The Nuggets are almost a third of way into this season. Although they have not had as much success as they envisioned, many players are stepping up this season
At 15-14, the Denver Nuggets are nearing completion of the first third of the NBA season. The season already began in flux with the absence of Jamal Murray but with injuries to Michael Porter Jr., PJ Dozier, and the myriad of covid-19 issues, they have been battling uphill all season. Even without their two max players, the Nuggets began the season 9-4 through their first 13 games so there was not much cause for concern until November 15th. That day initiated a 6 game losing streak, bringing the Nuggets under .500. Since the end of that streak, they only mustered one stretch where they won two games in a row.
When you look at this season so far, there may be concerns for their playoff future. They started the season with the second-ranked defense and now have the 21st ranked defense. Their offense also seems to be a shell of themselves, only scoring 106.8 PPG which is 20th in the NBA behind teams like the Rockets, Cavaliers, Pacers, Spurs, and Kings. They currently stand at 5th in the Western Conference. They are 2.5 games behind the 4th seed, but they are only one game out of the 10th seed.
With that being said, this is nothing new. Through this point last season, the Nuggets obtained a 16-13 record. In 2020-2021, they had a full lineup with their 3 max stars yet they were only one game better than this season’s Denver Nuggets so far. Without their two stars it begs the question, are the Nuggets actually playing better than last season? Collectively, I don’t think so, but individually yes. As a team, they haven’t located the consistency to stack wins, but many players on this team are playing better than last season. That brings me to Denver’s first trimester grades. As a team, I would give them a C+ right now, but the individual grades show much more promise for the rest of the season.
I highlighted the players I thought to have the most impact on the team thus far. As for those I did not include in the grading, here is what I give them so far:
Facu Campazzo – B
Pros: Facu has increased his production from the three-point line, seems to have improved his finishing at the basket, and always provides great energy and hustle.
Cons: His size will always be an issue defending bigger players, he over rotates with his help defense, and he still is not a scoring threat.
Jeff Green – B+
Pros: Since entering the starting lineup, he has been rock solid. In his last 15 games, he’s averaging 11.7 PPG while shooting 46% from three. He also appears to have found chemistry with Jokic, providing Denver with much-needed cutting opportunities, and also has a willingness to take charges.
Cons: Defensively he is in a tough spot. He often finds himself guarding the opponent’s center and is too small to handle that responsibility at times. That creates a frequency to foul and in his last 15 games, he leads the Nuggets in personal fouls with 2.9 a game.
Austin Rivers – D+
Pros: He is nice to have off the bench because he is a solid defender and can knock down the three-ball every once in a while. He does not get consistent playing time, but when he does he seems to find some rhythm.
Cons: He does not get a lot of playing time because his offense has been inconsistent. Although his role might be perimeter shooting, he is at his best when he drives to the basket to open those perimeter opportunities. He has not shown that enough this season.
Zeke Nnaji – B+
Pros: Zekes’ consistency from the three-point line has been a revelation for him this season. He seems to have found his role offensively, but I love how he has been active on the glass lately.
Cons: He still has not morphed into the forward Denver envisions him being yet. Lately, he has been focusing more on rebounding, but he still needs to improve his physicality and paint production.
JaMychal Green – F
Pros: Not a lot of pros here. He has had a couple of good games in which his energy on the glass assisted a Nugget win.
Cons: He has not located his stroke from the three-point line yet this season and it hurts the bench production because he often gets wide-open looks. His rebounding tenacity has not been as consistent and is clearly not covering for his lack of offense
Markus Howard – B
Pros: Before he got injured, he was on fire from the three-point line. During that stretch, he was the Nugget’s best three-point shooter, and that production off the bench gave the Nuggets the punch they needed to win some games.
Cons: Prior to him finding his rhythm from three, he did not show or do much. He wasn’t getting a lot of playing time and that was because he was not hitting his threes. When he is hitting his threes, he is a valuable part of the Nuggets bench. When he is not, there is not much use for him.
Nikola Jokic – A+
Talks are just now beginning regarding his status in the MVP race which is ridiculous. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are battling for the lead, and for good reason, but that should not exclude Jokic from the conversation. Jokic seems to be ruled out for the same reason Curry finished 2nd in voting last year. Pundits loved the fact Curry carried a less talented team towards the playoffs, yet the Jokic is carrying the Nuggets to the 5th seed in the west without two of their best players. That is a different conversation for another day but the point is, Nikola Jokic has improved his play yet again and is not receiving adequate credit for it.
In his MVP season, he averaged 26.4 PPG, 8.3 assists, and 10.8 rebounds a game. So far this season, he is averaging 26.3 PPG, 7.5 assists, and 13.5 rebounds a game. If it were not for a stretch of games where he struggled from three, all his shooting numbers would be career highs. He is shooting 59% from the field (career-high), 38% from three, and his effective field goal percentage is 63.8% (career-high). Among players with 12 attempts or more per game, there are only two players that shoot a higher FG% than Jokic. Deandre Ayton shoots 62.5% on 12 attempts and Caleb Martin shoots 63% on 13.5 attempts. Jokic shoots 59% on 17.5 attempts per game and for those above 17.5 attempts per game, there is nobody close to his percentage. The closest is Giannis shooting 52.9% on 18 attempts a game.
We know he’s one of the best offensive threats in the game, but what is not being discussed enough is his rebounding and defense. Right now, Jokic is tied for 2nd in the league in rebounding behind Rudy Gobert with 15 rebounds a game. He has inserted himself as one of the league’s premier rebounders which is very crucial for this Nuggets team as they lack rebounding prowess. Defensively, when he is on the court, the Nuggets allow 104.8 points per 100 possessions and when he is off the court, the Nuggets allow 118.4.
As JJ Redick described, when Jokic is on the court they are a top-two team in the league. As Zach Lowe stated, “With Nikola Jokic on the floor, the Denver Nuggets are basically the best team ever, off the floor the worst team ever.” Nikola Jokic deserves an A+ not only for his individual play but because he is willing this team into a high seed in the playoffs without two of Denver’s best players.
Will Barton – B+
The only reason Barton does not get an A here is that he has been struggling since his illness. In his last 4 games, he is averaging 6.5 PPG which is a clear indication he is not right at the moment. When you look at his season as a whole, it is very impressive. He is .1 points off his career-high in scoring at 15.6 PPG right now, but he is also averaging a career-high in assists at 4.2 per game. For the majority of the season, Will Barton was the second-best player on this team.
Prior to his illness, he was playing the best basketball of his career. If it were not for his illness, his 3P% would be hovering at or above 40% (37.7% right now), and his field goal percentage would be on par with his career-high (43.6% right now). With more shots attempted his production is rising. He is such a critical part of this team which was evident by their matchup with the Pacers.
That game followed the infamous Jokic shove on Markieff Morris, so Jokic was suspended and someone needed to step up. Barton filled that role and scored 30 points, including the game-sealing floater with seconds left. He shot 6-9 from three and 11-19 overall and was the key to that victory. Without his production, the starters only scored 32 points on that night, and that game was a key factor in their 5 game winning streak. It was also the last time the Nuggets won 3 games in a row.
Monte Morris – B+
Monte did not start the season as he would have liked, but he is in an absolute grove right now. At the moment, he is proving not only to be a starter in this league but one of the best. Monte is Mr.Efficient and is showing it with career highs this year. He is averaging 13.1 PPG (career-high), 4.2 assists (career-high), 49% from the field, and 37.8% from three. Denver was in a precarious spot after losing six in a row but as the Nuggets appeared dejected, Monte increased his game. In the 10 games following that losing streak, he is second on the team in scoring at 16.2 PPG while shooting 44.4% from three, and 54.7% from the field.
Although Jokic is the conductor of the offense, Monte is the co-captain. While Jokic may take risks at times passing the ball, Monte protects the ball at costs. He is the consistent, steady force the Nuggets need in times of despair which he has always been but this year, he is proving to be a threat. Teams like to focus on Jokic during their two-man game but Monte is making that increasingly difficult for the opponent. They want to limit Jokic’s touches so they go under the screen and Monte has been making them pay for it. He is slow and methodical in his approach but that’s what makes that two-man game work. Many defenses like to play fast and scramble across the floor, but when Monte works with Jokic they make the defense think. Of course, it’s good to think, but when defenses think too much their focus is scattered and that’s when Denver capitalizes.
At this point in the season, I don’t think there is too much more to ask out of Monte. He has filled his role seamlessly with the absence of Murray and has improved his game to above-average levels. Throughout his career, I viewed him as a solid player. A real solid player. Now, I view him as a threat. If you go under the screen, he’s going to hit the three. If you go over, he’s going to probe until he finds Jokic or until the mid-range opens up. Offensively, it’s difficult to find a prevalent flaw in his game, and this season will earn him a big payday in his future.
Aaron Gordon – A-
Gordon gets an A- because he also has improved his game but he does something no other Nugget does consistently. He can hold the opponent’s best player to an underwhelming night while giving him buckets on the other end. In terms of shooting percentages, he is another Nugget having a career year. He’s averaging 14.1 PPG while shooting 51.8% from the floor (career-high), and 34.9% from three which is tied for his career-best.
I also think he brings a mentality Denver would not have without him. Physicality. He’s not a finesse player, so he makes his money in the paint with his strength. Even watching the pre-season games, he appeared to be a lot stronger and more confident using his strength. Last year, he was not able to fully ingratiate his way into the offense as it was a new team but now he is finding his rhythm. Although he is not known for his scoring, he has led the Nuggets in that department four times this season.
He also carries some of the highest responsibilities on the team. He is a forward but since he has such great defensive talent, he is tasked with defending some of the elite guards in this league. So not only does he have to man the paint with bigger opponents, when the opponent’s best guard comes in the game, Gordon has to play tight perimeter defense. He’s the most versatile player Denver has and with enhanced offensive play, he likely is the X-factor for the Nuggets in the playoffs.
Bones Hyland – C+
During the regular season, I think Bones Hyland is Denver’s X-factor. The starters are usually going to carry the load and play solid basketball, but when the bench plays well so do the Nuggets. Bones is the key to that bench unit. Facu, Rivers, Nnaji, and Green all play their roles, but Bones seems to have the most crucial role in the scoring department. Denver usually gifts the other team the lead when the Jokic departs, so it is imperative Bones closes the gap with his scoring or facilitation skills.
The reason I give Bones a C+ is that he has shown his talent but has not displayed consistency. He was out a while for health and safety protocol issues and was also suspended for a team violation. I don’t think those are long-term issues, but he has done such a great job introducing himself to the league that he needs to be reliable now. Dependability is his main issue but it should not merit significant concern because he is a rookie.
With that being said, he brings an energy to the lineup not many can replicate. Facu brings energy with his hustle but it does not always translate to points. Bones brings a type of energy that can immediately translate to offensive production. When he drops threes from four feet beyond the line, that strikes fear in a defense and opens up the inside for Denver. Not only does he have the best range on the team, but his driving and facilitation skills are much better than advertised. So when that three-ball is true, Denver’s bench is operating at a major advantage because of one player. Defenses start to crowd Bones, so he drives past them with his quickness and great handles, leaving somebody open who Bones often finds.
The C+ grade is more of a compliment than an insult in my opinion. If any other bench player produced as he has, he would get a solid B or B+ from me, but expectations are higher with Bones. Per 36 minutes, he ranks as one of the best rookies in the league in terms of scoring. He has the potential to be an elite talent in this league, so now his largest obstacle is consistency. If he locates that this season along with consistency from others, the Nuggets will once again be a top-five seed.