When the Denver Nuggets began the 2016-17 season they felt they had one of those “good” problems. They had two talented centers – Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic – and, in order to exploit the talents of both the Nuggets felt that starting the two big men together would be the best solution.
It turned out to be a disaster. The Nuggets’ offense was a stodgy mess and their defense wasn’t much better. In a day in age when the rules of the NBA encourage you to shoot threes and slash for layups/dunks, having two big men felt like a relic of a bygone era. On December 15, 2016 coach Michael Malone announced that Nikola Jokic would be the sole starting center. The rest of that season the Nuggets had the best offense in the NBA.
What does that say about these Nuggets merely a year and one major free agent signing later?
The 2017-18 Nuggets after 4 games are looking eerily similar to the start of the 2016-17 season. Players who should be shooting more, are not. Players who should be excelling in the offense, are not. Spacing on the court is a big problem and opposing teams don’t respect the Nuggets shooters because they don’t seem to make any shots.
The worst part, however, is the Nuggets simply don’t run, at least not so far. They had zero fast break points in the first half against the Charlotte Hornets. Zero. Additionally the Nuggets pace (a flawed stat that I’d normally not use but is edifying in this case) is 26th in the league out of 30 teams. The team is a slow, sludgy hodgepodge of players who are better off running an offense like last season and are running something else.
Some of this is because they played the Utah Jazz and Sacramento Kings; two of the slowest paced teams in the league. However the Nuggets were barely able to scrape together 104 points against the fast paced John Wall led Washington Wizards. Then against the mid-paced Charlotte Hornets the Nuggets struggled to score 93 points and it took extensive garbage time to get to that. This isn’t the snappy, crisp, fun offense of old…
Or is it?
The Nuggets have tried something akin to what they did with Nurkic and Jokic last season. A half and half approach meant to incorporate the skills of Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic and what it has done has lead to a confused mess. Nuggets have tried to be a master of two separate worlds on offense and have ended up master of none.
Rather than incorporating Millsap into what the Nuggets were running last season with Jokic – under departed offensive assistant Chris Finch who revamped the offense to fit Jokic’ skills – the Nuggets have tried to accommodate Millsap. Rather than letting Jokic make Millsap better, they have tried to have Millsap make Jokic better and it’s not working out.
The reason the lineup combination of Kenneth Faried and Jokic works so well is because Faried hangs out on the baseline and waits for his opportunity to receive the ball. With Millsap clogging the lane, the cutters can’t get through (much like with Nurkic last season). Millsap needs to take on a similar role to Danilo Gallinari from last year. Space the floor, take shots and iso when needed (particularly at the end of game). When Millsap is there by himself, the post up’s are more valuable and he can go to work down low.
Speaking of Gallo … the Nuggets are adjusting to his loss. With Wilson Chandler the Nuggets had one of the most versatile 3/4 players in the NBA. Chandler’s skills are different from Gallo’s and this was a main reason they complimented each other so well. With Chandler forced into Gallo’s role, it’s been a hard adjustment. The Nuggets free throw rate and percentage made has plummeted and the floor spacing ability is gone. The team misses The Rooster far more than Nuggets fans, and even the Nuggets themselves are willing to admit.
While the Nuggets definitely miss the veteran leadership of Jameer Nelson (who was cut shortly before the season began), the team’s issues at point guard are very simple. Jamal Murray has lost his shooting touch and Emmanuel Mudiay has at least 3 soul-crushing turnovers a game. In an offense that shares the rock a ball-dominant point guard is not needed, but, you need production. If the lane is clogged you need shooters to make shots and the Nuggets aren’t getting that.
This combination of trying a mishmash of styles, clogging the lane, and lack of clear offensive direction has resulted in a “we’ve seen this movie before” scenario. The Nuggets stand at 1-3, and are 0-2 on the road. This is all part of the process of figuring out how to incorporate the skill sets of Jokic and Millsap.
You just hope that it doesn’t take them until December 15th of this season to finally have the light bulb come on.