Fifteen takeaways after 15 Nuggets games

Nov 15, 2021; Dallas, Texas, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reacts after scoring during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

With the Denver Nuggets finally making their way into some depth of the regular season schedule, it’s time to make a few assessments about the team’s overall play.

1. Nikola Jokic, the reigning Most Valuable Player, is playing even better than last year

When attempting to describe Nikola Jokic’s brilliance, almost every adjective feels redundant. For years, when Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has been asked about yet another magical performance, he has answered by saying he is never surprised by how good Jokic is because he has seen it so regularly over the years.

Even after such a long period of sustained success, what Jokic is doing this season is unbelievable. He is averaging 26.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks in just just 32.4 minutes per game. But what is different this season is that Jokic is posting those numbers while anchoring the Nuggets third-ranked defense while displaying substantial growth in his own ability to protect the rim and defend in space.

The NBA’s MVP has been even better this season and might end up as one of the 13 players in NBA history to win MVP in back-to-back seasons if he keeps it up.

2. Denver’s defense is definably dominant

As stated above, the Nuggets are currently posting the third-lowest defensive rating in the league at an even 103 which is 8.5 points lower than last years defensive rating and it would have ranked first in the league last season. Denver’s defense has been their pathway to victories and a stabilizing agent for an otherwise inconsistent start to the season.

How sustainable is the Nuggets defensive production? That is the pressing question, but regardless of its long-term viability for regular season wins, it is clear that Denver has a higher defensive ceiling than at any other point since Malone took over as head coach and one of the biggest reasons is the player coming up next.

3. Aaron Gordon is thriving in his role

When the Nuggets traded for Aaron Gordon last season, they did so hoping for a player who could defend all five positions while acting as a finisher and supplementary creator on the offensive end, but for Gordon, who had been the best player on the Orlando Magic for many years, that would be quite a shift from the style of play he is used to.

While some thought it would take a while for Gordon to warm up to his new role, he embraced it fully from the moment he arrived in Denver and now he is reaping those benefits. On offense, he is punishing mismatches, attacking in transition, flying to the rim for offensive rebounds and limiting his 3-point attempts to catch-and-shoot looks, but on defense is where he really shines.

Gordon is the catalyst of the Nuggets defensive dominance. His ability to defend all five positions, take on the task of guarding the opposing teams most dangerous offensive threat, and roam the baseline when off the ball to get in passing lanes or protect the rim are skills the Nuggets do not have elsewhere on their roster and it has unlocked a different gear on that end of the floor. That could lead to more postseason success for Denver.

4. Will Barton III’s impact cannot be overstated

Where would the Nuggets be without Will Barton III? Not only has he stepped into the role of secondary offensive option, but he has also played the best defense of his life. He is providing the Nuggets with on-court leadership while also adding an edge through his bravado and relentlessness.

Barton is averaging 16.6 points. five rebounds, and 4.4 assists each game while shooting a blistering 42.3 percent from 3-point range so far this season making him one of two players to reach those marks with the other being Kevin Durant.

Barton is doing everything for the Nuggets from stretching the floor, attacking the rim, playing in the two-man game with Jokic, defending tenaciously, hitting the glass, and creating for others. Without him, there is no chance the Nuggets are 9-6 after 15 games despite all of the obstacles they have had to overcome.

5. Bones Hyland has shown he belongs in the NBA

There is no more denying it; Nuggets rookie lead guard Bones Hyland was a steal in the 2021 NBA Draft and he has already proven he belongs in the Nuggets rotation.

Hyland’s box scores are far from perfect, but his impact is felt almost every night. His patience and passing has been better than expected. His handles and ability to finish around the rim have immediately translated. Both of those skills have been on full display and Hyland’s 3-point shooting still has not fully adapted to the NBA 3-point line which will give him even more room to work with.

Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly found himself another steal outside of the lottery.

6. Michael Porter Jr.’s availability is still up in the air

There is more mystery around Michael Porter Jr.’s injury than there is information.

At the time of this writing, the Nuggets are in wait-and-see mode with Porter. A Nuggets source confirmed that Porter’s MRI revealed “nothing alarming”, but he is still experiencing discomfort. Because of that, they are monitoring him on a day-to-day basis until they can identify what is causing the discomfort or until the pain in his lower back subsides on its own.

When will Porter be back? There is no indication at this time. It is good that the imaging on his back did not return any clear issues, but that does not mean Porter will be back anytime soon. Denver will always be on the side of caution when their players have health concerns.

7. Injuries are taking their toll on the Nuggets

Jamal Murray has missed the first 15 games of the season and will continue to be out indefinitely as he recovers from his ACL tear.

Porter has missed his last six games with low back pain and there has been no update when he could return as outlined above.

Denver has also missed Barton (low back pain) and Jokic (suspension) for one game.

Those injuries – or Jokic suspension – add up to 23 games missed between Denver’s four best players. That lack of cohesion has manifested as inconsistent bench play, a plethora of different lineups being used, and very little rhythm as the Nuggets attempt to execute in the half court on offense.

It is hard to succeed when the rotation continues to change every night.

8. Denver’s 3-point shooting struggles have not faded

The Nuggets are generating 35.1 3-point shots per game, which is good for 17th in the league, but they are only converting 31.3 percent of those shots which is third-worst. That math game is betraying the Nuggets in a worrisome way.

Porter being hurt – and his 20.8 percent from three-point range prior to being hurt – is one reason why Denver’s numbers from beyond the arc have suffered, but the truth is very few players on the roster are converting 3-pointers at a high clip. Barton (42.3 percent) and Jokic (41) are leading the Nuggets in 3-point efficiency, but after them, no one in the rest of the Nuggets rotation is shooting better than 32.6 percent from deep.

Denver needs to start making some shots from deep if they want to win more frequently.

9. Are the Nuggets turnover issues a thing of the past?

Denver’s struggles from 3-point range and overall issues on scoring the basketball were exacerbated by their turnover issues early in the season. In the Nuggets’ six games in October, they were 29th in the league in turnovers per game at 18.8.

In November the Nuggets have improved that number dramatically. They are turning the ball over just 10.8 times per game – a full eight turnovers less per game – which is the best mark in the NBA.

Denver’s winning streak directly coincided with their improvements taking care of the basketball and it is highly unlikely that was just a coincidence.

10. Will the Nuggets offense find their vintage form?

Despite having arguably the best offensive basketball player on earth as the fulcrum of their team, the Nuggets 106.2 offensive rating is 20th in the NBA and is 10.1 points worst than their offensive rating last season.

The Nuggets lack of made 3-pointers, minimal free throw attempts, and incredibly lethargic bench unit are some of the reasons their offensive rating is suffering, but the truth is there has not been as much movement or creativity in the Nuggets offense on a nightly basis which is leading to tougher shots than in years prior.

Missing Murray and Porter are two huge factors, but Porter was far from impactful on offense prior to his injury. Even if he is activated soon, Denver needs significantly more offensive production from their newly minted maximum contract player or their ability to score will suffer.

Maybe the remedy to the Nuggets ailing offense is just to wait until 3-point shots start to fall, but being 20th in offensive rating after 15 games is a cause for concern.

11. The Nuggets are one of the slowest teams in the league

The Nuggets are 27th in pace to start the season which is likely also a contributor to their offensive struggles, but with that being said, the Nuggets defense has thrived because of their ability to dictate the tempo the game is played at.

Is being one of the slowest teams in the NBA a big deal? If you ask Malone, pace has no impact whatsoever on winning, but it is fair to wonder if playing faster to stimulate the offense would be wise even if it meant a slight step back on defense.

With the Nuggets offensive struggles – and the bench unit having issues creating even a single good shot – pushing the pace could be an alteration Malone makes if he deems it necessary.

12. The Nuggets bench continues to actively harm their chances of winning

The Nuggets starting unit, even with the injures over the past couple weeks, has done a great job of securing leads to begin games led by Jokic. Unfortunately, once the bench unit enters the game, those same leads evaporate at an alarming pace.

When Jokic is on the court, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by a total of 120 points. In the 266 minutes Jokic has been off the floor, Denver has been outscored by 69 points. As soon as the MVP rests, everything falls apart for the bench which his 25th in bench points in the NBA with just 29.4 points per game.

At this point, the bench unit, even with the boost of Hyland, is only hurting the Nuggets chances of winning each night.

13. Denver struggles to get to the foul line, as usual

The Nuggets are dead last in free throw attempts per game at a measly 15.9 shots from the charity stripe which is nothing new to them. Last season, the Nuggets were 27th in free throw attempts per game and the year before, they were 26th. For whatever reason, the Nuggets rarely get the benefit of the whistle.

Denver has to find a way to get downhill and attack opposing defenders to get to the foul line. It seems like a nightly tradition that an opponent outscores the Nuggets at the foul line. Denver looks to play offense by getting into the paint, collapsing the defense, and kicking out to open shooters, but if it is too focused on getting into the paint without the intention of scoring, it could lead to a lack of free throw shooting. The Nuggets must figure out what is inhibiting them from getting to the foul line or they will have to deal with a disadvantage regularly.

14. Michael Malone deserves to be near the top of the Coach of the Year leaderboards

Somehow, despite the Nuggets dealing with so many injuries and uncertainty all season long as outlined above, Malone has Denver at 9-6 after 15 games with the eighth-best net rating (+3.2) in the NBA.

Denver is far from perfect, but they have been fantastic on defense and they are starting to find their rhythm on offense. If the Nuggets continue to find ways to win without two of their three best players while hanging their hat on stilling defense, Malone should continue climbing up the Coach of the Year ladder.

15. The Nuggets have shown important growth despite setbacks

Despite all of the issues outlined in this piece, there have been some important positive developments.

First, the Nuggets defense seems to be sustainable and dominant. At no point in Malone’s time in Denver have the Nuggets had this type of defensive ceiling and the roster is beginning to realize just how good they can be.

Secondly, Hyland has shown he is worth the effort to catch him up to speed. His ability to run the offense as a point guard, incredibly deep three-point shooting range, and his selflessness have equipped Hyland to transition into the NBA quickly and the Nuggets are benefitting from his inclusion in the rotation.

Those two confirmations could change the entire season for the Nuggets.

SHARE