

The Nuggets have struggled in recent weeks (and frankly, the entire season) against teams with disciplined length and athleticism. Teams that know what they’re doing, know what they need to take away, are generally successful against the Nuggets unless Jokić transcends their defensive coverages. The entire Nuggets scheme is predicated on two things: Jokić scoring against single or halfhearted double coverage, and Jokić drawing enough attention to free up opportunities for teammates.

On nights where Jokić remains human, the Nuggets offense falls apart. Often, two players are sent Jokić’s way, meaning there’s a 4-on-3 for the other four Nuggets on the court. In these situations, the Nuggets have been fine — Good against the bad teams, bad against the good teams — at capitalizing on their advantage. The easiest way to capitalize is to shoot three-pointers efficiently, but on the season, only Morris (38.4%) has maintained an above average three-point percentage. Barton’s roughly average (35.8%) while both Gordon and Jeff Green are clearly subpar (31.3% and 30.4% respectively). That’s just not good enough to space the floor in crunch time, especially when Jeff Green has the highest three-point percentage in the fourth quarter among the starting unit at 33.3%.

Still, it hasn’t all been bad. Denver’s 42-30 because up until this point, they’ve had their starters step up at important times to really bolster things around Jokić. Barton was an important piece to why the Nuggets started the season 9-4. Jeff Green entered the starting lineup after Michael Porter Jr. went down and solidified one of the starting forward positions. Aaron Gordon had a stretch of 42 games from mid November to the All-Star break where he scored in double digits 36 times. Morris has basically been solid all year after an adjustment period to the starting lineup.

Without the starters around Jokić stepping up and playing really solid basketball at different points in the season, the Nuggets would be much closer to .500 than they are now. 36-36 is a reasonable record without two max players, even while having the best player in the world. The Nuggets have earned an extra five or six wins throughout the year because they’ve had guys step up at different points. From Barton vs the Indiana Pacers early in the season, to Aaron Gordon scoring 28 points and hitting a game winning three (off a Jokić pass) to beat the Los Angeles Clippers, to Monte Morris hitting a buzzer beater against the Golden State Warriors right before the All-Star break, there are plenty of examples of big moments from the supporting cast.

It’s unfair that Murray and Porter have been out all season. It’s unfair to Nikola Jokić, who’s shouldered more this season than any other NBA player. It’s unfair to the supporting cast, asked to score and create more offense than they were ever paid to do. It’s unfair to the coaching staff to be searching for answers to a problem that will always factor in a talent deficit without two young stars making things easier.

And yet, as the season winds down, the Nuggets aren’t about to let that excuse cloud their season. Even if Murray and Porter do end up returning before the season ends, the Nuggets simply have to be better in every facet of the game. Offensively, the outside shots and off-the-dribble looks have to start dropping more frequently around Jokić, or else he will continue to see endless double and triple teams during the final stretch. Defensively, the Nuggets have to lock in and control the things they can control like their effort, communication, and execution of defensive schemes. Without solid defense, the Nuggets will surely go nowhere fast as the playoffs draw closer.

The Nuggets need Aaron Gordon and Will Barton to be the leaders by example here. Gordon is the next highest paid player on the Nuggets behind Jokić, Murray, and (soon) Porter. He has the athletic tools, basketball IQ, and defensive skill set to be a legitimately impactful two-way player. Too often though, both ends of the floor have seen some slippage as the season has worn on him quickly. Barton has been with the organization for over seven years, and after years of injury absences in key moments, Barton is still here to help the team down the stretch this year. Those two HAVE to have something left in the tank, because if they don’t the Nuggets are dead in the water.

There’s only so much one player can do. Jokić has pushed the boundaries of what’s reasonable to expect from a single player all season, and he’s done it without complaint. Still, he needs a pick-me-up late in the year, and if the Nuggets want to have any chance of advancing in the playoffs this year, it can’t just be Jokić down the stretch.

Someone’s gotta step up and share the burden.

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