It's hard to believe but we are already past the one-third mark of the NBA season. With just two more game in 2015, the Nuggets are in a strange place - just 1.5 games out of the 8th seed in the western conference, and 1.5 games ahead of the 14th placed New Orleans Pelicans. The season has been full of ups and downs, from Mudiay's game winning blocked shot against Damien Lillard, to the team's 8-game losing streak in November. Yet despite the downs, this rebuilding year has shown a lot of signs of promise. As we get ready to turn the calendar to a new year, let's hand out first trimester grades.
Nikola Jokic: A+
Head coach Michael Malone started raving about Jokic on day one of training camp and his excitement about the development of the young Serbian 7-footer has only grown since then. At the start of the season, Jokic was playing sporadically and was yanked anytime he'd make any sort of mistake. As the season has gone on, Jokic has earned Malone's trust and earned more and more minutes. Jokic played 20 or more minutes just once in the first 10 games of the season, 4 times in games 10-20, and 8 times in games 20-30.
Jokic's all-around game has been on full display in the first two months of the season. He has excellent footwork on post-ups, incredibly soft touch on his jumper and around the rim, and is a great passer. His decision making on offense as well as his overall feel for the game have been off of the charts for a rookie. On the defensive end, he's been surprisingly effective. He has the best DRtg on the team as well as the team's best individual ORtg. In short, Jokic has been the best part of the Nuggets season so far. Coming into the season, Nuggets fans would've been happy if he showed the upside to become a successful role player but Jokic has shown that he is much more than that.
Will Barton: A+
Barton scored in double figures just 11 times in 2.5 season with Portland. This season with the Nuggets, Barton has finished in double figures a team-high 28 times, and has set new career highs for points in a game twice already. His energy and scoring off of the bench have been the most consistent part of the Nuggets season so far. The most surprising part of Barton's season has been his jump shot. In Portland, Barton never shot above 31% from behind the arc and had never attempted more than one 3-pointer per game. This season he is shooting over four 3-pointers per game and making an eye-popping 39.7%. Who knows if he will be able to maintain this outstanding level of play, but through 31 games, Barton has been arguably the best 6th man in basketball. His 3-year, $10.8 million contract is looking like one of the best bargains in the NBA. He should be a big part of this team going forward.
Darrell Arthur: B+
Darrell doesn't put up crazy scoring numbers or do too many flashy things on the court but the Nuggets are almost always better with him on the court. Malone seems to trust Darth a lot. Malone has been very tight with his rotation in the 4th quarter but Darth is one of the 6 or 7 players that consistently gets 4th quarter minutes. At this point in his career, Darrell's strengths and weaknesses are well known and he is pretty much the same player that he has been for years. His 3-point attempt rate is down quite a bit from last season which is probably a good thing. He's replaced those shots with more shots at the rim and more mid-range jumpers, upping his FG% and true-shooting percentage.
Danilo Gallinari: B+
Gallo is the team's best player and the team's most effective go-to scorer. He is averaging a career high in FT's made per game on 6.7 FTA's per game. He's also averaging a career high in points per game and appears to be on track to play 71 games this season, which would be the 2nd highest total of his career. Yet despite the impressive scoring numbers, it's hard to give Gallo an A on the season so far. The Nuggets need a #1 option on offense and Gallo hasn't been able to fill that role consistently. There are nights when he sort of blends in with the rest of the team or fails to take over when the Nuggets desperately need a bucket. He's also shooting the lowest FG% of his career.
Kenneth Faried: B
The Manimal is having a bounce back year, after two difficult seasons under Brian Shaw. Malone has Faried playing a role on offense much more similar to the one he had under George Karl. He's taken the ball out of his hands, given him fewer post-ups and front court touches, which has freed him up to pound the offensive glass and work the cutting and rolling lanes. As a result, Faried is back to shooting more shots at the rim, grabbing a higher percentage of offensive rebounds, and scoring at a much more efficient rate than he has at any point over the last two seasons. Defensively, he's been up and down, as expected, but his energy and effort that put him on the national radar are back. He, more than anyone, might benefit the most from Nurkic's return as it will allow him to work the fast break more, knowing that he has a solid rim protector and defensive rebounder backing him up.
Emmanuel Mudiay: C
It's been no secret that Mudiay has struggled this season. He is currently 2nd to last in ESPN's Real Plus Minus, an advanced statistic that estimates a player's overall value. However, much of that was to be expected for a rookie point guard forced to play extensive minutes, leading a mediocre team against an absurdly difficult early schedule. His jump shot will improve and his vision and decision making will be refined over time. His size and skill set still make him one of the most promising rookies in this draft class. Hopefully a few weeks on the bench, watching the game from the sideline and seeing how Jameer Nelson runs the team will help Mudiay make a leap in the 2nd half of the season.
Gary Harris: B+
Last season Harris was buried deep on the bench and seemingly out of favor with Brian Shaw and the coaching staff. This season, Malone has trusted Harris with the starting spot at shooting guard, and, on most nights, the assignment of guarding the other team's best perimeter player. Harris has stepped up to both challenges very nicely. His per 36 numbers are up across the board, especially his 3-point shooting. His touch from range has fallen off a bit over the last 10 games but he is still shooting a very respectable 35% from beyond the arc. He still passes up a lot of shots but part of that is because he has shown that he can be such a great off-ball cutter. He leads all Nuggets guard in points off of cuts by a very wide margin, per Synergy.
|Gary Harris Per 36 Minutes||Pts||Ast||FG%||3FG%|
Jameer Nelson: C+
This grade was a D- before Mudiay got injured and Nelson's minutes began to go up. It's hard to tell if Jameer wasn't comfortable with such a limited role off of the bench or if he was just having a sloppy season but Jameer really struggled in the opening month and a half of the season. The Nuggets expected him to be a stabilizing force behind the up and down play of Mudiay but unfortunately, Jameer looked shaky at times, forcing turnovers and leading the offense into chaos far too often. He's shooting the lowest FG% of his career although also taking the lowest number of attempts per game. He's played much better over the last few weeks and the Nuggets as a whole look much more confident when he is on the court. It may be that he was uncomfortable with his role behind a rookie who was clearly an inferior player at this point. It will be very interesting to see how Malone handles minutes and rotation once Mudiay is back.
Joffrey Lauvergne: B-
Joffrey has been hit with some adversity in the form of injuries this season which may have cost him a bit of rhythm. Jokic appears to have passed him in the rotation and with Jusuf Nurkic set to return sometime in January, Joffrey may find himself playing very limited minutes before too long. Still, Joffrey's numbers are up across the board. He's made 9 of his 20 3-point FGAs. He seems to have the green light to shoot wide open 3-pointers but the Nuggets might be smart to try and find him more shots from the perimeter. He has the size and strength to match-up against big bodied forwards and centers on defense so if he can become more of a stretch big on offense, he might add to his value. With just 16 games under his belt, it's hard to give him anything higher than a B-, which is by no means a low grade. Let's see how he fits into the rotation in the coming weeks.
Randy Foye: D
Foye might be the new Hickson, in that he is the player most likely to earn fans irrational hatred. Foye hasn't been great and hasn't been especially awful. Despite a few hot shooting nights over the last 10 games, Foye has been remarkably cold from long distance this season, shooting a career low 29.8% from 3. He's especially struggled with "open" shots, shots where defenders are between four and six feet from him. He has made just 14 of 59 such shots this season, the worst 3FG% on the team for such shots. When he's not hitting shots, he really doesn't contribute a whole lot. He's been forced to play point guard for extended minutes in recent games yet that hasn't seemed to affect his overall impact.Harris and Barton have both been much more effective at shooting guard this season and Foye will likely have his minutes cut once the roster is back to full strength.
Michael Malone: A- but also Incomplete
Malone has done plenty of praiseworthy things with the Nuggets in his first two months with the team. The team has played hard much more frequently than they did last season and there are absolutely no questions about who is running the show in the locker room. He has been quick to yank guys for not doing what they are told. JJ Hickson is exhibit A of Malone's willingness to bench any player that doesn't fit with what he is trying to get the team to do. It's still hard to judge the effectiveness of a coach when the roster has been as banged up as the Nuggets have been. Wilson Chandler and Nurkic would've made this team dramatically different and almost certainly much more successful. Unfortuantely, Malone has had to spend too much time trying to balance players coming in and out of the lineup and figuring out which guard can be forced to play forward, and which forward can be forced to play center. The next two months will be very telling for Malone and his vision with the team. Integrating Nurkic into the rotation while also building on the principles that he has put in place will go a long way in telling what type of season he and the Nuggets will have this year.