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Nuggets 2016-17 midterm grades

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The Nuggets have played 41 games, with 41 games remaining on the schedule. How is the team doing at this midpoint of the 2016-17 season?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets have played to a 17-24 record after 41 games of the 2016-17 season, which may be better than some people expected and may be worse than others expected.

It’s been an interesting journey to this point for the team. It was just a few months ago that the organization was exuberant about the possibilities of the Jusuf Nurkic-Nikola Jokic frontcourt. Now the team is nearly certain to trade Nurkic, who has been relegated to a minor bench role, by the trade deadline, according to media reports.

The team has seen players honored for their performance, like Jamal Murray winning Rookie of the Month for his play in November. There have been moments that made us laugh, like Emmanuel Mudiay helping eject San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. There have also been terse moments, such as when head coach Michael Malone called out his team for a lack of veteran leadership after a loss to the Sacramento Kings.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Before sharing my grades for the frontcourt, backcourt, offense, defense, bench, coaching staff, front office, and an overall grade, here are some midseason grades from national publications.

Here’s the NBA media midseason grade for the Nuggets, written by Lang Whitaker:

Frontcourt C Personnel isn't the main problem. The Nuggets have several quality veteran forwards (Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari), and have gotten a career year (16.4 ppg) from the newly vegan Wilson Chandler. Young bigs Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic have been caught in something of a playing time logjam.
Backcourt C Led by second-year point guard Emanuel Mudiay, third-year guard Gary Harris and rookie shooting guard Jamal Murray, the Nuggets backcourt has a ton of raw talent. Time will likely pay big dividends as this core develops, but in the meantime the growing pains are evident.
Defense F Now see, I'd like to consider myself a generous grader, but when a team is battling for the worst defensive rating in the NBA -- and as you can see above, Denver and the Lakers have been trading places in the basement -- there's not much to say in their defense.
Bench C Lots of talent, but aside from thirtysomething vets Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller, there's lots of youth. Besides the aforementioned forward logjam, players like rookie Malik Beasley haven't been able to get time either. Right now, player development should be paramount.
Coaching B Mike Malone has already called out his team's lack of leadership, for which he subsequently apologized. But for all of his ability to connect with his roster, the one thing that Malone can't teach is experience, which is what the Nuggets need above all else.
Overall Grade C Right now the Nuggets are probably outperforming expectations, and are hanging around within sniffing distance of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoff race. While they figure out rotations and try to get everyone healthy, the Nuggets are learning about the rigors of the NBA season and the long schedule. For now they may not have the stamina to fight for a postseason spot, but in a few years the Nuggets may strike gold.
NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

With those expert’s thoughts on the Nuggets, here’s my attempt at giving out grades.

Record (17-24) 3rd in Division 8th in Conference 19th in NBA
PTS/G 109.6 (4th of 30) OPTS/G 111.6 (28th of 30)
ORTG 110.6 (8th of 30) DRTG 112.7 (30th of 30)

Frontcourt: C

With this grade covering all 41 games of the season, I have to factor in how awful the first quarter of the season as the Nuggets started Jusuf Nurkic alongside Kenneth Faried and Nikola Jokic.

There’s no justification at this point of the season for starting Nurkic. While the third-year player had nice moments, the team has transformed into an offensive juggernaut as Nurkic’s role has been reduced. If he had continued to start for the Nuggets, I would have likely given the frontcourt a failing grade.

Over the last 16 games, the Nuggets have been outstanding in the frontcourt. After initially starting Wilson Chandler alongside Jokic and Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried has found a role in the starting lineup that has been very productive for the team. The work the frontcourt of Gallinari, Faried, and Jokic has done helps raise this unit’s grade to a C.

Backcourt: C-

The Emmanuel Mudiay-Gary Harris combination hasn’t been able to play together as often as initially hoped, with Harris suffering multiple injuries that have limited him to 17 starts and 478 minutes this season.

When they have played, Harris has been the far superior player of the two. While his defense has not been as good this season as last season, his ability to score alongside Nikola Jokic is an underrated skill. Harris has a high basketball IQ, and couples that with his athleticism to create open shot attempts for himself. He’s a willing passer, a quiet leader, and a valuable part of the Nuggets team.

Mudiay has continued to struggle this season, with the lowest effective field goal percentage of any player that isn’t named Alonzo Gee on the roster. He began the season with a confused style of play, not sure when to attack, where to go on offense, and repeatedly allowing his opponent to have open shot attempts. His play on the offensive end of the court has improved in the second quarter of the season, but his defense continues to be questionable (i.e. allowing Dejounte Murray, a late first-round pick in 2016, to score 24 in his first start).

Will Barton, Jameer Nelson, and Jamal Murray have all started games alongside Mudiay at different points, but I’ll grade them later on.

Offense: B+

The Nuggets offense just continues to improve and improve as the season continues. While the Jurkic combination wasn’t ideal for the team, they were still scoring over 106 points per game. The biggest problems were their ability to convert shot attempts into makes and to not turn the ball over.

It’s a theme, but since the change of benching Nurkic and starting Jokic, the Nuggets have been able to make more of their shots and aren’t turning the ball over as frequently. It’s a simple solution - make more shots and don’t give the ball away, and you’ll score more points.

In January, the Nuggets have the second-best offense in the league, behind the Golden State Warriors. They also have the second-best assists per game mark in the league, again behind the Golden State Warriors. Things have been pretty good lately on that end of the court.

Defense: F

I thought about giving out a D minus, but much like the Nuggets, I couldn’t defend that.

Mudiay, Harris, Gallinari, Faried and Jokic have all struggled defensively throughout the season. Opposing teams have their way on offense against the Nuggets, with multiple players finishing the game with double-digit points. Shots at the rim, 3-point shots, midrange - they’re all open for Nuggets opponents.

The Nuggets are 5th in the league in defensive rebounding, but have seen their performance in that regard slip as of late. Rebounding is one area that is heavily influenced by the players will and fight - it’d be nice to see them have some commitment to that aspect of the game.

Bench: B+

Two of the top five scorers on the team have bench roles, with Wilson Chandler averaging 16.1 points per game and Will Barton averaging 13.9 points per game. Barton is excellent at getting to the basket for acrobatic shot attempts, and is shooting 41 percent on 3-point attempts. Chandler is a versatile defender and skilled isolation scorer, helping lend a veteran presence to the team.

The bench has struggled to find chemistry at times, but in my opinion, that is more due to the volatility of the starting lineup and injuries. It’s difficult to play within a role when that role is changing seemingly every week.

The bench also features the only two Nuggets players to appear in all 41 games this season - Jameer Nelson and Jamal Murray. Nelson leads the team in average seconds per touch (4.69) and average dribbles per touch (4.77), and is the worst rotation player in points per touch (0.162). That is a little skewed because he dribbles the ball up the court so often (Mudiay is second in average seconds per touch and average dribbles per touch) but his ability to not create points when given the ball is spectacular.

If you had told me that halfway through the season, Mudiay would be a better 3-point option for the Nuggets than Murray, I would have thought you were crazy. But, lo and behold, Mudiay (49-151) has a higher 3-point percentage at nearly identical totals than Murray does (51-160). It looks at times like Murray is running into a rookie wall, but that’s why he’s coming off the bench for the Nuggets. His bad nights are mitigated by his minor role.

Coaching: D

At the halfway point of the season, the decision to start the year with Nikola Jokic playing out of position alongside Jusuf Nurkic, and then off the bench, is almost bad enough to justify termination of employment for Michael Malone, in my opinion. If Malone had decided to continue playing Nurkic over Jokic, I would have felt like the organization would have been justified in dismissing Malone from his position with the team.

Obviously, he made a switch, and the Nuggets are playing better. However, the defensive scheme the team has in place continues to allow teams to take wide open shot attempts. The Nuggets allow opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 52.7 percent, 26 out of 30 in the league, with only the Suns, Kings, Mavericks and Lakers worse than the Nuggets. Part of that is the scheme the Nuggets run, with their insistence on doubling in the post.

Injuries haven’t helped the situation, but coaches are supposed to put the team in the best position to win. So far this season, they aren’t doing that, although things are slowly improving.

Front Office: C-

The Nuggets were rumored to have interest in Paul Millsap, as far back as during the draft, but the Hawks asking price may be too high for a player that could potentially leave in free agency in the upcoming summer.

The front office has made minor moves to the roster throughout the season. They waived Jarnell Stokes after it became apparent the team was no longer going to start their two centers together. They signed, and continue to keep on roster, Alonzo Gee, who has been one of the least productive players in the league and is one of the oldest players on the team at age 29. They got cash from the Atlanta Hawks in a trade for Mo Williams, who was traded to the Hawks in a move with the Cavaliers for Kyle Korver. Williams was waived in a salary cap move, and may be off the books if he’s claimed by another team.

This grade is going to be heavily influenced by their second trimester examination - the NBA trade deadline. So far this season, things have been slowly building up towards that date, with few signs of activity. Depending on what the Nuggets record is, their position in the Western Conference playoff chase, and health, the Nuggets may be poised to make a big move.

Overall Grade: C

The Nuggets started the season like Ralph Wiggum, eating glue straight out of the can. Since then, they’ve gone more vegan, and are playing a healthier version of basketball. They have bad habits (not playing defense) that they continue to exhibit, but have shown excellence in other areas (Nikola Jokic, Will Barton).

If the front office can make a trade to improve the defense, and the coaching staff implements a defensive scheme that allows the players to be successful, the Nuggets could contend for a playoff spot. I don’t think they should tank, and would be in favor of them competing for the opportunity to play the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. NBA teams can still find good players in the middle of the lottery.