The 2017–18 Denver Nuggets: Why so Glum, Nikola?

— November 4th 2017

A less than stellar start to the campaign has some quarters questioning the Nikola Jokic experience. Why the slow start?

By Paul Headley

Note: This piece was written on Friday, November 3 before the Denver Nuggets’ game against the Golden State Warriors.

The Denver Nuggets have struggled through the first two weeks of the season. The offensive flamethrower that set fire to the league over the last four months of last season has been oddly toothless. The defense, though not quite the train-wreck it was, has mostly just been bad (with occasional stretches of “oh my god my eyes! My eyes!” See the opening quarter of the team’s game against the Knicks, if you don’t value your sight).

A 129-111 thumping of the Raptors (which bumped the team all the way up to seventh in offensive efficiency), as well as stellar nights against some fairly rotten defenses (the Knicks and Nets) should not obscure some worrisome trends.

The three-point line was considered the primary source of offensive dysfunction early on, with several players getting off to rough starts shooting the ball. A closer look reveals percentages are not the problem. The team just is not generating enough good shots.

One of the most identifiable traits of high-level NBA offense is  how often a team can find a quality shot without putting the ball on the floor. The Golden State Warriors, for all their off-the-dribble 35-foot madness, have led the league in this category for three straight seasons. The Nuggets are generating those shots on just 44.8 percent of their possessions through eight games. Last season, the team ranked tenth in the same category at 50.8 percent.

The team’s hot shooting against the Raptors (16-of-32 from three) skewed the stats a great deal. Finding good shots, especially threes, has been a chore thus far.

Jamal Murray was wildly inconsistent shooting the ball in his rookie season. Looking into the NBA’s tracking data, the general pattern was the fewer pull-up threes the young guard attempted, the better. In November, just 13.5 percent of Murray’s shots were pull-up threes (on which he shot a paltry 23.8 percent), but his overall percentage was a solid 42.7 percent. The very next month, he upped that to 19.6 percent of his shots and saw his overall percentage drop to 26.4 percent.

Murray just was not ready to take that shot frequently, and going on early returns this season, he still is not. A gander through Murray’s misses yields a lot of the following:

I do not want to labor this point too much. Murray was missing everything early on, but it is my own pet theory that pull-ups are detrimental to the rhythm of players who are not hitting them. It is part of the reason observers emphasize getting easy shots for a player to shoot his way out of a rut.

Shot Creation

Jameer Nelson created 4.1 three pointers per game for the the Nuggets’ primary perimeter players last season (Will Barton, Murray, Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler), and the quintet shot 43.9 percent on said attempts. Emmanuel Mudiay created 2.6 attempts for those very same players per game, but the percentage of makes dropped to just 30.9 percent. Nelson, though clearly a skip and a jump past his prime, is nevertheless a solid, safe pair of hands. Mudiay is not.

Mudiay is not a very good passer. Teammates too often strain to get a hand on errant darts, giving opposing defenses time to challenge just a little better. His court vision is bad, and he has very poor understanding of timing.

It is not all doom-and-gloom on the Mudiay front. A 0-of-8 stinker against the Hornets aside, he is shooting the ball much better (career high 51.5 True Shooting Percentage), and is not coughing the ball up nearly as much as he did during his rookie and sophomore campaigns. A permanent move off-ball, as well as some serious defensive improvements, could make him a positive impact guy some day. I just do not believe he has shown any sign of being an NBA point guard.

Nikola Jokic, one of NBA Twitter’s most fascinating lightning rods, has not quite been the top 10 player many of the more analytically-inclined thought he would be in year three. The Joker has still been wonderfully efficient, and one has to wonder why he currently languishes sixth on the team in usage percentage (20.9 percent). Mudiay leads the team in that category, using 27.4 percent of the teams possessions in his 173 minutes played, a stat that almost brought up my lunch.

Adam Mares on Twitter

Every member of the Nuggets also joked as they passed Jokic in the hall. “Jokic, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you shooting more???

Jokic is not getting nearly as many post touches as last year (from 4.7 a game as a starter last year to a flat three this season). His efficiency has taken a hit. Jokic is scoring just 0.74 points-per-possession, a massive drop from his rate last year, and it would have been by far his worst rate on any play-type last season. Per NBA Math:

Jokic needs to see the ball more. There’s no excusing such poor possession distribution.

Millsap and Jokic are very much in the “feeling each other out” phase. It is certainly not time to panic, but frustration is evident. Millsap was one of the highest usage forwards in the league last season, and has clearly struggled to adjust to playing with such a guard-heavy attack. Millsap blitzed Toronto early and was tremendously effective, so hopefully he can built his confidence from there. It was naive to think Millsap and Jokic’s unselfishness would make the transition seamless.

Denver will improve. Millsap is smart — far smarter than the average NBA player. Balance will ensue, and the collective IQ of the team will make it work, to some degree at least. But, the team needs a point guard. Just because a team’s best player is a seven-foot tall passing savant, does not mean it does not need a competent point guard to initiate actions and be a lead ball-handler. No matter how far removed the NBA seems from positional designations having relevance, there are still roles and responsibilities every team needs filled. Just look at the problems the Cavaliers are having.

Kyrie Irving, for all his failings as a leader and distributor, was still a guy who could absorb a high number of possessions each game from LeBron, and make them work within the team concept (even if that meant scoring one-on-one 25 percent of the time). The Cavaliers are a wreck with Derrick Rose at the helm.

Opinion is split, but Eric Bledsoe would help a lot, in my opinion. While he has had more of a scorer’s mentality in Phoenix, the former Clipper would be a much safer pair of hands to put the offense in. While he has not been motivated on defense in years, Bledsoe would still be a massive upgrade at the point-of-attack. Jokic’s lack of mobility would be far less of an issue if he was not scrambling to contain Matador defense on the perimeter.

If this team ever wishes to reach its ceiling, perhaps a conference finals berth in the next few years, a solid point guard will be essential.

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