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Stat of the Week: predicting the point distribution for the Denver Nuggets starting five

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The Nuggets may have one of the most productive starting fives in the NBA next season.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Stat of the Week! To kick the season off, I want to discuss the Nuggets starters and how they fit together, specifically their point production during the 2018-19 season.

Led by Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets are the definition of an equal opportunity offense. His passing and general distribution of the basketball help Denver’s scorers remain impactful throughout the game, and it shows when comparing Denver’s starters in 2017-18 to the rest of the NBA. Here’s a graphic of every team’s five most frequent starters and their combined points per game.

The Nuggets were in the top 10 among starter points per game in 2017-18.

At first glance, it’s easy to spot that Denver’s starters generate a lot of points, but delving deeper into each starter’s average yields more interesting results. Denver ranked 9th in the NBA in starter points per game, and they accomplished this through high marks relative to average from Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Wilson Chandler.

Nikola Jokic’s point sacrifice is the starting lineup’s gain.

Going column by column, Denver’s starters in 2017-18 were Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Murray, Millsap, and Chandler. When visualizing Denver’s starters and their points per game averages in comparison to league averages, it’s clear that while Denver doesn’t have a traditional lead scorer, their offense remains competent through even distribution. Jokic’s job as the fulcrum of an offense that emphasizes dribble handoffs allows multiple players to remain involved at all times. Spacing, timely cuts, and shotmaking from complementary pieces are the key to the Nuggets maintaining elite offense. While a lot of credit goes to Jokic, it’s a testament to the overall skill level of each Denver starter.

Not having a weak link in the starting unit is a major advantage for Denver. Even good teams are often saddled with an offensively challenged starter. The Oklahoma City Thunder with Andre Roberson, the Milwaukee Bucks with Tony Snell, and the Portland Trail Blazers with Al-Farouq Aminu come to mind. Denver’s 5th option in their starting lineup going forward is probably Paul Millsap, a far cry from normal fifth options in the NBA. He’d likely be the best fifth option in the NBA outside of Boston with Al Horford and even then, it’s close.

Last season, the top three teams in starter unit production were the New Orleans Pelicans, the Golden State Warriors, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Coincidentally, those teams were 9th, 1st, and 4th in Offensive Rating last year. In fact, of the top 10 teams in starter point production, seven were in the top 10 in Offensive Rating, and the Washington Wizards were 10th and 11th respectively. Starter points per game, as simple as it sounds, is the most important factor when generating a healthy offense. Many teams prioritize having a scoring sixth man, and while that works for some teams, starters usually have staggered rotations anyway, so they play those bench minutes regardless.

The top 10 teams in starter points per game generally fair well in offensive rating.

Fast forward to 2018-19, and the Nuggets starters have only improved as a versatile scoring machine. By exchanging Wilson Chandler and his 10.0 points per game for Will Barton and his more efficient 15.7 points per game, the Nuggets have raised their scoring ceiling. His ability to function as both a shooter and creator around Jokic adds to Denver’s offensive weaponry. Adding the 5.7 points per game difference to Denver’s 2017-18 average would slot the Nuggets tied for 5th in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 76ers happen to be a good example for the Nuggets to model their offense and rotations for the upcoming year. Jokic and Joel Embiid function as similar focal points of the offense, with Embiid as more of a scorer and Jokic as both scorer and passer. After that, J.J. Redick, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington all averaged 17.1, 15.8, 14.6, and 12.6 points per game respectively. Denver’s other four scorers have a higher ceiling as a group, but finding opportunities for each player to operate as a scorer within the flow of the offense should be at the top of Nuggets head coach Michael Malone’s considerations this year, just as it was Brett Brown’s in Philly.

I expect Denver to stagger their rotations considerably this year, especially with Isaiah Thomas out for the start of the season and the lack of a true small forward to play minutes. Monte Morris and Torrey Craig will likely earn the first opportunity to fill in the gaps left by the injured Thomas and departed Chandler, but to maintain scoring throughout the game, one of Murray, Harris, or Barton is likely to join them frequently. So, the five Nuggets starters should accumulate close to 85 points per game throughout the season. That number may drop if Thomas returns or Trey Lyles takes a step forward as a scorer, but it’s hard to fathom a situation where Denver’s five starters aren’t heavily relied upon for the majority of games.

The question is: what does the point distribution look like?

NBA: Denver Nuggets-Media Day Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After averaging 18.5 points per game last season, Jokic looks ready to shoulder an increased scoring load. During the first two months of the season, the Serbian center averaged just 15.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in under 30 minutes a night. This stretch simply misrepresents who he became as a player at the end of the season, and eliminating that stretch of games help shape the picture. From December 1st until the end of the season, Jokic averaged 19.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.7 assists on 33.8 minutes a night. I expect him to maintain those averages throughout the season, so for simplicity’s sake, let’s round it up to 20 points per game.

Gary Harris and Jamal Murray are looking to take big steps this season as well. I don’t think Harris will experience a scoring bump, but playing in an offense where he can be misconstrued as a fourth option by opposing defenses will work to his advantage efficiency wise. He was the second leading scorer in Denver last year, and though I think Murray takes that mantle going forward, Harris should still average over 17 points per game. Murray is in line for the star leap though, as many third year guards of his profile have experienced in recent years. Guards from Ben and Eric Gordon, to Klay Thompson, to Devin Booker all began scoring with volume and efficiency in their third seasons in the NBA. I expect Murray to do the same, with all of the skills and all of the intangibles to apply pressure to opposing defenses every night. Around 19 points per game would be a solid benchmark for Murray, even though he could average more with less talent around him.

Will Barton makes the move into the starting lineup, and while I expect his usage to slightly drop, he will play with bench lineups enough to maintain scoring volume. Last season, he averaged 15.7 points per game, and much like Gary Harris, I don’t expect the scoring to rise a ton, but I do expect the efficiency to improve. Playing more frequently with Nikola Jokic helped his efficiency last year, as Barton’s TS% jumped 4.0% when he played with Jokic. Settling at around 16 points per game makes sense for Will the Thrill.

Finally, Paul Millsap returned to the starting lineup last season and averaged 14.1 points per game down the stretch. Given the scoring talent in Denver’s lineup and less deference from Jokic to Millsap, I expect that number to drop slightly. 13 points per game sounds like a bad season, but Al Horford remained insanely valuable in Boston averaging 12.9 points last year, and there’s an avenue for Millsap to age into a defense first contributor who still has the skills to score when necessary.


Here are my predictions for the Nuggets starters’ point distribution:

  1. Nikola Jokic - 20.0
  2. Jamal Murray - 19.0
  3. Gary Harris - 17.0
  4. Will Barton - 16.0
  5. Paul Millsap - 13.0

That brings the total to 85.0 lineup points per game, which will likely rank inside the top 3 in the NBA this season.

Poll

Will Jamal Murray score more or less than 19.0 points per game?

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