What are the Denver Nuggets missing?

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and forward Jerami Grant (9) celebrate a score against the Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center.
Jan 30, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and forward Jerami Grant (9) celebrate a score against the Utah Jazz at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets are nine games into the 2020-2021 NBA season. In a slightly shortened 72-game season, Denver’s five losses are piling up quickly, and a sense of urgency is creeping.

A slow start for Denver isn’t an entirely uncommon occurrence. Yet this season is particularly discouraging at this point in time because Nikola Jokic has started off on an absolute tear, skipping the “playing himself into shape” stage of the year.

The Joker is averaging a 25 point triple-double through these nine games. He leads the NBA in virtually every catch-all statistic, TPA, EWA, VORP, BPM, PER, Win Shares. ESPN’s RPM hasn’t been released for this season, and neither has 538’s RAPTOR, and Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM is no longer public, but based on previous years and trends of these models, it’s an easy assumption to make that Jokic would top the league in these categories as well.

Despite this historically dominant stretch to start the season, the Nuggets can’t seem to win basketball games against teams that aren’t the KAT-less Wolves, the COVID-struck Rockets, and the 76’ers without Simmons or Embiid. In fact, it seems like Jokic is the only reason why any of these games are even competitive.

So what’s missing?

Denver is currently 3rd in the league in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions), at 115.6 (per Cleaning the Glass). With Jokic on the floor, the Denver Nuggets score 121.5 points per 100 possessions, a truly elite number. With Jokic on the bench, that number plummets to an abysmal 100.5, which would be dead last in the league, and in the 5th percentile for all line-ups. (Note, all lineup data is up to date as of before Saturday’s game against the 76’ers).

A drop-off in offensive production without Nikola Jokic is an expected one. Jokic is (probably) a top 3 offensive player at worst. Though one would hope the Nuggets could muster even a little bit more of an acceptable number.

There is something encouraging in the data, however, and potentially an easy solution. Well…maybe not easy, but a more manageable one to be sure.

Lineups that lack Nikola Jokic, but still retain Jamal Murray post a net rating of +3.7. This number provides some hope that the Nuggets are able to stay afloat when Jokic isn’t playing. Jamal has had some up’s and down’s to start the season, but learning how to play without Jokic could be one of the more important developments for him and the team. For reference, last season, these lineups posted a net rating of -3.3. That’s a swing of 7.0, which is huge.

The difficulty here lies in maintaining the stagger while opening and closing games with both of them on the floor. Jokic is averaging 36.5 minutes per game, and Murray is averaging 36.7. Even in a shortened season, it would be ideal to get those numbers reduced. This is especially important in a tightened schedule with more back-to-backs.

Ultimately, the offense should be fine, and Michael Porter Jr can theoretically fill in the gaps whenever he returns, though that doesn’t seem to be too soon.

The biggest deficiency for this Nuggets team has clearly been defense. The Nuggets are currently allowing the 7th most made 3 point shots per game, at the 5th highest efficiency, and more specifically, the 2nd highest rate of corner 3’s allowed. On the inside, the Nuggets are allowing opponents to convert 81.3 shots at the rim, good for dead last in the association. Both perimeter defense and rim protection have been serious concerns for Denver.

Denver lost their two best wing defenders from last season in Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig. While the numbers bear out that these two were a bit overrated as defenders, they were at least archetypes that Denver could throw at opposing wings as somewhat viable bodies. Currently, Denver’s best perimeter wing defender is probably P.J. Dozier. While P.J. has proven to be a capable defender in his own right, it’s probably not prudent to stick him on a Kawhi Leonard or Lebron James and hope for the best.

Considering how much power forward PJ Dozier has played this season (183 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass), the Nuggets seem a bit desperate for forward depth, especially considering that P.J. Dozier came into this league as a scoring combo-guard. His versatility has been welcomed, and he’s fit into his role quite nicely, but he’s often the only positive defender on the floor at a time. Though with the return of Jamychal Green, this will less often be the case.

Denver’s abundance of guards seems to have bitten them a bit at this point in the season. Campazzo is finding a role, Morris is expanding in his, and Dozier isn’t even a guard anymore at this point. It seems like the guards are finding rotation minutes, but that is likely just filling in for the minutes lost at the small forward position. Coach Malone has rolled out a few 3-guard lineups (4-guard if Dozier is counted), this season to pretty underwhelming results. While this creativity is welcomed, it may be easier on the team and Malone if some sort of personnel switch was made to add another wing player, particularly one with defensive acumen. This is probably the singular most important missing piece on the roster. The rest of the problems seem to be able to solve internally.

While rim protection certainly is a problem, the sample data does only have two games with Jamychal Green, who should help the defense down low. Containing better on the perimeter should also have a secondary effect of easing pressure on the rim.

To clarify, the Nuggets don’t necessarily have poor defensive personnel. Gary Harris is a positive defender clearly, Jamychal Green is good in his role, Barton has been above average. Nikola Jokic has the stigma of being a poor defender, but is a very good defender in reality, even if he lacks as a rim protector. The problem lies in the fact that they have no one to play a large amount of team defense. Millsap used to be the anchor on defense, and while he’s a positive still, he doesn’t cover nearly as much ground as he used to.

Basketball is a game of 5-on-5. Defense, much like offense, is heavily influenced by fit. A team can have five guys on the floor that are good players in a vacuum but still aren’t able to score. Similarly with defense, it’s not like Denver is playing with a bunch of negative defenders, it’s just that the fit hasn’t been seamless, to say the least. Either they haven’t learned to defend together yet, or they lack the unified skillset to either contain on the perimeter or protect the rim. If it’s the latter, which at this point it seems like the most likely, the Nuggets front office might be encouraged to make a roster change

Overall, the Nuggets have some very clear holes to fill, but there seem to be reasonable solutions to them.