After dropping the first game of 2015, the Nuggets have rallied off four straight wins. JaVale McGee is rumored to be returning to the lineup any day now and Danilo Gallinari should be right behind him. Jusuf Nurkic has really excelled in his first couple of career starts and his development alone is enough reason to remain interested in the Nuggets' season. The Nuggets are also likely to make a trade or two before February's NBA trade deadline with Wilson Chandler, the player that is likely to garner the most interest. With what will likely be an interesting month ahead, let's take a look back at some of the things that have and have not been working over the last few games.
Nurkic using his chest on defense
One of Nurkic’s best qualities as an on-ball defender has been his ability to beat defenders to the spot and to make contact with them using his chest. It takes a certain level of anticipation to be able to execute this correctly and Nurkic has had great instincts by anticipating offensive players in the mid and high post. As good as Timofey Mozgov was as a defender, he often got into foul trouble because he repeatedly took contact to the shoulders. Much like the block/charge call, referees have a tendency to call fouls on the defender if an offensive player makes contact toward the outside of a player’s body. Nurkic has become increasingly effective at anticipating the direction of the offensive player and opening up his body to meet them with his chest.
Nurkic’s conservative defense
Earlier in the season, Nurkic had a tendency to play overly aggressive on the perimeter, often times reaching in and picking up unnecessary fouls away from the basket. Nurkic has quick hands and is probably tempted to show off his skills as a perimeter defender. However, at this stage of his career it is more important for him to learn how to play for positioning and cut off lanes to the basket than it is for him to gamble on high risk, low reward plays outside of the paint.
It is remarkable how quickly he has learned this skill and one sequence last week against Demarcus Cousins in particular stood out. Nurkic got beat for a dunk after lunging for a steal near the perimeter. Nurkic appeared to point to himself as if to say “my bad” and on the next several possessions, Nurkic backed off of Cousins outside of the paint and just tried to beat him to the spot when he made his move. It worked perfectly and Cousins ended up missing his next four shots and the Nuggets pulled away. It’s remarkable how effective a defender can be just by reacting to the player he is guarding, staying in front of his man and then contesting the shot, as opposed to trying to force the offensive player one way or another.
Getting into the shot clock late
All season long the Nuggets have ranked near the bottom of the league in Half Court Pace. Half Court Pace is a metric that I created to estimate how much a team moves on offense in half court possessions. The metric is still in its infancy and there is an admittedly large amount of noise in the data, but the Nuggets have had a problem with stagnancy since Shaw took over as head coach. You can read the full explanation of half court pace HERE but to put it simply, the Nuggets just don’t move around a lot in their half court offense.
Much of this is by the design of the offense. Most Nuggets possessions, whether they begin with a post up or a pick and roll, tend to utilize spot up shooters to space the floor. There are several ways to increase a team’s movement in the half court but one simple and important way is to get into the offense quicker. The Nuggets have a frustrating habit of walking the ball up the court and starting possessions 14 or 15 seconds into the shot clock. The quicker the Nuggets can get into their offense, the harder the defense has to work.
Gallo’s delightfully ordinary social media profile
NBA social media is a world all its own. Almost all players use social media to interact with fans while also boosting their public profiles and endorsing whatever product they are paid to promote. In many cases, a player’s social media profile is carefully crafted to make them look as cool as possible. This is not true of Danilo Gallinari. Gallo’s twitter and Instagram feed is full of basement pool matches between him and his brother, unfiltered and sometimes unflattering selfies, pictures of sea lions and ducks, and posts that seem to provide a genuine snapshot into tiny moments of his life. And guess what? His life is remarkably similar to all of ours.
Take for example his posts on New Years eve. While some NBA players were posing for selfies at extravagant parties or counting hundred dollar bills while sipping fancy bottles of champagne, Gallo shared his “party” with his family in what appears to be a relatively empty restaurant. No celebrities, no dim lit selfie with the filter that gives every person a glow of perfection. There’s just aunts and uncles and cousins dancing whimsically around a surprisingly unfashionable restaurant. Gallo seems perfectly comfortable in his own skin and quite frankly his posts might be considered banal if they weren’t so refreshing.
Nuggets using double high screens
Until Gallo returns to the lineup, the Nuggets will likely play a majority of their minutes with two of the following four players on the court: Nurkic, Kenneth Faried, JJ Hickson and Darrell Arthur. None of these guys are threats to score outside of the painted area and Faried in particular is atrocious from mid range. This allows defenses to crowd the paint and cut off the lane for single high pick and rolls. One adjustment that the Nuggets have made is to bring both bigs to the top of the key and set a double high screen. In the first clip, I am not sure if the double screen was by design or by accident since Hickson and Faried are practically toe-to-toe. Nonetheless, the action works and Nate Robinson is able to get an open jump shot. Faried is also open on the short roll. In the second clip, the Nuggets used a double high screen to get a layup to end the 1st quarter against Sacramento. Lawson is very good at attacking the basket at full speed and this type of action is good at opening up the lane for him to get momentum.
There are two double high screen sets in particular that I’d love the Nuggets to steal. One is the double drag screen that the Mavericks and Clippers like to run as a sort of secondary break action. In transition, they place shooters on the weakside and their two post players “drag” behind at the top of the key to set a double stagger screen. Faried and JJ Hickson in particular are great at rolling hard to the rim in space and would be effective operating with this kind of space.
The other set I’d love for the Nuggets to steal is this double high back screen that the Hawks have been running. The set uses two corner 3-point shooters to space the court while the action is a series of screens at the top of the key. In this example, the center sets a ball screen and then the forward sets a back screen on the guy that switches on to the ball handler. This play is effective because it allows the ball handler to get momentum going to the rim while forcing the defense to make two switches in a row.
Shaw playing 3 non-shooters together
Few situations are more indicative of Shaw’s preferred style of play than when he plays lineups with three non-shooters on the court. To start the 4th quarter against the Timberwolves, the Nuggets played Hickson, Arthur and Nurkic at the same time. This lineup provides length inside but also leaves three guys who are practically incapable of scoring from beyond 15 feet. Arthur has been used as a stretch four at times but he is only shooting 28% from beyond the arc this season. Lineups like these are grueling to watch and often result in some borderline unwatchable basketball. It may just be a product of our depleted bench that Shaw is forced to play such an unappealing lineup, but if this is the direction of the future, we may be headed for a grindingly slow era of Nuggets basketball.
The reaction to the Mozgov trade
Mozgov wasn’t a perfect player. His career highlight is either an Altitude TV typo or getting dunked on by Blake Griffin. However he wasn’t an awful player by any means either and he was an extremely endearing personality. Fan bases have a tendency to either severely over rate or under rate their own players. They hail their rookies as the next big thing and dismiss role players as complete stiffs. That’s why it was really nice to see the reaction that Mozgov received from Denver media and fans alike. Mozgov was, by all accounts, a great guy, a solid player, a cherished member of the Nuggets team for nearly four seasons, and completely worth trading for two first round draft picks. Mozgov won’t go down in the Denver sports hall of fame, but it was nice to see Nuggets fans send him off with well earned thanks and praise.