For a franchise that hasn’t experienced a ton of postseason success, the Nuggets, led by their young pact of hungry up-and-comers, are destined to get this organization back to a place the city of Denver hasn’t been to since the days of George Karl and his run-and-gun offensive squads.
With the current construction of the roster, the strategy for a successful season is simple; score a s**t ton of points.
Thankfully, offense has never been a problem for the Nuggets. They posted the 4th best offensive rating in the league in 2016-17 –2nd best post All-Star– and then 6th best the following season –1st post All-Star. They were 6th in points, 6th in three-point percentage and 5th in assists.
Their young trio of Jamal Murray (21), Gary Harris (23), and Nikola Jokic (23), looked like veterans at times. And their individual numbers weren’t too shabby either:
Murray: 16.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.4 APG, 45%(FG)-37%(3PT)-90%(FT)
Harris: 17.5 PPG, 2.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 48%(FG)-39%(3PT)-82%(FT)
Jokic: 18.5 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 6.1 APG, 49%(FG)-39%(3PT)-85%(FT)
Unfortunately, the same could not be said about the Nuggets’ effort on the defensive end. They were abysmal when it came to defending, and that might be an understatement.
They ranked 26th in defensive rating and allowed opponents to shoot 37.8 percent from three and 47.8 percent from the floor–both were the worst marks among all thirty NBA teams.
Because of their inability to close out shooters and properly rotate –and a few injuries– the Nuggets found themselves on the outside looking in late in the season. Though they put together an impressive six-game win streak towards the end of their 82 game schedule, their hopeful playoff push came to a halt against the Timberwolves in the last game of the season and the Nuggets, much like the previous season, missed out on playoffs.
Now that Will Barton and Nikola Jokic have re-signed to long-term contracts, and Paul Millsap and Gary Harris’ injuries have healed, the team is ready to run things back and fully embrace their top-tier offense.
In an effort to save money, the Nuggets shipped off Wilson Chandler –who was one of the Nuggets’ better defenders– to Philadelphia, thus making Barton the teams new starting small forward.
At just 6’5″, 170 lbs, Barton is clearly undersized and exploitable at the forward position. However, he makes up for it with how dynamic of a player he is.
On the season, Barton averaged 15.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists on 45-37-80 shooting splits. He’s equally capable of giving Denver a much-needed bucket as he is at creating scoring opportunities for others.
In 13 regular season games (65 minutes), the Nuggets ran a 5-man lineup of Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Jokic that posted an offensive rating of 124.7, eighth best among all 5-man lineups in the NBA.
That number can only continue to increase the more minutes and games those guys play together.
The Nuggets are also bringing Isaiah Thomas onboard; a player who’ll give them a whole lot of offense and not much of that defensive stuff that they lack. Perfect fit, right?
Thomas does give them much-needed firepower off the bench, though. He also relieves some pressure off Murray who is still adjusting to the point guard position and gives Denver another shot creator and playmaker that they desperately needed. He and Jokic could also shred opposing defenses with hand-offs, something the Nuggets have made a killing out of.
For the 2017-18 season, the Nuggets scored the third most points in handoff situations (612). That translated to 0.97 points per possession on a 7.0% frequency.
During his time with the Celtics, Isaiah averaged the second most points (3.0) across the rest of the league in hand off plays converting 1.06 points per possession.
The Jokic-Thomas handoff could be a huge component in the Nuggets’ half-court set, much like it has with shooting guard Gary Harris, who finished third among all players in points (3.6) in same situations.
With Isaiah’s playmaking ability, Mike Malone could run him at the one next to Murray –whose natural position is at the two– and Gary Harris at the three. Giving them a small, quick, outside shooting lineup that’s bound to give teams headaches.
On catch-and-shoot plays, Jamal Murray averaged 4.2 points on 41% shooting from three, while Harris scored 5.4 points on 40% from three, helping give Denver a top 10 ranking in three-pointers made and three-point percentage for catch-and-shoot plays.
Throw Jokic on the floor with these three and you have one of the most dangerous shooting lineups in the league.
In addition, the Nuggets might have made a huge steal in this years draft by taking Michael Porter Jr. at #14. It was a low-risk high-reward pick by Denver to take Porter, who dropped all the way from a projected top three pick, to fourteen because his back issues.
Whenever he’s given the go-ahead to make his NBA debut, he could give the Nuggets scoring versatility, lineup flexibility and yet another talented piece to their already special young core.
Standing at 6’10”, Porter has potential to be an extremely lethal forward for Denver. Because of his size and outside shooting, he could be utilized at either forward position. Pinning him in the front court next to Jokic is sure to give opposing defenses fits with their dynamic skill-sets.
Porter will probably be best suited as a stretch four in Denver’s offense. Like Jokic, he’ll be a perfect partner in the pick-and-pop, creating more spacing and easy looks for everyone on the floor.
And who knows, with his size and length, maybe he could even develop into a capable defender.
With so many offensive weapons intact, it’s become clear that the Nuggets are looking to ditch the defense and go all in to boosting their offense. After all, who needs defense when you can just straight up outscore the other team?
Behind the wizardry of Nikola Jokic’s mesmerizing passing, the exceptional off-ball movement and sharpshooting of Gary Harris, the continued development of Jamal Murray and other key pieces in Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas, the Nuggets should have no problem running up the scoreboard and competing with the rest of the top teams in the Western Conference.