The Nuggets currently rank 24th in the league in eFg%. That is worse than the lowly Knicks. Arron Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, JJ Hickson and Kenneth Faried are all shooting worse than they were last season. Faried and Chandler, the two players who played significant minutes under Karl, are shooting much worse than they were two seasons ago. Needless to say, the Nuggets offensive scheme has some pretty substantial inefficiencies to it. Perhaps the least efficient, and probably the most unwatchable part of the Nuggets' playbook is their post up offense.
As is true with most things about the NBA, the way that teams post up has evolved over the last decade. Former players often lament that the NBA has lost the dominant post player or that there just aren't enough good centers in the league anymore. Some of this is true. The 1990's saw a lot of hall of fame caliber centers and the game was played much more inside-out. But what's missing from that argument is an understanding of how things like defensive 3-seconds and the discovery of the value of 3-point shooting has changed the way teams need forwards and center to play in the post.
The best post players in the league score with an efficiency around one point per post up possession. That is roughly equal to an ORtg of 100. League average ORtg is roughly 105.9 or in other words, nearly 6 points better per 100 possessions. This does NOT mean that posting up is pointless or inefficient. It just means that the real value of posting up goes beyond simply scoring from the post. Kick-out three-pointers and scoring on cuts out of the post are, on average, more efficient than isolation post up shots. I bring this up because the Nuggets strategy on post ups really emphasizes low post scoring while minimizing the opportunities for kick outs and cuts to the basket.
The biggest, most glaring issue with the Nuggets post up offense is the lack of off ball movement. The Nuggets routinely pass it into the post on offense and then the action dies. This type of post up strategy is difficult even for the best post players in the NBA like Demarcus Cousins and Al Jefferson. The Nuggets don't have a post scorer that is even remotely as efficient as those guys and so stagnation on post ups absolutely kills the offensive efficiency. On rare possessions, the Nuggets score. On most possessions the play ends in a turnover or a bad shot with little offensive rebounding potential.
In this first clip, the pass goes inside to Faried who takes a power dribble before getting blocked by weak side help. The post position is great and the move is even a strong, hard move. The problem is that there isn't a set strategy for the Nuggets on post entry. The entry passer stays put as does Afflalo in the corner. That takes away every passing option on the strong side. On the weak side, Timofey Mozgov and Ty Lawson watch as Faried goes to his move and because neither are a threat, Drummond fully commits to help side and gets the block.
The Nuggets don't seem to have a set action off of post entry. The obvious option in this example would have been for Mozgov to set a screen on Lawson who would've been wide open at the top of the key. Faried doesn't anticipate any off ball action and neither does the defense. The play becomes incredibly easy to defend. The second example in that clip is nearly identical in that no one moves once the pass goes in to Jusuf Nurkic. Devon Harris is able to help off of the idle Lawson and disrupt the play. This is just two in a hundred examples on the season of the exact same thing.
Another ineffective tendency the Nuggets have developed is posting up Afflalo when they have two non-shooting bigs on the court. Afflalo is probably our most effective one-on-one scorer in the post but he is often put in difficult, one-read situations. The most egregious example was the opening possession at Dallas last week when Afflalo was forced to call timeout just 14 seconds into the game. The play was for Nurkic to give a pass into the post and cut through. The problem is that Dallas sent a hard double knowing that with Nurkic and Faried on the weak side, the Nuggets wouldn't be able to make them pay.
The Nuggets don't have a dominant post up player but certainly don't take this criticism of their current strategy as me saying that the Nuggets should never post up. Rather, their offense needs to have certain principles in place for whenever the ball goes inside. First, as I've highlighted before, splits action is an excellent way to get the help side defense moving. Splits happens when one strong side wing screens for the other strong side wing. Usually this is guard to guard and it is great because both defenders are forced to make a quick read on wether to switch or to fight through the screen. Even if they make the right read and take away the splits action, it still distracts them from doubling the post.
Second, in situations where the forward or center make the entry pass, rather than dive through, it would be more effective for the big to set a screen first at the top of the key. Nurkic was only following the play by diving in that first possession of the Dallas game, but re-watch the clip and imagine how open Lawson would have been had he cross screened Rajon Rondo rather than cleared through. JJ Hickson has been good about cross screening before he dives in recent games and it almost always gets a good look. In this clip, his screen is as lazy as can be but it still helps distract his defender long enough for him to dive for an open shot at the rim.
Lastly, the Nuggets need to go to more designed plays out of post ups. In this clip against the Kings, the Nuggets used a great fake high screen that turned into a post up and roll to the basket. Notice how the threat of the ball screen pulled Darrell Arthur's defender away from the basket. That allowed Afflalo to make a quick catch and pass read to the cutter. Even if this play didn't work, the Nuggets still would've gotten post position for Afflalo in a spot that he likes to go one on one. The Nuggets don't have players who are great improvisers. However, they do have players who can execute well laid out plays or make specific reads, like the read Afflalo made on this play.
Looking at the specific, individual talent on the Nuggets roster, there are a few ways that players can improve their individual scoring in the post. Faried, for example, is at his best as a one-on-one scorer when he can attack with enough space for to make a one dribble move. He doesn't have the size to bang down low with larger power forwards in the half court but he is as quick as anyone at the position and has a lot of explosiveness when he is able to get just one or two steps of momentum. Last week I discussed how players look to attack their defenders shoulder. Faried is very good at this and his quickness makes it very difficult for defenders to position themselves to contest without fouling. In this clip, Faried catches the ball in isolation about 15 feet from the basket. He uses an outside pivot which is a bit awkward. Most players would inside pivot to open up more space for them to attack. Nonetheless, he is able to size up the defender and make a quick one-dribble attack and score.
Faried has a few tendencies that smart teams and players are able to scout fairly easily. The first is that he strongly prefers his right hand. In a recent telecast, Scott Hastings mentioned that Faried spends time before every game working on his left handed touch. However, he still doesn't seem to trust it in game situations.
The second tendency is that Faried prefers jumping off of one leg. This isn't bad in and of itself since he is an athletic one-legged jumper. The problem is that using post moves that finish on one leg don't lend themselves to improvisation. Often times Faried will commit to a move and be forced into a difficult shot or a turnover if the defenders stays with him. He'd really benefit from some post work that focuses on jump stops, pivots, shoulder fakes and up and unders. He is so quick that bulkier defenders will be quick to bite on his fakes to try and contest his shot, and even if the fake doesn't work, stopping on two feet will allow him to pivot out of the post to avoid turnovers.
Looking at Nurkic, he has already shown that he can be a very good passer out of the post even if his post up scoring is still fairly raw. Brian Shaw and the coaching staff would be smart to give him post touches on plays that have very deliberate reads. Like the Afflalo to Arthur example above, Nurkic will best develop as a passer when he knows what to expect from his teammates. Things like who will cut, who will slide their feet and to what spots, when the cuts will happen, etc. Efficient teams have some type of weak side principles that give the post players an out if they don't have a good look. It is so much easier for a player to become a playmaker when he knows what reads he is supposed to make. So far this season, the Nuggets have been absolutely terrible about getting off ball action, especially on possessions in the post, and that is a big reason why they have struggled on offense.