“I don’t think scoring will be any issue this year. Paul (Millsap) will definitely help, he gets to the foul line as well. But again, as I said earlier, I’m not really concerned about the offense.” -Michael Malone on Media Day
This was the first moment that I really worried about the Denver Nuggets offense. It was media day, one day before the start of training camp and for nearly an hour the Denver media grilled Nuggets head coach Michael Malone about a wide range of topics, from politics, to summer workouts, to horse racing in Sombor, Serbia. Malone answered every question so thoroughly that the presser lasted 45 minutes.
The one topic that wasn’t discussed in great detail was the offense. Defense was the focal point of training camp and would presumably be the focus all season long. The offense, which finished the 2016-17 season ranked 5th in efficiency, wasn’t a concern. The team had played so consistently well on that end of the floor that it was assumed by many, including coach Malone, that it would pick up right where it left off, despite the addition of Paul Millsap, the loss of Danilo Gallinari (and offensive assistant coach, Chris Finch), and the insertion of Jamal Murray and Wilson Chandler into the starting lineup.
Through seven games this season, the Nuggets rank 29th in half court ORTG, per CleaningTheGlass.com. Last season, half court efficiency was the team’s calling card. At Madison Square Garden last season, the Nuggets put up 131 points on the New York Knicks despite scoring just 4 fast break points. One year later, the team was stuck in the mud on offense until a 3rd quarter defensive jolt opened up transition points. So what has happened to the Nuggets half court offense? Let’s take a closer look in this week’s spotlight.
The loss of Danilo Gallinari cannot be overstated. Gallo wasn’t the superstar player that Nuggets fans hoped when he was brought to Denver in the trade for Carmelo Anthony, but he was a heck of a versatile scorer. More importantly, he unlocked some of Denver’s best lineups. Lineups that featured Gallinari, Nikola Jokic, and Wilson Chandler outscored opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions last season, per NBAwowy.com. It was a “small ball” lineup that had the size to defend most conventional lineups and the speed and shooting touch to spread the floor. Denver played over 650 minutes with that trio and it was the closest thing the team had to a death lineup.
This season, Denver hasn’t been able to play many stretch lineups at all. Through seven games, they’ve played just 56 minutes without two true bigs on the court. Just two of those minutes featured Nikola Jokic at center.
The lack of small ball has certainly hurt the team’s spacing but it isn’t the only reason the team has lost their footing. The team’s half court execution has also slipped. Just watch how lethargically the team runs this simple Horns Flex action. Jokic walks to the first screen and then completely whiffs on the second screen. Gary Harris, who is usually a reliable cutter, jogs through the cut with the urgency of a pre-game walk-through.
On other plays, the urgency is there but the timing is off. In the clip below, the pindown screen needs to start as Harris is coming around the dribble handoff (DHO). The timing of plays is often as important as the design, the timing is what makes the play work. Watch the clip below and notice how the helpside defenders are distracted by the off ball pindown but are able to recover their focus before Harris ever makes his way into the paint, eliminating the pass on the curl.
This is a set that Denver scored on a lot last year but this year the timing and spacing is all off. The details matter in basketball, especially for a team trying to develop their chemistry. In addition to the strong and weak side being out of rhythm, the double stagger screen for Will Barton would produce a switch 99 times out of 100 if Wilson Chandler hits Barton’s defender with the second screen. Instead, like the first clip above, the play devolves into a simple pick and pop that forces Millsap into a contested three-pointer.
Millsap is still learning his role in the DHO heavy Nuggets offense. One mistake he routinely makes is he doesn’t run into the DHO when he is given the ball at the top of the key for ball reversals. In a well executed possession, Millsap would attack the right side of the floor and meet Murray at the right wing. This would provide floor balance and open up the painted area for Murray to curl toward the basket or back cut toward the side line. Instead, Millsap stops at the top of the key and reverses the ball back to Jokic, placing 4 defenders on the left side of the floor.
The Nuggets get lucky that Ersan Ilyasova gambles for a steal and they’re able to open up a three-point shot and gain position for the rebound but this is an example of the defense making a mistake, not the offense creating an advantage. Much has been made about the lack of spacing in the Nuggets offense thus far this season but it’s not for lack of floor spacers. Even with traditional lineups, the Nuggets have the ability to space the floor if they tighten up the execution.
Lastly, the team needs to realize what they have in Jokic and Jokic has to step up and take the mantle. Last year he was the system. The team trusted him to make plays and each player learned how they fit into the style of play that he liked to operate. Far too often this season he’s looked passive, like a player who doesn’t want the responsibility of being the team’s focal point now that they’ve brought in a four-time all-star. As a result the team is playing through him much less.
He’s playing four more minutes per game than he was last season yet he’s receiving 4.6 fewer front court touches than he did last season after December 15th (the date he became the starting center). He’s receiving nearly half as many elbow touches and 1.3 fewer post ups. Even his field goal attempts are coming from different spots on the floor. Over half of his field goal attempts this year are from 16 feet or further while just 26% of his attempts were from that distance last year.
This is why Malone’s media day press conference worried me. The Nuggets weren’t the #1 offense for four straight months last season because they had more individual talent than everyone else, they were great on offense because of the unique talent of Jokic and the team’s chemistry on cuts and screens around him. That chemistry requires constant cultivation and refinement. Through seven games, the team appears to be back to square one.
One of my favorite shots is the Jokic moonball. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else in the NBA shoot this type of shot so consistently before. They happen when Jokic gets a dropoff just far enough away that Jokic can’t attack the rim for a strong finish so instead he shoots a super high-arcing push shot that always seems to hit nothing but net. Difficulty level: extremely high.
Millsap makes a lot of really impressive plays on the defensive end. This one nearly made me stand up out of my seat at Philips Arena. Bonus Easter egg: watch how well Murray gets his hands in the kickout lane, shadowing the ball handler the entire way to take away the easy cross court kickout.
Here is a great example of a play that Denver rarely executed properly last season. Mason Plumlee recognizes that Murray is switched onto a big in the post and quickly communicates with him to switch. As that is happening, Gary Harris also anticipates the upcoming switch and rotates down to cover Plumlee’s man. The play ends with a silly shooting foul but the switch was impressive nonetheless, especially since it required three guys to act quickly and in concert.
Along those same lines, here was a fun sequence to end the first half at Barclay’s center. To set the table, NBA teams are becoming increasingly adept at anticipating the end of quarter pick and roll that every team in the NBA runs. So to combat that screen, teams will switch a smaller, more mobile player onto the screener at the last minute so that that player can then switch onto the ball handler and prevent an easy shot.
So in step one, Barton swiches onto Millsap’s man - the screener - so that he can then switch onto the ball handler.
In part two, Millsap quarterbacks Harris to switch out onto Barton’s man since he is a shooter spotted up on the wing while Millsap takes Harris’s man closer to the basket, allowing Millsap to protect the rim.
In part three, Allen Crabbe recognizes this double switch and sprints to the opposite wing in order to draw Millsap away from the rim. A great adjustment on his part. Murray is forced to scramble and find the open man which happens to be the 7 foot center, Jarrett Allen. It was a fun possession that illustrates how much the NBA is a game within a game sometimes.
Denver’s defense is much improved over last seasons but they are still having a hard time finishing off the 3rd rotation on drives and kickouts. The clip below provides two nice examples but there are a dozen or more to pick from through the first two weeks of the season.
Nikola Jokic | DEN @ CHA | 18 points, 11 rebounds, 8-11 FG
First off, let’s be honest. No one deserved a game ball for this game, including Jokic. It was the worst loss of the season and Jokic himself looked awful in parts of the game, especially on the defensive glass. But every Nuggets player had something off about them that game and Jokic put up a fairly decent stat line.
Emmanuel Mudiay | DEN @ ATL | 16 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 turnovers
Mudiay only has 13 0-turnover games in his career and two of them are from this season. The Nuggets needed that mistake-free effort against the Hawks. They also needed some of his shot making and play making down the stretch. Mudiay is such a Jekyl and Hyde player, he has the talent to be the team’s MVP on any given night but he also has three games this season with a double-digit plus-minus.
Jamal Murray | DEN @ BKN | 26 points, 5 assists
One game after Mudiay went off, Murray had his best game of the year and broke out of his shooting slump. As I mentioned on Locked On Nuggets, so much of Murray’s game opens up once teams feel they have to guard him closely off ball. His follow up game against the Knicks provides hope that the early season shooting slump is behind him.
NIkola Jokic | DEN @ NYK | 28 points, 8 rebounds, 6-10 3FG
It’s concerning how much of Jokic’s impact this season has been from his scoring and how little comes from his facilitating. To me, that is a symptom of a much larger problem. Thankfully, Jokic looks more comfortable than ever with his jump shot. 51 of his 85 FGAs have come from either the mid-range or behind the arc. That’s an alarmingly high percentage of his shots out away from the basket. And while Jokic is a great mid-range shooter, a healthy Nuggets offense probably produces more shots for him at the rim.
One of my favorite off-beat things is Coach Mike Budenholzer’s confused face. He is first-team all-NBA at giving funny faces.