Don’t wake up a sleeping giant they say. The rest of the league is figuring that out as the Nuggets are 7-3 in their last ten
It’s difficult for any team without two of their crucial pieces to locate their identity. With Murray and Porter Jr. this team is a ball-moving juggernaut liable to score 120 points on any opponent. Without those two, Michael Malone has crafted an efficient defensive team that ranked top 10 for the majority of the season. Their defense was on a rapid tear holding several high-powered offenses to under 100 points and although their defense has slipped of late, their offense is beginning to gel at the right time.
Through the first couple of months, the Nugget offense struggled. They ranked bottom ten in scoring per game but as the season progressed, so did the offense. In the first month of the season, Denver averaged only 101.3 PPG. The next month 104.6, then 109, and finally in the month of January, they found their groove averaging 113.6 PPG. This month, in which they have played 13 games, they lead the league in field goal percentage per game (48.8%) and assists (29.8). In their last seven games, they lead the league in three-point percentage, assists, and second in scoring at 121.4 PPG.
Of course, the catalyst for this production is Nikola Jokic as he was named Western Conference Player of the Week. During that week, he averaged 36.3 PPG, 11.3 rebounds, 10 assists, and 2.3 steals on 65% shooting from the field and 40% from three. These performances helped him jump into the top spot in NBA.com’s MVP rankings, but it also supported Denver’s 7 wins in 10 games.
Jokic has produced all season but now the role players are the greatest compliment to Denver’s success. In their last ten, they have five players averaging doubles figures and Bones Hyland close behind with 8.9 PPG. They also have four players averaging 15+ PPG and five players shooting above 40% from three with qualifying minutes. Gordon, Barton, Morris, and Jeff Green are solid players they can count on for double-digit scoring efforts, but it has been the others that bolstered that bench lineup.
It is not the most explosive bench because some of Denver’s reserves must be inserted into the starting lineup, but they are finding their niche. The addition of Bryn Forbes could prove pivotal. It was essential for them to find a sharpshooter off the bench and they found one of the best on the market. Although he hasn’t located his deep shot yet, he is finding other ways to score and will ingratiate himself into the flow of things at some point. He is a career 41% three-point shooter, so when he finds his three-point shot, it will increase Denver’s offensive efficiency even more. Moreover, I think the addition of DeMarcus Cousins positively impacts this team as well. No, he did not shoot well in his first stint but he sets great screens, he’s a bruiser down low, and he can give the Nuggets much-needed paint scoring off the bench.
Two others that impressed me as well, Zeke Nnaji and Davon Reed. They do not get a ton of shooting opportunities, but when they do they often make the best of it lately. Early in Nnaji’s career, most of his activity came from the three-point line and he appeared to avoid physicality at times. Now, he is forming into the modern big. He has been extremely physical and active on the glass and his three-point shot is still pure. Davon Reed is another guy who brought a physical presence to this team. The Nuggets needed a defensive wing and he filled that void, but he is also efficient from the field. He only gets about 3-4 shots per game, but in January he has shot 50% from the field and 57% from beyond the arc. These two are not volume scorers but their timely impact off the bench is crucial when trying to obtain or expand a lead.
When I look at the recent augmentation to this Nugget offense, I see three aspects they are executing well. They are taking advantage of the fast break, they are knocking down perimeter opportunities, and they are scheming open shots to perfection. Let’s take a look.
Pushing the pace
Normally, the Nuggets are a middle-of-the-pack team when it comes to fast-break points. On the season, they rank 14th with 12.5 fast break points per game, but over their last ten games, they are 7th in the league. Capitalizing on the break had been a staple of the Nugget franchise and although they like to play slow in the half-court with Jokic, they are beginning to fuse their slow half-court offense with aggressive fast-break opportunities.
Here is one of the prettier fast breaks Denver has run all season. It comes off a turnover which is critical when obtaining these opportunities. Jeff Green does a great job of pushing the ball down to the furthest teammate. He could give it to the closest teammate in Will Barton, but that might take the possession longer to develop. So he gives it to Gordon and they immediately have a three on one. From here it’s a game of hot potato and it’s a beauty. Immediately after he receives the pass, Gordon wisely tosses it to Jokic which forces the only Clipper defender to turn his back on the ball. They put him in the spin cycle with great ball movement, Jackson then commits to Gordon, and AG gives a beautiful touch pass to Jokic to finish the deal.
This play is just good offense taking advantage of bad defense. Malik Monk is going to shade Barton’s way which leaves Monte wide open as he sprints down the floor. Once Monte receives the pass, it’s a chess game between him and LeBron. Monte wisely reads his body momentum and at the exact moment LeBron jabs to the inside, Morris tosses it to Green for the wide-open three. At any moment but especially at the end of a quarter, these are important shots to make because they are so wide open. Malik Monk makes a mistake by ignoring Monte at the half-court line and Morris makes him pay for it.
The strength of late has been efficient shot-making. Over their last seven games, the Nuggets lead the league in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and are second in scoring with 121.4 PPG. Jokic always appears to put his teammates in the best position to score but now those teammates are converting. Over that seven-game stretch, they have 9 players shooting above 40% from three. Sure, Markus Howard only played in one of those games but nine sounds better than eight. With injuries to both of their best shooters, the Nugget offense needed a surge like this and it is manifesting itself in wins.
Usually, LeBron is toying with defenders but he’s on the wrong end of this one. Jokic completely baits him and it ends with an open three. The play starts with Morris giving it up to Jokic and immediately LeBron jabs toward the big man. I don’t know for sure, but this movement possibly gave Jokic the idea, “I’m about to do LeBron dirty with this one.” With that jab step, Jokic recognizes LeBron will double if he drives to the basket. So Jokic fakes a pass causing another jab in the opposite direction, then he drives to the hoop. At this point, LeBron thinks Jokic is taking it to the lane but Jokic has the upper hand. He sees LeBron planted in the paint, quickly kicks it out to Green, and by that time it’s too late for LeBron to recover.
These are luxury shots. When you don’t make them it hurts your team because you could have had a better shot but when they do go in, it strikes fear in the opponent. Off the missed shot Jokic quickly kicks it to a wide-open Morris. Notice the action of Jeff Green within the arc. He holds off Monte’s defender giving him plenty of time and room. It looks like an easy shot to make because it is so open but transition threes are tough. Monte has to make sure he balances himself after running down the court which is easier said than done. He does a great job of that, thus the shot is pure.
Scheming open shots
This is where the genius of Nikola Jokic and Michael Malone reveals itself. Malone knows if he draws a play, Jokic will get it to the right man which is a blessing for a coach. The Nuggets are one of the best ball movement teams and that is facilitated by the coach-player relationship Malone and Jokic have. Currently, Denver ranks 4th in assists at 26.8 per game, but in January they are the leader.
The majority of these types of plays are more easily witnessed at the start of the game and towards the end of quarters. This possession is at the end of the first half and it’s a beauty. Barton and Morris run a screen and roll in which Barton is doubled, so he gives it to Jokic. Since Nurkic helped on the Barton action, it forces Covington to roll into the paint and help. This gives Jeff Green two options since it’s his man that left to help. He can stay at the three-point line or drive into the paint and he wisely picks the ladder. It’s an easier pass for Jokic but it also yields the most efficient shot. Jokic then dumps it to Green and Uncle Jeff punches it on Nurkic.
This is Michael Malone at work here. This is a set play they practice and run quite often. There are other options to this play if Barton is covered but it works to perfection here. They start out with two guys at opposite ends of the nail which they do a lot. Morris then tosses it to Green but as this pass is happening, Barton is getting ready to fly off this screen from Jokic. Nikola sets a great screen, Barton rubs shoulders with Jokic which is what you’re taught to do, and it forces Barton’s man to run right into Jokic. Ibaka doesn’t even notice Barton cutting to the rim and it is easy money from there.