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Stiffs Mailbag: Denver Nuggets offensive issues, Juancho Hernangomez, and more

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Even with a 7-1 start to the season, questions remain about the Nuggets offense.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the Denver Stiffs Mailbag! While the Denver Nuggets are 7-1, there is still a tangible mix of excitement and concern among the fan base. It was very clear in the questions I received, so let’s get right into it.


This is a loaded question with multiple answers, but here are four reasons why the Nuggets offense has struggled thus far:

  1. The Nuggets are searching for spacing. Removing Nikola Jokic thus far, Denver’s four other starters (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, and Paul Millsap) have combined to shoot 28/106 on three-point attempts, a cool 26.4% from that distance. That’s awful. Murray and Harris, the team’s two most important marksmen, are each 10/37 from the perimeter. They are even starting to pass up three-point attempts. Last season, Murray and Harris combined to attempt 10.2 three-pointers per game. This season? Down to 9.2. Off the bench, Monte Morris and Juancho Hernangomez are shooting well, but Malik Beasley and Trey Lyles are a combined 8/44 from the perimeter. Not great, Bob!
  2. Losing Will Barton. The 6’6 wing may not have seemed like an important piece to Denver’s starting lineup, but his ball handling and slashing ability helped relieve pressure from Murray. Barton averaging 4.1 assists last year. In his absence, the team is missing his ability to create shots within the rhythm of the offense.
  3. Nikola Jokic’s killer instinct is fluctuating. Nick Kosmider wrote a great piece for The Athletic on how the Serbian center sometimes needs a push to show his own scoring aggression. Through Denver’s first four games and down the stretch of the Chicago Bulls game, it was clear that the ball ran through Jokic if the Nuggets wanted a victory. Lately, there have been multiple possessions in a row where Jokic doesn’t cross the three-point line and instead facilitates from the perimeter without expending too much energy.

Perhaps he and the Nuggets are finding out how physically taxing it can be to run the entire show for a full season. There needs to be a balance between Jokic letting others operate while taking a break on the perimeter and being properly aggressive looking for his own shot. When he’s focused, he’s an excellent post player whose scoring leads to opportunities for others in that order.

  1. Paul Millsap’s struggles. He is rounding into form over the last couple of games, but during the preseason and through the first five games of the regular season, Millsap’s struggles were hurting Denver’s offense. The turnovers are up. Only Monte Morris is finishing at the rim at a worse rate for Denver, and the post-up plays have not successful. This is less of a problem than before though, as he has started shooting the ball more efficiently from behind the arc, operating in the dunker spot more often, and playing the passer role more than the finisher. This is something to watch closely though.

Post passing is just one aspect of Murray’s overall passing profile, but here’s just one example of Murray losing focus on a pass:

That’s inexcusable.

As I referenced above, Murray is shooting 10/37 from behind the arc, good for 27.0%. More importantly, teams aren’t respecting his jumper right now. Murray has hesitated before letting his shot fly this year. The path to Jamal becoming an elite player starts with teams being fearful that Murray will hit a three from anywhere on the floor. Right now, the Nuggets are lucky if Murray hits a three during the game. Something has to change in his mentality.

Another issue, of course, is getting pick-pocketed while dealing with pressure.

This has happened multiple times during the season, whether it be in the back court or in the middle of a play. Murray’s ball handling has not been where it needs to be to operate like a point guard. This is the season when Murray is supposed to take more control of the offense, but at this point, it’s hard to know if he’s ready for that responsibility.

I referenced this during last week’s article, but yes, I do believe the Nuggets would be better with Hernangomez as the starting small forward right now. An excerpt from last week’s piece:

“Denver’s identity is that of an offensive team who must continue to exert multiple efforts defensively. Juancho never lacks effort on the defensive end, just execution. Still, the Spanish forward is just 23 years old and in his third season. He’s inexperienced, which means he has time to learn to play defense. What he needs most is opportunity and trust.”

Head coach Michael Malone turned to Hernangomez last night, and he responded with 23 points on 5/8 from behind the three-point line, allowed fellow sniper Kyle Korver to attempt just one three-pointer in 18 minutes to go with three turnovers, blocked two shots right at the end of the game, and played with the joy Nuggets fans love to see.

Hernangomez needs to be in the rotation every night, especially while the Nuggets are struggling to space the floor. After his excellent night, Juancho is up to 9/20 on three-pointers on the season, good for 45%. Denver needs that.

This is putting the cart before the horse a bit, but I will play along.

If Malone puts Juancho in the lineup and he plays well, the only way I keep him in the starting unit is:

  1. If Denver’s defense is still operating at a top 10 level when Barton returns
  2. If Jamal Murray gets his ball handling and playmaking together

Denver may want to ease Barton back into action anyway. They don’t want to accidentally re-aggravate that injury, because a nagging injury can derail a season or at least make it more painful. Ask Mason Plumlee.

Either way, Juancho needs to string some successful shooting performances together or at least provide the spacing to relieve some pressure from Murray and Harris. Those two need to get going any way they can, and I believe Juancho can help. If he adds that dimension to the team, then maybe he should stay.

This was a brief but interesting wrinkle. There isn’t much to read into it unless it becomes a trend. Generally, Monte Morris has filled in every minute at point guard that Murray hasn’t played, so going with Harris and Beasley in the backcourt was interesting. It was only for three minutes, and Denver accumulated six points off of two Hernangomez free throws and two Lyles drives to the basket. Still, if Denver’s looking to get a little more defensive, then this isn’t a terrible combination to throw out there. Harris and Beasley are Denver’s two best point-of-attack defenders other than Craig, and if Murray’s struggling, why not try it every now and then while Isaiah Thomas is still out?

I will be watching for this going forward, but if Thomas comes back, I don’t think it ever becomes a real thing Denver does. Maybe a Harris-Barton pairing makes an appearance every now and then.

The Denver Broncos are currently 3-5, while the Denver Nuggets are 7-1. The Broncos play against the Houston Texans at home this week, in Los Angeles against the Chargers next week, and at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 25th. Even if they lose all three of those games (and there’s a distinct chance they do) the Nuggets have math working against them. They play 12 games between now and November 24th when they finish up a second night of a back-to-back on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

I expect the Nuggets to go about 6-6 over the next 12 games given some tough games, including against Utah, Boston, Milwaukee twice, Houston, New Orleans, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City. That means they would have seven losses before the Broncos play the Steelers in just over two weeks and would finally match up in the loss column.

What a time to be alive.

Poll

What is the biggest cause for Denver’s issues offensively?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Poor shooting
    (275 votes)
  • 23%
    Losing Will Barton
    (113 votes)
  • 16%
    Nikola Jokic’s wavering scoring
    (77 votes)
  • 3%
    Paul Millsap’s struggles
    (16 votes)
481 votes total Vote Now