Three glaring issues plaguing the Denver Nuggets

Oct 25, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) looks on during a timeout in the second quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As the Denver Nuggets fell to 2-2 after a loss in Utah to the Jazz, it became indisputable that Denver had many problems to solve.

Not only has Denver’s offensive firepower been nowhere to be found, but they have compounded their scoring slump with a swath of turnovers, historically low frequency of free throw attempts, and too few three-point attempts leading to a lack of three-point makes.

Even if the starting unit manages to overcome the offensive issues and provides a lead to the incoming bench unit, the production of Denver’s reserves, or lack thereof, has all but eliminated most of the leads given to them.

Oh, and to make matters worse, Nikola Jokic – the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player – bumped knees with Rudy Gobert of the Jazz leading Jokic being in a ton of pain and being ruled out for the entire second half.

With so many issues plaguing the Nuggets, let’s dive into the three most glaring.

Offensive Instability

The most confounding aspect of the Nuggets’ first five games of the season is the lack of scoring. 

Denver has been a terrifying offensive group since Nikola Jokic entered the league. It has been, at worst, seventh in the NBA in offensive rating over the last four years and showed no signs of slowing down. Despite all of its offensive success over the last four years, it has been posting an offensive rating of just 101.2 after four games which is 24th-best in the NBA. 

There are a handful of reasons for their slump and when those issues are combined, they make it exponentially more difficult to have a coherent offense even with the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player. 

The first problem for Denver is its lack of 3-point shooting in terms of both amount of 3-pointers generated as well as their percentage on such looks. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone stated that the Nuggets intended to increase their 3-point shooting frequency this season all the way back during preseason, but those extra shots from deep have not manifested during a regular season game. Denver is averaging just 33.8 3-point shots per game which is 22nd in the league. To make matters worse, they are shooting just 33.3 percent from deep on their minimal amount of shots taken.

The second issue is Denver’s propensity to turn the ball over. With four games completed — even after just 13 turnovers against the Jazz — the Nuggets are still 28th in the NBA in turnovers with 18.8 giveaways per game and everyone is at fault. Jokic leads the Nuggets with four turnovers a night, but eight members of the Nuggets rotation average at least one turnover per contest. It is no wonder the Nuggets are having so many issues getting into a rhythm on offense with as many mistakes as they commit on a nightly basis.

To make matters worse, Denver isn’t just turning the ball over; those turnovers are leading directly to points for their opponent. The Nuggets are giving away 22.3 points off turnovers each game which is 27th in league. 

Lastly, Denver is the worst team in the entire NBA at getting to the free throw line. So far, through four games, the Nuggets are averaging just 13.3 freebies from the charity stripe per game which is dead last and nearly two full attempts less than the Atlanta Hawks, who are the second-worst team in basketball at getting to the foul line so far this season.

For Denver to rectify this problem, it simply needs to get to the rim more often. According to NBA.com, the Nuggets are the seventh-worst team at generating shots in the restricted area. Being more aggressive towards the rim should also collapse opposing defenses which should help generate more three-point shots as well.

Simply stated, the Nuggets need to be more aggressive on offense. If they continue to float around the perimeter without playing with intention, Denver’s offensive drought will continue.

Unreliable bench play

Without a doubt, the most damaging issue the Nuggets are facing after four games is their horrid play off the bench. It seems like every time the starters leave, everything begins to fall apart.

So far this season, in Jokic’s 118 minutes on the floor, the Nuggets have outscored their opponents by 37 points, but in the 74 minutes Jokic has not been on the floor, Denver has been outscored by 43 points. No matter how much of a lead Jokic and the starters provide for the bench unit, it is always at risk of being lost as soon as the reserves enter the game and that was also true on Wednesday night against the Jazz.

“I think a couple of crucial stretches of the game tonight were the end of the first quarter – 7-0 Utah – and the start of the second quarter – 7-0 Utah – which turned into a 14-0 run,” Malone explained. “I have to figure the bench out. Our bench is not where it needs to be… Then early in that fourth quarter they went on a 22-8 run. We couldn’t score. We couldn’t get stops. We just couldn’t get over that.”

Statistically, it is shocking how bad Denver’s reserves have been. The five-man bench unit of Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers, P.J. Dozier, JaMychal Green and Jeff Green has been outscored by 32 points in just 29 minutes of action. They are posting an abysmal offensive rating of 72.9 and have not been able to pick up the slack on defense where they are posting a defensive rating of 127.1.

“…Obviously, those numbers only moved in the wrong direction,” Malone stated after the Nuggets loss in Utah. “So I think it is everything. That group is having a hard time scoring — we only had 13 points tonight — and they are having a hard time getting stops. It is just a little bit of everything right now.”

According to Malone, the fault does not fall on one player and he is right. Every one of the Nuggets reserves who are in the rotation have had significant struggles on the court at one point or another and the cohesion of the unit is lacking.

“It is not any one person’s fault; it is collectively. And it is not just on the players. It is also on me to find a way to help that group out because this has been fairly consistent through this early season,” Malone said. “We will watch the film and look at it to identify the main areas of concern with why we are struggling with our bench.”

Could the Nuggets look to shorten their rotation and play just nine players? Could Bones Hyland — the Nuggets exciting rookie with a bag full of offensive firepower — join the rotation and take the spot of either Campazzo or Rivers? At this point Malone is considering all options in order to resurrect this stagnant and unproductive bench unit because until this problem is solved, no lead the Nuggets earn will be safe.

Nikola Jokic’s Availability

With halftime rapidly approaching in Utah against the Jazz, Jokic was doing his best to carry the Nuggets to a lead at the break. He was scoring at will, inhaling rebounds with ease and setting up his teammates for great shots on seemingly every possession. It felt like Jokic was on pace for an incredible night — he finished with 24 points, six rebounds and six assists in just 15 minutes of action in the first half while shooting 8-9 from the field and 3-3 from three-point range — but that excitement was short-lived. 

As Jokic was defending Gobert in the low post on the left side of the floor, Gobert made his move. He drove baseline towards the rim and Jokic slid over to wall off his path to the rim. At the moment Gobert explodes off his back foot to try and get into the body of Jokic, his knee collided with Jokic’s right knee which resulted in Jokic crumpling to the floor in a great deal of pain. 

For anyone who has watched Jokic throughout his career, it is known he is one of the tougher players in basketball and he rarely misses games even if he is playing through an injury, but after knocking knees with Gobert, the pain was terrifyingly clear on Jokic’s face. 

Jokic was eventually helped up, but his limp was obvious as he went back to the locker room for further evaluation. After the halftime intermission, Jokic was listed as questionable to return with a right knee contusion. He then came out of the locker room and attempted to warm up prior to the start of the third quarter, but after a conversation with Malone, Jokic went back to the locker room and was later ruled out for the rest of the game.

If the Nuggets are without Jokic for an extended period of time, Denver has no true center with real NBA experience on the roster. They could look to play small and start Jeff Green or JaMychal Green at center with the regular starters, but that would require one of Bol Bol or Zeke Nnaji to step into a spot in the rotation without any indication if they are ready to help the Nuggets win games right away. Denver could try to play small with Gordon at center and start PJ Dozier at small forward, but that would make rebounding a serious concern for the Nuggets. 

There has been no official update on Jokic’s availability at this time, but Malone did speak to the media and had this to say about Jokic’s injury.

“I don’t think it is anything too, too serious,” Malone explained. “I went up to him after halftime and asked how does he feel and he said it feels a little weak and I just shut him down. I took on the decision; it was not his decision to make.”

If Jokic is out for any extended period of time, Denver has no good solutions and because they have no good solutions, a losing streak is very much so on the table. While that might not seem worrisome on the surface — it is still very early on in the season — Denver being without Jokic for a couple weeks could be the difference between competing for home-court advantage in the playoffs or desperately fighting to avoid the play-in tournament.

Denver badly needs Jokic to return from his right knee contusion at a fast pace.

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