The Denver Nuggets entered the season with a roster that was equal parts youth and experience.The youth of Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, and Gary Harris was balanced by the experience of Jameer Nelson, Danilo Gallinari, and JJ Hickson. That balance provided fairly positive results relative to most experts' expectations. Vegas had the Nuggets winning 26.5 games this season, a number they surpassed last Thursday, 17 games ahead of schedule. However, there were ups and downs, especially early in the season and even moments when it appeared that the veterans were growing tired of the routine mistakes from their younger teammates.
In December, Mudiay left the lineup with an ankle injury and the veterans took over the rotation, including heavy minutes from Randy Foye. Since then, the veteran players have slowly been waived, bought out, traded, or injured. Foye was replaced by DJ Augustin, Gallo was replaced by Axel Toupane and Jakkar Sampson, and since Gallo's injury on February 26th, the Nuggets roster has been reduced to nine players in an 11-man rotation that are 26 years old or younger.
Surprisingly, the Nuggets are 5-3 in the eight games since Gallo went down, including a 1-point overtime loss to Brooklyn. More impressive than their overall record has been the flow of their offense. The team is scoring much more efficiently than they had at any other point in the season. The Nuggets have put up a 111.1 ORTG in that stretch, meaning they are scoring 111.1 points per 100 possessions, 10 points per 100 possessions better than in their season average prior to that stretch. The most noticeable change over the last eight games has been the ball movement and shot making, two things that are almost certainly linked to each other.
Over that stretch the Nuggets have completed more passes per game, assists per game, potential assists per game, and secondary assists per game while improving their FG% from nearly every spot on the court all while improving their turnover ratio. The team has also improved their points in the paint, second chance points, fast break points, and points off of turnovers while sacrificing almost nothing on the defensive end.
One possible reason for the increase in production is that the Nuggets have added much needed shooting around the perimeter in DJ Augustin. Over the eight game stretch, head coach Michael Malone has relied on lineups with two point guards in pivotal moments, usually pairing the two point guards with at least one other three-point shooter, usually Gary Harris. That lineup is extremely small and susceptible to teams with large wings but it paints a fairly excellent picture of what Mudiay and Harris can do with an additional shot making and playmaking wing (a la Wilson Chandler).
With three guards all capable of initiating the offense, knocking down open jumpers, and cutting off-ball, the offense has found a quick, smooth rhythm that has looked Spurs-esque at times. Will Barton and Axel Toupane have also shared the court with the two point guard duo and have seen similar results. The playmaking and high IQ of Nikola Jokic has complimented this smart, quick decision making style and the Jokic/Mudiay/Augustin combo has an ORTG of 168.8 in 15 minutes.
Small sample sizes have a way of making small trends seem huge when they are just short term anomalies. The Nuggets have had a fairly easy schedule over the last eight games and one or two productive quarters can distort the rest of an eight game sample. Gallo is also a great player so none of this is to say that the team is better without him or that he is slowing the offense down. However, Mudiay's improved play in that stretch and the overall improvement in the fluidity of the offense may very well point toward a sign that Gallo has been holding certain aspects of the offense back.
The Nuggets run a lot of ballscreen continuity action, as outlined by Stiffs writer, Gibson Pyper. A continuity offense is most effective when the offense has consistent action and playmaking from all five spots. The Nuggets have excelled at finding that rhythm in a way that they haven't been able to at any point of the season prior. It's certainly something to keep an eye on as the Nuggets face tougher tests ahead in the next few days.