Mid-season assessment: Grading the Denver Nuggets at the season’s halfway point

Jan 15, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) reacts after a basket in the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Halfway through the 2021-22 season, the Denver Nuggets sit 22-19 which puts them at in sixth place in the Western Conference.

The team has been wrecked with injuries, but has played inspired basketball at times. As Denver enters the second half of the season, here is how the team is grading out.

Starting unit

Monte Morris: B

Morris had a slower start to the year, but found his way back to being the Nuggets steadying force in the backcourt.

Over his first 12 games, Morris shot just 44% from the field and 30.4% from beyond the 3-point arc which put a big damper on his impact. He averaged 10.6 points, 2.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game during that stretch.

In the time since, Morris has improved every single statistical category. He is scoring two more points per game in virtually the same minutes largely thanks to improved three-point shooting which has jumped up by a whopping eight percent. He is scoring easier from everywhere on the floor, setting up his teammates with regularity and still rarely turns the ball over.

Until Murray and Porter return, Morris is probably the fourth-most important player on the roster. He has done an admirable job of being the stabilizing force to keep the starting unit beating opponents which is where most of his impact is felt. His defense has left quite a bit to be desired this season, but his ability to run the offense paired with his three-level scoring is enough to earn a strong grade for the first half of the season.

Will Barton III: B+

No one, other than Nikola Jokic, does as much for the Nuggets on offense as Will Barton III.

Without Barton’s ball handling and skills to initiate the offense, Denver’s ability to score would be dramatically lessened. Without Barton’s off-ball and on-ball 3-point shooting, Denver’s spacing would go far beyond problematic. Without his rebounding, Denver’s already lackluster performance on the boards would be even worse. Without his unselfishness, Denver’s passing would not shine so bright. Without his dynamism in the pick and roll, Denver would be even more predictable than they already are. Everything Barton does directly correlates with why the Nuggets win games and they need him if they want to be the best version of themselves.

Barton’s season has been up and down, but more often than not, he has given the Nuggets the lift they have needed which is why he gets a B- for his grade in the first half of the season. His defense has come and gone, his 3-point shooting has started to fall off, and his turnovers have spiked from time to time, but overall Barton has been exactly the wing Denver has needed to stay afloat amid all the injuries.

Aaron Gordon: A-

Let’s just get this out of the way; the only reason Gordon is not receiving a flat A for his grade for the first half of the season is because his 3-pointers have not fallen with any consistency.

But outside of that? It is incredibly hard to find fault in Gordon’s game over the first 41 games of the season. His defense has been fantastic and he has led the Nuggets to the 12th-best defensive rating in the league overall. His on-ball defense has been great, he has been a terror rotating over from the weakside to protect the rim, and he has shown a strong aptitude for blowing up pick and rolls or stonewalling isolation-heavy opponents. He has guarded every position on the floor and done so without any hesitation.

On offense, he has terrorized the paint. He is one of the elite non-centers at scoring at the rim this season. He is shooting 76.2% in the restricted area which is third-highest among non-centers trailing just LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, both of whom have even started at center a few games themselves and are beginning to blur the line between center or forward.

Additionally, Gordon is feasting on post-ups, setting up teammates well as a secondary creator, and hitting the glass with intent. It is hard not to admire just how much he has thrived in his role as well as his willingness to accept it.

Jeff Green: B

All Jeff Green does is dunk and hit 3-pointers which is exactly what the Nuggets need from him.

After Denver’s first 41 games, Jeff Green is taking 84% of his total shots from either beyond the 3-point arc or in the restricted circle. He is 103-150 within the restricted circle which equates to 68.7% where he is doing most of his damage. He is scoring as a roller in the pick and roll at a high level, he is dunking anything and everything within four feet of the rim, and he has been impactful enough from 3-point range.

Yes, Jeff Green is only shooting 34% on shots from deep, but he is hitting 39% of his triples from the corner which makes him an outside shooting weapon to pull defenders away from the rim. He is not a spacing liability.

His defense is not spectacular, but he knows where to be and how to position himself to deter shots at the rim and keep opponents in front of him on the perimeter. He does not make mistakes very often and knows how to play winning basketball. Not much else you can ask from the 35-year-old Jeff Green.

Nikola Jokic: A+

What else can I say about the reigning Most Valuable Player that has not already been said?

Jokic leads the Nuggets in minutes (32.6), points (25.3), rebounds (13.9), assists (7.2), steals (1.3), blocks (0.8), field goal attempts, (17.5), and field goal percentage (56.7%). Jokic’s usage rating has even spiked above 30% for the first time in his career.

No one in NBA history has ever averaged better than 25 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists per game. After 41 games, Jokic is averaging 25.3 points, 13.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. When looking at Jokic’s ranks across the league, he is 10th in scoring, second in rebounding and 12th in assists.

Oh, and he’s done all of that while taking multiple leaps as a defender. Other than Gordon, there might not be a more stable defender on the roster than Jokic.

This makes Jokic arguably the best value bet for MVP in the league. He is currently +1300 according to FanDuel Sportsbook to win MVP this season; fourth behind Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Antetokounmpo.

Not much else to say. Jokic gets an A+.

Key reserves

Bones Hyland: B-

Let’s start with a simple couple stats.

When Bones Hyland hits multiple 3-pointers in a single game, the Nuggets are 11-2 including their win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night.

In the 10 games Hyland has scored double digits or better, the Nuggets are 10-0.

That may seem reductive — of course when Denver¬†finally gets some kind of production from their bench they win basketball games — but Hyland is also the catalyst for the bench unit. His 3-point shooting range combined with his above-average handles and finishing moves makes for a threatening lead guard that opposing defenses have to respect.

Of course, as a rookie, Hyland has plenty of issues to rectify. His defense, despite being hyperactive, is not good at this stage which is to be expected. He has shown nice flashes of strong defense, but he is simply unreliable on that end of the floor. Additionally, his awareness and pace can become erratic when adversity hits. Malone and Hyland both discussed a talk they had in which Malone reiterated that Hyland does not need to be the savior and to just play his game because he was clearly pressing.

Ever since that talk, which happened two games ago prior to taking on the Portland Trail Blazers, Hyland is averaging 22 points per game while shooting 11-18 from beyond the 3-point arc.

For a rookie to carry such a heavy burden on a decimated roster that had championship aspirations, Hyland has performed incredibly well. He has no fear and has given the Nuggets every last drop of production he can squeeze out. For that, he gets the best grade of any reserve.

Facu Campazzo: C-

The Facu Campazzo conundrum is a confounding one.

On one hand, he has been one of the worst rotation players in basketball; statistically speaking. There are 25 players in the NBA who are shooting 40% or worse from the field, 34% or worse from 3-point territory while playing over 20 minutes a night. Of those players, Campazzo is 18th in points per game (6.9). Because Campazzo is not threatening as a scorer, opposing defenses have been able to sag off of him knowing that he is unlikely to hurt them from deep which is dramatically shrinking the floor. To make matters worse, he is so inefficient scoring around the rim that even when he is able to drive into the paint, he does not attract an additional defender which would collapse the defense. Instead, opponents have been more than happy to let their defenders contest the layup from behind if they happened to get blown by. There is just very little Campazzo has been able to add offensively and things only get worse on the defensive end of the floor.

On the other hand, what else is he supposed to do? The Nuggets knew his limitations when they signed him, but he was brought in to be the break-in-case-of-emergency point guard and add depth to the backcourt, but now he is being asked to create offense with a ragtag group of reserves who were all thrust onto the court due to the ever-changing injury report which is not something within his ability to accomplish.

Due to the unfair situation pressed upon Campazzo, he gets a slight boost to his grade, but it remains true that the Nuggets are worse the more they have to rely on him.

JaMychal Green: D+

JaMychal Green’s season has gone about as bad as could be expected.

On offense, his shooting, rim rolling, and offensive rebounding have all suffered compared to years past. He is shooting a freezing cold 43.7% from the field and 25% on 3-pointers this season and his points per game (5.7) and rebounds per game (3.7) are the worst since his rookie season. It seems as if his athleticism has also diminished which has hurt his mobility on the defensive end of the floor.

Denver needs more from JaMychal Green going forward, but he may be unable to provide the impact Denver requires. If that is the case, then it is a good thing Zeke Nnaji has began stepping into that role with more consistency.

Zeke Nnaji: C

Nnaji was one of the hardest players to grade over their first half of the season. He did not play as much as the rest of the reserves outlined in this story, but his impact going forward could surpass some of those same players.

Nnaji is shooting 46% on 3-pointers this season and that just seems like the obvious place to start. He is confident and shot-ready at all times when he is spotting up on the perimeter. When he catches the ball with just a small glimmer of space, he is pulling up without hesitation. That shooting ability from deep is the basis of his offensive impact.

On defense, he is fundamentally sound and has great lateral mobility giving him credence as a multi-positional defender despite being 6-foot-11 and a power forward. That skill level is wildly rare for a player of his age and could eventually evolve into an All-Defense caliber player if he is able to improve a couple aspects of his game.

Still, even with the clear impact from Nnaji, he has clear holes in his game that can be exploited. He has struggled as a rebounder on both the offensive and defensive glass this year, but over the past couple weeks, he has shown growth in that area. He is going up and securing rebounds with more assertiveness than over before. On offense, he is becoming more skilled and nuanced as a rim roller and he has focused on being patient when he gets the ball around the rim instead of rapidly forcing up shots as soon as the ball touched his hands. Lastly, he needs to learn to pass out of the paint when he has multiple defenders around him.

Still, Nnaji is growing right before everyone’s eyes and the future may be brighter than it appears. But for now, he is still not much more than an average backup big man who can stretch the floor.; hence his grade of a C.

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