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The Denver Nuggets in the penalty, their death lineup, and a sneaky good screener

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Pickaxes and O’s

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to do a deep dive on the Denver Nuggets and sadly, this week didn’t work out to provide a proper, focused column. However, my notebook is starting to overflow with loose notes on the team so I figured in lieu of a column I could just provide quick hits on some things I’ve observed and found interesting.

The perfect simple action

A set play or action doesn’t have to be complex or unique in order to work. Often times it’s more about the execution, details, and personnel that a team uses than it is about the complexity. The clip above is a simple action that the Nuggets have gone to a fair amount recently and have gotten great results.

To set the stage, the Nuggets run this with their two best lineup combinations. The trio of stars in Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray alongside Trey Lyles and either Will Barton or Wilson Chandler. They place Murray and Barton/Chandler on the weak side with the latter coming off of a pindown and the option to either curl in for a post-up or pop out to the wing to space the floor.

The heart of the action places Jokic, Harris, and Lyles in their favorite spots of the floor and running their favorite type of action. Harris comes off of two staggered screens and can either attack the basket or pull up off of the handoff. Lyles pops to the left wing where he is shooting 57% on the year. Jokic gets to play quarterback and more often than not gets to roll down to the block for a post-up against an undersized or late-rotating defender.

The defense has to pick their poison. Allow Jokic to get deep post position and you are conceding a high-efficiency shot or even higher efficiency kickout. Trail Harris around the double screen or try to go under and you concede a wide open three-pointer or open lane to the basket. Help off of Lyles even a little bit and you give him a wide open three. And lastly, rotate too far over on the weak-side and you leave Murray or Barton wide open for a kickout. It’s a very simple action but one that utilizes that lineup very well.

Nice set play to create a Lyles switch

Part of why the simple action above works so well is that the Jokic-Lyles pairing often creates difficult mismatches if a team tries to switch any screens involving either guy. This simple set, which starts out with almost identical spacing as the one above, is another example of the stress Lyles can put on defenses. It’s a simple screen-the-screener action where Lyles gets Malik Beasley open with a flare screen before receiving a flare screen of his own.

The second screen catches Phoenix offguard but even if a defense can properly anticipate the action the end result is still Beasley getting a slow-footed power forward switched onto him and Lyles getting an undersized guard switched onto him. And all of this can happen in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock so if an open shot doesn’t result from the initial action, the Nuggets can run their offense having already created a big advantage.

Murray’s screening

Jamal Murray might be the best screener on the Nuggets roster. Basketball coaches at all levels preach that the best way to get open is to set a good screen on someone else since good screens demand that the defender guarding the screener must help off. Murray takes this lesson to heart, especially when the play calls for him to release for a catch-and-shoot opportunity following the screen.

The examples above come form one of Denver’s base offensive actions. Pay close attention to the angle that Murray takes to set the screen. He doesn’t just run through the motion, he positions his body so that the player he is screening must take a certain angle to fight through the screen. Those little details force his defender to fall a half step behind which is often the difference between getting an open shot or not.

Elevator going up

I discussed this exact play on the Locked On Nuggets podcast following this game. It’s another example of Murray setting up his own shot by first setting a great screen, this time a cross screen to get Wilson in the post (actually just a decoy). Ricky Rubio is forced to switch and Joe Ingles is forced to delay a moment to make sure Denver doesn’t get an easy, mismatched post-up bucket.

But what I like even more about this play was the way Michael Malone drew it up or called for it during the timeout. At this point in the game, Murray had just caught fire. The Jazz called a timeout to regroup but Malone ran this sneaky elevator set to give Murray a heat check. It first looks like Chandler is the target. Then, the Nuggets typically run a single down screen for Murray using the center but this time, rather than running off the outside of Jokic, Murray runs inside and receives the elevator screen. A very well-timed and well-executed play that put the Nuggets ahead for good.

Entry passes

Jokic is among the best post-up scorers in the NBA and arguably the best post-up passer but the Nuggets haven’t been able to take advantage of him in the post nearly as often as they should. One reason for this is because the team struggles with entry passes. Mason Plumlee in particular is surprisingly inconsistent with these types of plays, often mistiming, under-throwing, or telegraphing the pass. Murray and Harris also struggle to make this pass and have even started looking off the post whenever the window is even remotely tight.

Some of this is on Jokic. He’s got to get stronger and more nimble to hold off defenders in the post. Defenses have started to guard him with long but thin wings who can outmaneuver him (and foul the hell out of him) on the block and it has led to more than a few instances where he allows himself to fall out of position. The Nuggets have used double cross screens to free him up and have had some success.

But whether it’s double cross screens, improved entry passes, or something else the Nuggets desperately need to find ways to get the ball to Jokic in the post more. He’s scoring just 0.965 points per possession (PPP) on shots in the post according to Synergy, a mark that is well above average but not horribly efficient in a vacuum. But what’s more important is that he is drawing fouls on nearly 20% of his post-up scoring possessions and the Nuggets are scoring 1.288 PPP on all kickouts to shooters and cutters off of Jokic post-ups. Those are elite scoring numbers that also happen to get everyone on the floor involved.

Roll passes

The Nugget are struggling even more with hitting Jokic on the roll. According to Synergy, he ranks in the 23rd percentile on shots as the roll man. Last season, he was in the 75th percentile. A deeper look at the numbers hint at one possible reason for the huge change in year-to-year effectiveness: the loss of Danilo Gallinari and Jameer Nelson.

According to Second Spectrum data, Jokic was an elite finisher in rolls to the rim when running pick-and-roll with Nelson, Gallinari, and Barton last season and well below-average off of passes from most everyone else. In the clips below, you can see how the Nuggets back court trio misses him on some fairly obvious and easy opportunities to get him open on the roll. Height might be an issue as Murray and Harris in particular see a lot of their passes to the roller get deflected, kicked, or disrupted. The Nuggets might be wise to try a few more designed pick and rolls with Chandler and Lyles as the ball-handler.

Bench reactions to Plumlee’s misses

Plumlee has been a net positive for the Nuggets this season but he’s also provided an entire lowlight reel worth of fumbled passes and missed bunnies. These plays are often of the buzzkill variety but it’s always fun to see how the bench reacts. They too notice Plumlee’s unfortunate knack for bungling what would otherwise be highlight-worthy alley-oops and finishes. Just watch their reaction to the first two examples here. The second example was especially painful as it marked the end of a huge momentum boost by the Nuggets and the beginning of an equally huge collapse.

One really interesting trend the Nuggets have developed this season is that they don’t put opponents in the bonus very often. They lead the league with the fewest opponent minutes spent in the penalty at just 7.7 minutes per game. This is significant because on average a team’s offensive rating increases by 3.8 points per 100 possessions when they are in the bonus. Avoiding the bonus might even be more valuable to the Denver Nuggets who like to use the altitude to their advantage at home. Less time in the bonus means less stoppage of play for teams to catch their breath.

Curiously enough, the Nuggets are one of only a few teams who’s offensive rating actually goes down when they themselves are in the bonus. Perhaps this is because they don’t have an elite one-on-one scorer who can put pressure on defenders to commit on-ball fouls. Last year they had Gallinari who was an elite foul drawer and helped exploit those moments of the game when they were able to race into the bonus. The Nuggets may need to make some adjustments to their game plan for when team’s place them in the bonus, perhaps going to actions that create foul drawing opportunities. Jokic and Lyles post-ups come to mind.

Trey Lyles | UTA @ DEN | 16 points, 8 rebounds, 7-11 FG

This was one of those total team effort games where no one player dominated the game but the Nuggets won easy behind a well-balanced attack. Lyles gets the game ball though. His rebounding early was a large part of what helped hold the Jazz to just 34 first-half points. His scoring in the 2nd half was just the cherry on top.

Trey Lyles | DEN @ MIN | 23 points, 10 rebounds, 8-13 FG

Another one for Lyles. The fourth quarter lineup of he, Barton, and Jokic paced the Nuggets and brought them within a hair of a nice road win.

Nikola Jokic | 19 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, +14

This statline should be known as “the Jokic.” A little bit of scoring, a lot of rebounding, some nice assisting, and a double-digit plus-minus. Sadly, this one came in a loss. Jokic seems to have a handful of these games where he’s a double-digit plus in 36+ minutes despite the Nuggets somehow losing.

Gary Harris | PHX @ DEN | 36 points, 14-17 FG

Only five times this season has a player scored 36 or more points on 17 or fewer shots. Steph Curry has done it twice, Kevin Love once, and Kyle Kuzma once. Add Gary Harris to that list. He was on fire in this game and single-handedly gave the Nuggets a double-digit lead in the first quarter.

Trey Lyles | UTA @ DEN | 26 points, 4-8 3FG, +11

Lyles dominated his old team in this one. There was a sequence where Rodney Hood cleared everyone out to try and take Lyles one-on-one in an iso. Hood missed the shot at the rim and on the ensuing possession, Lyles cleared everyone out to take Hood in the post. Lyles scored with ease and you could see the dejection rush over Hood.

Trey Lyles | DEN @ SAC | 19 points, 9 rebounds, 8-11 FG

Lyles has stung together quite a few impressive games. He was the lone brigh spot in what turned out to be one of Denver’s worst losses of the season.

Nikola Jokic | DEN @ GSW | 22 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, 3 steals, 1 block

Jokic bounced back from his mini-slump by posting his first triple-double of the season. For whatever reason, Jokic seems to have the reigning devensive player of the year’s number. The dream shake up and under will undoubtedly go on the end of season highlight reel.

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