The Denver Nuggets are an offensive basketball team.
They have made some fairly big strides on the defensive end of the floor this season, improving from 29th in defensive rating (DRTG) last season to 18th in DRTG this season. They’ve won games this season with defense, holding opponents under 100 points four times already in just the first four weeks of the season. Even their star center, Nikola Jokic, has looked like a solid defensive anchor at times this season and the team is best defensively when he is on the floor.
But make no mistake about it: the Denver Nuggets are an offensive basketball team. The thing that will set them apart from the pack and vault them into the playoffs will be their offense. More specifically, their half court offense is their backbone. Take that away from them and they are an average team that will likely end up on the outside looking in at the playoffs in the loaded western conference.
On Monday night, the Portland Trail Blazers turned Denver’s half court offense into the worst offense in the league. That isn’t an exaggeration. According to cleaningtheglass.com, Denver scored just 0.62 points per possession in the half court, the single worst mark from any team in any game so far this season.
And while Denver’s performance against Portland was the worst of the year, it isn’t the first time the team has been stuck in the mud in the half court. Through 14 games, the Nuggets have had just 4 games in which their half court offense has rated above he 50th percentile of all NBA games so far this year. On average, the Nuggets are scoring 5.4 fewer points per 100 half court possessions than their opponents are allowing on average.
Last week, it looked as though the Nuggets were trending in the right direction. Their previous 9 games saw a noticeable uptick in their half court production, culminating with a huge performance against the Orlando Magic. However, Monday’s loss to the Trail Blazers didn’t just regress them back to their old habits, it was their worst showing yet.
Let’s take a closer look at what happened in that game and what is happening in many of their games so far this season.
One of the issues the team is facing is that defenses just aren’t guarding Mason Plumlee outside of the paint. Plumlee shoots below 35% on shots outside of the restricted area for his career and below 30% on shots that are considered “mid-range.” That isn’t horribly uncommon for centers and Plumlee has value as a passer and handoff screener when the ball is in his hands on offense but Plumlee plays power forward when he’s in alongside Nikola Jokic and is often tasked with creating space off ball, a difficult task for a non-shooter. Just look at how much space the defense gives Plumlee when he caches the ball at the elbow and how much the defense is able to crowd the paint when he is out around the perimeter.
Plumlee takes the jump shot in an effort to keep the defense honest but even if he hit a shot or two, defenses aren’t likely to over-correct. Sagging off of him that far completely eliminates any cuts or drives to the basket as the opposing center is basically standing at the rim ready to contest any interior shots.
Spacing the floor with two bigs has been a big problem for Denver. The Nuggets have figured out how to take advantage of team’s switching 4-5 pick and rolls between Jokic and Paul Millsap...
...however they haven’t perfected that same action for Plumlee.
A better use of Plumlee when teams are sagging off of him is to use him as an off ball screener in cleverly disguised actions. Rewatch the clip above and imagine instead that Plumlee uses the threat of a screen on Jokic as a disguise for a screen on Will Barton’s man a few steps wider on the wing. With Jusuf Nurkic sagging off of him that deep into the paint, Barton’s defender would have no help fighting though a Plumlee screen. If his defender goes over the screen, Barton is attacking Nurkic one on one in open space with a head of steam. If Barton’s defender goes under the screen, Barton has a wide open three pointer.
The Nuggets are also having Plumlee rim run hard in transition, another strategy that hasn’t produced great results so far. In the first clip below, Plumlee’s fight for position on the block eliminates any driving lanes and slows the possession down before ending in a three-second violation. In the second clip, Plumlee has great position but Emmanuel Mudiay isn’t able to make the simple pass inside.
And that brings up the biggest issue for Mason Plumlee: he plays most of his minutes alongside a point guard that is an awful fit for him. Mudiay and Plumlee have been a rough duo so far this season in a way that is reminiscent of how Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic were a bad pair a year ago. Try to place them in a pick and roll together and teams just duck as far under the screen as they can.
Place him off ball and teams know that he isn’t a threat outside of the paint. Put Plumlee in the dunker spot and he clogs the paint, sometimes deliberately so when trying to duck in for a post up.
The duo has been even worse when paired alongside Wilson Chandler. That trio has played 81 minutes together and the Nuggets have been outscored by 28 points in that span. Worse, that trio has appeared in 7 different 5-man lineups and all 7 lineups have either been outscored or played even. The most common 5-man unit features Will Barton and Nikola Jokic, the lineup that Denver plays to close out the final three minutes of first quarters.
With the limitations of Plumlee and Mudiay as floor spacers and with Chandler in a massive shooting slump, there aren’t many great options for the team to drum up effective play calls. Portland really pressured Jokic all night out on the perimeter but Jokic wasn’t able to get much going off of the dribble to make them pay. In the clip below, Jokic catches his defender with a spin move but is met in the paint by two help side defenders, Plumlee’s and Chandler’s with a third, Mudiay’s, hovering nearby.
It’s difficult for coach Malone to find bench minutes that don’t include both Plumlee and Mudiay. Since there are plenty of options at power forward and very few at point guard, Plumlee has been the odd man out. He’s playing just 15 minutes per game, the fewest of his career and nearly half of what he played when he was in Portland. He’s played over 18 minutes just once in the last 8 games and that was the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder when Mudiay had arguably the best game of his career and shot 8-10 from the field.
There’s still time to figure out how to use Plumlee in a meaningful role and he still brings a lot to the table as a basketball player. The trick will be finding ways to involve him that don’t include Mudiay-Plumlee pick and rolls or Plumlee hanging out in the dunker. Coach Michael Malone will also have to be extra conscious about placing enough shooting around those two that allow for the paint to open up.
Until then, the Nuggets’ half court offense will remain stuck in the mud.
Starters finding a groove
The good news is that the starting lineup is starting to show signs of progress in the half court. The two clips below are the closest the Nuggets have come to mirroring last year’s offensive symphony of ball movement and people movement. Let’s look at everything the group does well on these plays.
In clip one, Jokic sets the delay screen to force the center to rotate to the outside. On the reversal, Chandler cuts through and Barton runs into the dribble handoff at the exact moment that Millsap receives the pass. Timing is as important as anything in the half court and everything about this possession is well-timed. Murray points for Barton to keep the ball on his side of the floor and post up Jokic who is coming off of a screen from Chandler.
As soon as Jokic touches the ball, Barton screens for Murray who receives a second screen from Millsap. Murray isn’t open so he cuts through. Jokic tosses it to Millsap and sets the quick 4-5 ball screen and then seals and rolls to receive a pass rolling to the rim. Chandler cuts from the corner the second he sees his defender rotate over to stop Jokic which leads to a wide open kickout for Murray on the wing. Perfection. Barton is even wide open at the top of the key if Murray felt like swinging it once more.
The second clip features most of the same beats only instead of coming off of the double screen, Murray short cuts the screen toward the basket. Last year Jokic would’ve thrown that pass. Murray even seemed surprised that Jokic missed him. Perhaps a lack of execution of this magnitude has made Jokic a bit rusty but the player movement continued as Millsap ultimately attacks a tired and scrambled defense for a foul at the rim. More of this, please!
Subtle Millsap stuff
I liked this drive and kick by Millsap. After some more great ball movement, Millsap attacks the closeout and sees Barton open on the wing but rather than swing it too early, he attacks the help side and then kicks it out once the defense has no hope of recovery. He turns a good kickout into a great one.
While Mudiay struggles with decision making, Murray struggles too often with feel as a point guard. In this clip, he first misses Jokic who has great post position against a guard before then missing a wide open Millsap on the wing. These types of plays can’t happen.
Here is another interesting decision by Murray. With 16 seconds left on the clock, Murray launches a running, one-legged pull up floater from the foul line with no one in rebounding position. These types of plays will tank your half court offense.
Emmanuel Mudiay | OKC @ DEN | 21 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 8-10 FG
This might’ve been Mudiay’s best game as a pro. It helped that he shot 4 for 4 from behind the three-point line but he also added some impressive drives to the rim and some clutch plays in the 4th quarter when the game was on the line. When Mudiay plays this well, the Nuggets can hang with anybody.
Jamal Murray | ORL @ DEN | 32 points, 6-9 3FG
Nikola Jokic had the better stat line and porbably the bigger impact on the game but Murray gets the nod for setting a new career high and for finally shooting the ball the way Nuggets fans expect him to. Murray’s shot is so important to this team. When he’s knocking down jump shots, the defense extends a step further and opens up the paint for cuts and drives.
Wilson Chandler | DEN @ POR | 14 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists
Nobody played great in this game and there really wasn’t a whole lot for the Nuggets to hang their hat on but if anyone deserved the game ball it was Wilson who shot well from the field (5-9 FG) and did a little bit of everything on the offensive end.