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The Denver Nuggets need an assist

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A look at how the Nuggets score on assisted and unassisted field goal attempts.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Despite winning four of their last five games, the Denver Nuggets currently are sitting on the 5th worst offensive rating in the NBA. Only the Lakers, Sixers, Bulls, and Nets trail the Nuggets in terms of offensive efficiency. Seven times this season the Nuggets have failed to score 85 points including a fairly miserable 85-74 loss at home to the Orlando Magic in which the Nuggets scored just 27 points in the 2nd half. One of the culprits to the team's failed half court offense is that the team doesn't have a great go-to scorer who can create points out of busted possessions. Malone addressed this issue at practice on Sunday.

"We've worked on offense much more than we ever did in Sacramento. We don't have breakdown players, we don't have a low post threat, we don't have great shooting or great finishing, so we have to have great spacing, great ball movement. And we spend a lot of time every day working on all of that stuff."

The advanced stats back this up. As of December 12th, the Nuggets ranked 28th in effective field goal percentage on unassisted field goal attempts, as tracked by Nylon Calculus.  They also rank 26th in points per possession on isolations, per Synergy. While those two types of scoring possessions are generally some of the least efficient scoring options in basketball, they still make up an important part of a team's offensive success.

eFG% Rank
Assisted FGA 57.1 18th
Unassisted FGA 36.2 28th

The goal of a good offensive possession is to create open, assisted FGAs, either lobs to the rim, passes on cuts into the lane, or catch-and-shoot jump shots.  However, even the best teams rely on unassisted FGAs for nearly half of their possessions. The Golden State Warriors lead the league in the percentage of FGAs that are assisted at just 60.5%. The Nuggets are 14th with 52.2% of their shots coming via assist or potential assist. That means 47.8% of their FGAs are unassisted and on those possessions the Nuggets have a shockingly low eFG% of 36.2%.

What this means is actually pretty simple; when the Nuggets score through ball movement and good half court offense, they are efficient (57.1 eFG%). When they don't execute in the half court, they don't have any shot makers that can consistently score efficiently and bail them out. The margin for their half court offense is razor thin. Malone recognized this early and that is why, surprisingly, the Nuggets have spent more time working on their offense than they have their defense. "Our practices would be 50/50 (offense/defense), and if not 50/50, maybe a little bit more on the offensive side."

Despite the extra focus on half court offense, it's unlikely the Nuggets will ever produce a top 10 offense until they find, draft, or develop a reliable shot maker. One of the big differences between teams like the Warriors and Hawks is that, while both teams execute brilliantly in half court situations, the Warriors have an incredible individual shot maker in Steph Curry who can get great looks even when the offense breaks down and he is forced to force up a shot.

Emmanuel Mudiay has been very good at creating enough space to get his shot off and shows a lot of promise as a player that can get a shot any time he needs one. This is a pretty valuable skill. His size and body control help aid him being able to create just enough room to launch jumpers in a pinch. Unfortunately, Mudiay has been incredible bad at making those unassisted shots. What's worse, he is shooting unassisted jump shots at an alarming rate. Roughly 70% of all of his two-point FGAs are unassisted, more than high isolation scorers like Russell Westbrook. Still, the fact that he is able to get so many unassisted shots up is a good sign and bodes well for his long-term development. Not every rookie has the skill to shake loose from a defender to get a shot up. Hopefully Mudiay can improve his shot making over the course of the next few seasons so that that skill becomes more valuable.

Nikola Jokic has also shown signs of being able to create his own shot, especially in the post and from the elbows. Jokic doesn't get nearly enough touches right now to be able to say how he'll fare as a high-volume shot maker, but he has flashes where he has created baskets from fancy footwork and an ability to score through the defense. Will Barton has also been very good at creating his own shot, especially in transition. Barton thrives in chaos. When the defense begins to scramble, that's when Barton is able to attack the basket. He's less effective in stagnant offense where he is given the ball and asked to make something out of nothing which is why ball movement in the half court is so important for Denver.

The half court ball movement has actually looked a lot better as the season has progressed. The Nuggets have also done a good job of turning defense into offense. Per inpredictable.com, the Nuggets have jumped from 0.99 PPP on possessions following defensive rebounds before December 1st, to 1.06 PPP on those possessions since December 1st. Getting out on the break has been a staple of Denver Nuggets basketball for years but is something that the team has failed to do effectively since George Karl left in 2013.  Yet despite the improvements to both fast-breaking and half court execution, it is pretty clear that if and when the Nuggets are ready to contend for a payoff spot, they will need to add at least one more shot maker to the roster.