Jamal Murray. Gary Harris. Will Barton. Emmanuel Mudiay. This edition of Stat of the Week will focus on the four guards in the rotation and how well they are each operating as scorers.
As each of these four guards have played this year, so have gone the Nuggets success. Murray, the young, yet incendiary shooting guard learning how to play point. Harris, the steadiest of steady contributors in the face of adversity. Barton, the engine behind the second unit. Mudiay, the wildcard who occasionally flashes greatness at the perfect time. Of the 22 game balls our own Adam Mares has handed out so far, which can be found in his most recent Pickaxes and O’s, one of the above guards has been awarded a game ball 12 times: four to Murray, two to Harris, four to Barton, and two to Mudiay. Game balls represent the player who had the best individual performance, and it’s telling that on a team that also features Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap (before each guy went down), the above four players have each had amazing performances throughout the year to carry the team.
With an elite front court passer in Jokic and two solid passers in Millsap and Mason Plumlee, the Nuggets rely on their guards to finish a lot of possessions with a shot attempt. These shots come in a variety of ways, and while some of the guards are successful using particular shooting possessions, other guards excel at getting buckets in other ways.
Catch & Shoot three pointers
From left to right, the columns of three pointers made, three pointers attempted, three point percentage, and effective field goal percentage all come from Catch & Shoot statistics on NBA.com. Each category is also color-coded based off of league averages this season.
Immediately what sticks is the green across the board for Harris, who is one of the best Catch & Shoot players in the entire NBA. He’s one of only 12 players in the NBA that possesses an eFG% north of 60 percent on more than four Catch & Shoot three point attempts a game, along with noted snipers Kyle Korver, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Ryan Anderson.
Barton has also been excellent, though with an all-around scoring profile that is more diverse than Harris, he has attempted less Catch & Shoot threes so far. It would be nice to see him spot up from behind the arc more frequently because so far, only Darius Miller of the New Orleans Pelicans has a higher eFG% than Barton on more than three attempts.
Murray and Mudiay have been less good, with both guys sporting average looking profiles. It’s unsurprising that Mudiay has taken so few at this point, as his game is predicated on getting into the paint. Murray is almost perfectly average, but as a shooting guard learning to find his way in the offense, it’s not surprising. His averages nearly mirror last year’s 2.5 attempts and 0.547 eFG%, so while he hasn’t improved, at least he hasn’t declined while taking on more responsibility. He may well improve as the season goes on and in future years.
Drive statistics paint a much less rosy picture, but it’s not a bad picture per say. Murray and Harris share a nearly identical profile with Murray simply taking one more shot off the bounce every game. Neither guy struggles as a finisher, but neither guy is any more than average either.
Barton and Mudiay are even more alarming. Both guys shoulder the load off the bench quite a bit, and frankly, it’s amazing that Mudiay drives the ball as much as he does. Only eight other players besides Mudiay average eight or more drives per contest while averaging less than 25 minutes. Mudiay’s 38.4 FG% is dead last among those players. His finishing is just not where anyone thought it would be by now, and some of the attempts that he still misses are disconcerting.
Barton needs to be better as well. He has shot more efficiently off the bounce in recent years, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt to start the year. Still, it would be nice to see that number rise to at least league average by the All-Star break.
Pick & Roll
Here’s where things get worse. The volume in the pick and roll just isn’t there, and except for Murray, the efficiency is sub par as well.
It’s quite eerie how similar Barton and Mudiay have been during the last two categories. The differences? Turnovers for Barton and drawing fouls for Mudiay. In the pick & roll, Barton is turning the ball over 5.9 percent less than Mudiay so far this year. Where Mudiay makes up for it? He draws fouls 15.7 percent of the time he finishes a pick and roll possession, an encouraging number for the young point guard. That’s 9.3 percent more possessions than Barton. Each guy does different things out of the pick and roll, and while limiting turnovers might be seen as more important than drawing fouls in the public eye, none of the other guards come close to drawing as many fouls out of the pick and roll as Mudiay does.
The Nuggets need more out of Gary Harris as a ball handler. Murray has been efficient in the pick and roll, but if Harris were to expand his game beyond being an off guard, it would dramatically help the team create offense with Jokic out.
The Nuggets guards have some of the most interesting profiles I have ever seen from shooting guards off of cuts.
First of all, cut possessions are down from last year for every player except Murray, who’s averaging the same number per game as last year. Harris had the second highest number of cuts in the NBA last year as a guard behind Klay Thompson. He’s still doing well among though, with the second highest FG% of any player in the NBA. His percentile is down though because he’s also turning the ball over at the second highest rate among all players. Will Barton is turning it over the fourth most times in the NBA right behind him. Teams are sitting on the backdoor cut this year, and while Harris has made them pay with great efficiency behind the arc, it’s still a bizarre, dare I say, fluke-like stat.
As point guards, neither Murray nor Mudiay have as much responsibility to cut as Harris and Barton. Still, both guys have had right around average efficiency off cuts and should continue to cut as much as they can. It’s an incredibly efficient play type that opens up shots all around the floor through simple movement.
This is one of the worst groups of isolation scorers in the NBA.
Most of the time, isolations occur at the end of the shot clock or the end of the quarter. At those times, it’s simply better to shoot the ball in a less efficient way than to not shoot the ball at all. Unfortunately, Denver’s guards take that to another level. The average field goal percentage on isolations around the NBA is about 37 percent. Only Murray comes close to reaching that threshold. The others have been absolutely horrendous.
This has been a real hole in Denver’s offense so far. Last year, Murray shot 40 percent on isolation possessions. Mudiay shot 41.7 percent. Barton shot an amazing 53.1 percent! The Nuggets also had Danilo Gallinari late in the shot clock, who could get his shot off over anyone at 6’10. Denver’s offense is centered around Jokic and Millsap (in a couple months) facilitating, but Denver’s guards must be able to isolate when they have a favorable matchup in order to unlock the final version of an elite offense from last year.
So much of Denver’s offense is taking advantage of a favorable matchup created in small windows by Jokic. When he’s at his best, he’s skipping the ball all over the floor, moving into high screens, driving into the lane, and kicking out to the guards again. So far, Denver’s guards have been average as a whole at taking advantage. Harris and Barton have been the best spot up guys, while Murray has been the best pick and roll player. Mudiay has been average or worse in multiple categories, but the only thing he has genuinely struggled with is finishing on the move. When he’s at a standstill as a scorer or able to take one dribble, he’s been solid.
For the Nuggets to unlock their next level, they need a guard to separate themselves as a pick and roll and isolation scorer. Murray seems to be the likely candidate, as he has a sizable lead in both categories right now, but he needs to improve both his volume and efficiency if he wants to make it a weapon. It’s also possible that Harris has more to his game. He has the longest road as a dribble scoring guard, but over the past few games with Jokic and Millsap out, he has shown some scoring off the dribble he previous hadn’t. Barton has the most versatility, but what is his ceiling as a finisher with such a skinny frame? Mudiay has the thicker frame to be better, but his touch remains horrible inside the three point line.
If none of the guards step up, Denver may have to change the offense to feature more interior scoring from the bigs or even make some personnel changes. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
After another three seasons, who will be the best scorer?
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