20Q: What will the Nuggets’ offensive rating be next season?

December 12, 2020; San Francisco, California, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) passes the basketball to center Nikola Jokic (15) against the Golden State Warriors during the first quarter at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 29 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 16: Just how good can the Nuggets offense be throughout the 2022-23 season?

As the Denver Nuggets begin their preparation for the 2022-23 season, it’s good to see some familiar faces back in town.

Nuggets fans are so excited to watch Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. play next season. It will be 18 months in October since Murray has stepped on the floor and 11 months for Porter. The team last year that fought hard in the face of adversity deserves a lot of credit because the offense was operating with one hand tied behind its back for 70+ games.

And yet, even without Denver’s second and third best offensive players for all but nine games, the 2021-22 Nuggets finished sixth in offensive rating league wide. A true testament to the talents of Nikola Jokić.

But Murray and Porter are now back, and with them should come a return to offensive dominance for the Nuggets. Though Denver also ranked sixth in offensive rating during the 2020-21 season, there were plenty of signs that an elite offense was emerging. From the time that Denver returned from a long road trip in the middle of February 2021 to Denver’s last win before Murray was lost to injury, the Nuggets led the NBA with a 17-4 record and were averaging a 119.0 offensive rating, by far the best in the NBA. Though the defense still wasn’t at the level it needed to be, the offense was on its way to becoming elite.

During that same stretch of games, here were the per games averages for all three of Jokić, Murray, and Porter:

  • Nikola Jokić: 34.9 minutes, 26.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 57.8 FG%, 47.5 3P%, 84.1 FT%
  • Jamal Murray: 36.3 minutes, 21.9 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 48.4 FG%, 45.3 3P%, 96.2 FT%
  • Michael Porter Jr.: 33.3 minutes, 20.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 58.6 FG%, 51.3 3P%, 73.6 FT%

On the season, the Nuggets generating a 124.0 offensive rating when those three players shared the floor in 2020-21. During that brief two month stretch mentioned above, the offensive rating rose to 125.7.

To say that Denver’s top three scorers were reaching a state of basketball nirvana would not be unfair. Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, and Monte Morris were contributing to parts of that formula, but it was becoming clear that Denver was developing three absolutely legit pillars on offense.

It’s why the Nuggets gave MPJ a max contract extension, despite the risks. They knew exactly what Denver’s offense could be at full strength and were willing to bet on it. Denver got burned for their faith last season (though it couldn’t have been helped). Now, they’re hoping to pick up where things left off with all three on the court.

But what will it actually look like when the top three scorers are back on the floor again?

For starters, Murray and Porter won’t be playing 36 and 33 minutes a night respectively. The Nuggets will be far more cautious with their returning stars, something I wrote about in-depth last week. Expect those two to play in between 60 and 66 games while averaging closer to 30 minutes per game, about 3,780 minutes if all goes well. Of course, the two played 3,616 combined minutes in the 2020-21 season, so any more than that would be fantastic.

Both Murray and Porter will also be rusty after prolonged absences. Expecting them to immediately contribute to elite offense may be asking too much. Though both players should find some sense of normalcy during the season, expecting them to replicate their shooting volume and efficiency from their high-powered offensive stretch is probably a bridge too far as well. If they simply replicate their 2020-21 season averages though, that could be enough.

Joining Murray and Porter in the starting lineup will be Jokić (two-time MVP), Aaron Gordon (strong cutter and interior scorer), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (strong cutter and outside shooter).

During the above stretch of basketball bliss in 2021, Jokić averaged 26.0 points and 9.1 assists per game. He was a scoring a playmaking savant, and after a season honing his craft without the other two, Jokić is simply a better player than ever. Providing two elite outside and inside scorers will help make life easier for Joker, creating easier reads as a playmaker in the high or low post. There are no questions about Jokić as an offensive player anymore. As long as he’s locked in from three-point range, opposing teams have no answers for him under normal circumstances.

Gordon and Caldwell-Pope should provide the layering as role players that the Nuggets need to generate elite shots often. Gordon’s physicality helped him form a solid tandem with Jokić last season with Gordon often being defended by small forwards he could push around a bit. Against power forwards, Gordon will have to be quicker and get out in transition, but there’s no reason why he can’t. Caldwell-Pope gives Denver their most consistent 3&D option since the best version of Jerami Grant. As a 38% three-point shooter on 4.9 attempts per game during the last five seasons, it’s extremely likely that KCP will space the floor well.

All in all, the Nuggets clearly have the best starting unit in the NBA on the offensive end, perhaps overall. When that unit is on the floor, the Nuggets should have no trouble scoring.

The bigger questions come when the bench starts filing in.

Bones Hyland acquitted himself in his rookie season as a keeper on the offensive end. After he took over primary playmaking duties for the bench unit, Denver scored a shocking 118.6 points per 100 possessions in the minutes Bones played without Jokić. Expecting Denver to recreate that level of offense without Jokić on the floor seems unwise. DeMarcus Cousins certainly aided Bones, and Cousins is gone. Can Zeke Nnaji or Jeff Green or DeAndre Jordan help fill in that void as Denver’s bench center? Time will tell.

Other key bench players on the wing will be newcomer Bruce Brown, rookie Christian Braun, and returnee Davon Reed. Though offensive potency doesn’t come to mind for this crew, it will be Bones who shoulders most of the workload. If Murray sits and Bones starts, then it will be Ish Smith coming off the bench. Ish has run a million bench units throughout his long NBA career, and there’s no reason why he can’t set up some scorers for success in those stretches.

Denver might decide to stagger some starters to help out the bench though. That means all three of Jokić, Murray, and Porter will likely spend some time as the primary scorer in bench units. According to PBP Stats, the Nuggets scored 119.9 points per 100 possessions in the 3,053 minutes when at least one of Jokić, Murray, or Porter were on the floor during the 2020-21 season. When none of them were out there, the number dropped to 102.4 points scored per 100 possessions in 443 minutes.

Though Bones should be a year older and a year better, minimizing the total minutes he’s out there as the only high usage scorer will help Denver’s offensive numbers. It will also help Murray and Porter specifically as they work their way back into the fold. Sometimes, playing with Jokić can make things a bit too easy. In minutes when Joker doesn’t play, Denver’s top scorers may have to go to the isolation and post up game. Having to navigate that will fast track Murray and Porter’s returns to full effectiveness.

As long as the Nuggets stay relatively healthy this season, there’s no reason why they can’t lead the NBA in offensive rating. Last season, the Utah Jazz led the league, and their core doesn’t exist anymore. Second place was the Atlanta Hawks at 115.4 points per 100 possessions. The Nuggets ranked sixth at 113.8 without Murray and Porter for the vast majority of that time. No other teams should expect a major offensive leap into the top tier outside of the Minnesota Timberwolves (who added the rim pressure of Rudy Gobert) and the Los Angeles Clippers (who should gain Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Norman Powell for a full season).

All signs point to the Nuggets being great on offense. Perhaps historically great. The Brooklyn Nets broke the record for offensive rating in 2020-21 at 117.3 points per 100 possessions. Could Denver challenge that? Absolutely. Even if it takes awhile for Murray and Porter to get readjusted, it may not matter. Jokić is that good. Bones is a year better. Denver’s role players are better suited to aid Denver’s stars.

And the Nuggets are hungry for success again.

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