How the Nuggets Became One of the NBA’s Best Offenses

Built around one of the best young players in the league, the Denver Nuggets have become unstoppable. 

Not every NBA team can point to one game as the turning point of an entire season, but the Denver Nuggets can. On December 15th of last year, in a game against Portland, Nikola Jokić became Denver’s full-time starting center and Gary Harris returned to lineup from a foot injury. From that point on, Jokić came into his own and the Nuggets had the best offense in the league.

Over the final four months of the season, Jokić averaged 19.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game on nearly 59 percent shooting. He is already one of the best offensive players in the entire league, with significant room for improvement. Jokić ranked in the top ten in nearly every individual metric last season, and he’s only 22. He’s an absurdly gifted passer who functionally plays point guard in many of Denver’s sets and leads some of the most exciting breaks in the league:

Those openings exist because of how well Denver spaces the floor, and no one uses open space better than Jokić. Guys like Wilson Chandler, Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, and Danilo Gallinari (since replaced by Paul Millsap) possess a level of gravity that allows Jokić to pass his teammates open without help defenders mucking up his passing lanes. With the floor spaced, the Nuggets can initiate actions through Jokić at the elbow or via the pick and roll. Not many centers can make this pass, in this tight of a space, right on the money:

From Jokić stems an unselfishness and cohesion that allowed Denver to take a major leap forward last year. Jokić was the only player in the league to score more than 1.10 points per possession on at least three post-ups per game, and his craftiness makes him one of the best inside finishers in the league despite his below-average athleticism. But the Nuggets were even more efficient when he passed out of the post, scoring a ridiculous 1.43 points per 100 possessions in those situations. Murray in particular does a good job playing off the post passing of Jokić:

Guys cut harder, screen better, and more readily give up the ball when they know they can get an open look in return, which makes the entire team harder to guard. And just as they create great looks off of reads and cuts, the Nuggets can also leverage their spacing in more structured ways, like they do with this delightful action:

Jokić and Harris have developed a tangible chemistry with one another. After that pivotal December 15th, Harris averaged over 15 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 59.3, an astronomical mark for someone who launches triples as frequently as he does. He shot 46.6 percent on 3.6 catch-and-shoot attempts per game and is dangerous coming off screens. Plays like this one have become a staple of Michael Malone’s offense:

Harris also moves extremely well without the ball as well, making him a natural fit with Jokić:

Harris is Moreyan in his shot selection, part of the reason for his high efficiency. Only 10 percent of his shot attempts last year came from the midrange, while 40 percent came from behind the arc and 42 percent were from the restricted area. Those are the most efficient shots in basketball, and Harris is adept at finding them.

His offensive tendencies are largely representative of the Nuggets as a team, as well (with the exception of Jokić, who shot 55 percent from 16-24 feet!). Denver scored a hair over 10 percent of its points from the midrange, the third-lowest mark in the NBA, while ranking in the top ten in percentage of points in the paint, three-point attempt rate, and assist rate.

Millsap clashes slightly with some of those offensive philosophies. The 32-year-old took nearly 25 percent of his shots from the midrange and made only 31 percent of his threes a season ago. The Nuggets excel at creating easy baskets; Millsap’s game is one reliant on taking—and making—tough shots and working his ass off for everything he gets. But those stylistic discrepancies can benefit both parties. Though Denver lost one of its only reliable one-on-one creators in Gallinari, Millsap is a capable conjurer of offense in his own right. His efficiency has tailed off as he’s gotten older, but having credible playmakers and a spaced floor around him should reduce his offensive burden and bump that outside shooting back up to league-average.

Where Millsap’s presence will be felt the most, though, is on the other end of the floor. Millsap perennially grades out as one of the best defenders in the league and should help patch up what was the NBA’s second-worst defense. Jokić is not as bad a defender as his reputation, but he’s meh at best. Chandler is the only combo forward on the roster and will be the team’s primary option to guard small forwards. Millsap does practically everything well on defense and his presence should provide consistency and versatility for an otherwise dreadful defensive unit. Still, even with Millsap, Denver could be pretty bad in that department.

While Millsap fills a major short-term need, Denver’s long-term forward situation remains uncertain. OG Anunoby, who has Millsapian defensive qualities, would have fit nicely, but the Nuggets traded the 13th pick to Utah for Trey Lyles and the 24th pick, which became Tyler Lydon (Anunoby was taken 23rd by the Raptors).

It’s unclear how Lyles or Lydon make sense for this team going forward. Denver now has a stockpile of bigs and little room in the rotation. Jokić, Millsap, and Chandler will start; Hernangomez needs minutes at the four, as does Malik Beasley at the three; Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee still exist. Playing small could be a struggle for this team.

It also remains to be seen the extent to which Emmanuel Mudiay is a part of Denver’s future, if at all. It’s hard to give up on a 20-year-old point guard with Mudiay’s physical tools, but offense has been a struggle in his first two years, and the team was much better with Murray on the floor. With Jokić functionally playing point guard, a player with Murray’s shooting touch and cutting acumen fits better with the rest of the Denver’s nucleus.

These questions don’t have straightforward answers yet; those come with time and development. But Denver now has answers in regard to its building block, its direction, and its identity. This is now a team primed to compete for a post-Warriors era.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com, and NBAwowy!

Leave a Reply