The floater. A high-arcing rainbow shot that, when performed correctly, is impossible for defenses to stop. When an offensive player receives the ball or dribbles to just outside the restricted area of the paint, a defender is often waiting patiently at the rim to swat incoming shots away. Some players have the athleticism and physical ability to challenge these players head on, but most of the Denver Nuggets make their money by avoiding these plays and showcasing finesse and grace instead.
And the Nuggets had success with floaters during the 2018-19 season, including two high profile shots by Denver’s biggest stars. The first such shot came from Nikola Jokic on the road against the Miami Heat in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. The Nuggets needed the game-winning bucket, and they turned to Joker to get it.
Such an awkward shot, but Jokic may be the greatest “awkward” player in NBA history at this point, contorting his body in funny angles to create shots for himself and others that no one else can see.
Another such play was made by Jamal Murray in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs in the most clutch way possible. With roughly 45 seconds left in a win-or-go-home game, Murray calmly hit a high-arcing floater that nearly scraped Pepsi Center’s scoreboard.
Quite simply, these were two fantastic, season-defining shots created by the Murray-Jokic two-man game. Murray started with the ball in both plays and passed to Jokic both times. In the first, Jokic knew the clock and had to get up the shot he could. In the second, Jokic reset the play and allowed Murray another opportunity to attack the defense going left.
In both scenarios, the Heat and Spurs played the pick and roll action in different ways, going over the screen with the guard but using the big differently. Bam Adebayo of the Heat started high and was forced to drop into the paint feeling the combined pressure of Murray and Jokic closing in on the rim. Aldridge of the Spurs starts slightly lower and attempts to wall off both the pass to Jokic and the drive to the paint from Murray, though leaving extra space in front of him that Murray eventually occupied for his game-winning floater.
Taken on its own, these plays were excellent for Denver; however, they have a distinct flaw that showcases itself in Denver’s offense on several possessions. The Nuggets are struggling to put vertical pressure on the defense at the rim and three-point line.
Shot distributions and efficiencies are often so important in determining the health of an offense. Last postseason, the Nuggets faced the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two vastly different offenses with different goals. The Spurs were going to take the shots they were given and make them all at an efficient rate. According to Cleaning The Glass, the Spurs ranked in the top two league wide in scoring efficiency in every location on the floor except for long midrange two-pointers, in which they ranked sixth. The Blazers on the other hand were top 10 in all but two categories: at the rim and on corner three-pointers, both of which ranked 25th league wide.
The difference between these two teams though, and why the Nuggets figured out how to stop one but not the other, was where they attempted those shots. The Spurs led the NBA in midrange attempts by far, attempting nearly 47 percent of their shots in the midrange area and outpacing the next closest competitor by the next closest team, Minnesota, by 12 percent. The Nuggets identified this tendency and limited the two Spurs midrange stars LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan as a result.
The Blazers were a different matter though and more difficult for Denver to deal with. Portland put pressure on the Nuggets vertically with their guard duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, which put Denver’s perimeter defenders and pick and roll defenders in a tough position. Being forced to guard Lillard and McCollum 30 feet from the basket opened up opportunities in the long midrange for the guards and at the rim for the bigs. Denver’s help scheme coming off the corners didn’t matter when the Blazers weren’t going to shoot from there with any frequency anyway.
That leads us to the Nuggets, who had an unremarkable shot distribution save for one area of the floor last season: the short midrange. Cleaning The Glass points out that the Nuggets are slightly above to slightly below average across the board everywhere else but ranked second behind only the Spurs in the short midrange frequency, attempting over 22% of their shots from that distance. The Nuggets were good too, hitting those shots with the second highest efficiency of 43.9 FG% behind only (you guessed it) the Spurs.
There are benefits to being great in the short midrange area, but as was highlighted with the San Antonio Spurs, there comes a point where being great in the least efficient areas can actually hurt an offense if the matchup is right. A team that focuses on three-point offense and at the rim offense will generally outscore an offense that dabbles too much in the midrange area, save for when the midrange shooters score with high efficiency. These players are the Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and CJ McCollum types of the work, and Nuggets fans should understand now why McCollum can be so valuable in a playoff setting even when he’s focused on less efficient places on the floor.
But why are the Nuggets coerced into taking less efficient shots? They have effective three-point shooters at every position when healthy. What makes them focus so heavily on the short midrange? In my opinion, it’s a combination of factors largely stemming from the way teams defend Nikola Jokic.
The two most dangerous aspects of Jokic’s game are his efficiency and touch around the rim and his passing. When Jokic gets all the way to the rim on the pick and roll, he’s basically automatic with his touch, rarely missing uncontested shots despite rarely leaving the ground. To counter this, teams will put a defender between him and the rim on every occasion, whether teams are playing aggressively on the ball with Jokic’s primary defender or not.
The way Zach Collins plays this defensive possession is similar to the clip of Bam Adebayo above, except he starts lower and dares Murray to shoot the long midrange attempt before sliding over to Jokic. Murray doesn’t oblige and instead uses the open passing window to drop a bounce pass right into Jokic’s hands, who immediately shoots a floater as he recognizes the space he has to shoot will close quickly with Collins closing in.
This set can be performed at the top of the key and the baseline, but the result is generally the same: a floater by Jokic or a short jumper by the pick and roll guard, assuming they can’t get all the way to the rim. Jokic is strong on these shots, as his accuracy in the short midrange is in the 87th percentile among bigs. That’s good enough to warrant getting him the ball every single time, despite the midrange being a less efficient method of scoring overall.
Where this really comes into play is Denver’s spacing and the willingness of the guards to settle for a less valuable shot.
Often, Denver runs a DHO or pick and roll set where both the guard and Jokic/Plumlee are crashing to the rim. Sometimes, Denver spaces the floor with two wings in the corner and a big in the dunker spot. Other times, the player in the dunker spot moves to the opposite wing of the pick and roll or DHO action.
In the clip above of Game 6 against the Blazers, Murray obliges on the space Zach Collins gives to him when going downhill in the pick and roll and shoots the floater over his outstretched arms. With Plumlee crashing, this can be an effective use of the floater as Collins is forced to leave his feet which puts Plumlee in good position for an offensive rebound. It’s an example of a good time to shoot a floater while late in the clock, with the floor well spaced and few shots that lead to a better scoring opportunity.
However, this is Murray’s shot in Game 6 directly before the end-of-clock floater. This one, further out and with less space and 17 seconds left on the shot clock, is simply a bad shot. Enes Kanter plays this well here, giving Murray enough space going downhill to lull him into taking that floater when the right course of action is to probably make a dribble move to get all the way to the rim or turn around and reset the offense. It’s not like Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid is standing in front of Murray here either, so a well-placed in-and-out crossover probably gets Murray some space to get a closer shot.
The rhythm of Denver’s offense though is to make a decision with the ball when Murray reaches that spot on the floor. Often, Murray is tasked in getting the ball to Jokic as soon as he crosses the free throw line so Jokic can make those decisions. As Murray (and Harris and other guards) continue to gain experience, they will find that changing the pace of the offense can be beneficial, finding a seam to the rim they don’t normally have access to, or dribbling across the paint and dumping the ball off to Jokic or Plumlee after drawing the big man away from the rim.
Right now, Murray, Harris, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, and Will Barton are allowed the opportunity to shoot the midrange shots because the defense is preventing Jokic from receiving the ball in an easy spot. Both guard and big will take a half step toward Jokic and away from the ball handler in these situations, leaving a window to shoot that, if converted regularly, is a good shot. If not, it’s exactly what the opposing defense is working for.
There’s no red in the efficiency column. Each of Denver’s guards was efficient relative to their position. The Nuggets are good at these shots relative to the rest of the NBA.
The problem of course, is that good relative to the rest of the league simply isn’t good enough in this case. The average efficiency in the short midrange for a point guard like Jamal Murray was roughly 38 percent. Murray’s 41 percent was above average but only good for 0.82 points per possession offensively. Conversely, the average efficiency for a shot at the rim for a point guard was about 57.5 percent, or 1.15 points per possession.
Let’s do some math and reduce Murray’s short midrange frequency to the 50th percentile for a guard, down from the 76th percentile he maintained last year. That would drop his short midrange frequency by 4% overall, which is about 50 attempts across a full season. By changing those attempts to at rim attempts, it would improve his two-point shot efficiency without even changing his efficiency from any individual spot, going from 47.6 percent on two-point shots to 48.6 percent, which doesn’t sound like much but is an extra 16 points across a full season.
Now, the Nuggets cannot change who they are, nor should they. So much of what makes Nikola Jokic great on offense is his ability to make decisions in the middle of the floor. There are limited ways to get him the ball there, and the easiest action is a middle pick and roll that can lead to a floater at times. For the Nuggets though, they have to find ways to get back to the most efficient version of themselves, and that means attacking the locations on the floor that make the most sense analytically.
Michael Malone already voiced this concern in a press conference on media day, saying Denver’s goal on offense this year was to improve the number of threes attempted from around 32 last season to 36-37 this season. That means Denver may need to trim the fat on several areas of their scheme, including floaters, perhaps designing a set that involves off-ball players rotating up the the wing and top of the key from out of the corner. Perhaps it will take a change in mentality from Denver’s guards and becoming more creative in their pick and rolls with Jokic. Jameer Nelson was very good at this in 2016-17 and often found Jokic in creative ways while maneuvering through the paint with the ball in his hands.
Jamal Murray and others will need to take more responsibility here, understanding the angles on certain passes instead of settling for the simple floater. Just because Murray’s good at it doesn’t necessarily mean it should happen as frequently as it does.
Jokic will continue to find the angles, take what’s given to him, and create as many open shots for his teammates as possible. He’s guilty of settling for the floater too, but at the rate he and Monte Morris make shots in that location, they’re fine to take them whenever they want.
So the Nuggets ball handlers are left with two options on these sets: either they can get so good at the floater that it becomes a valuable shot in their arsenal that defenses have to respect, or they can change it up, make better decisions, and get creative. There are many ways to be an elite offense, and the Nuggets have unique and talented players that often lead to floaters in the short midrange, but that’s still not enough. There’s a ways to go before Denver joins the upper echelon of offenses, and it starts with better decision making and execution in the middle of the floor.