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Denver Nuggets: Start sharing that sugar more

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Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets are 1-0, and they just ended the Portland Trail Blazers’ 18-0 streak of home opener wins. They did that despite All-NBA center Nikola Jokic drawing three fouls in three minutes before sitting out the remainder of the first half. A major reason for their success was their 3-point shooting, as they shot an unsustainable 56.3 percent from 3-point range on 32 attempts.

That’s not going to happen for them every night, especially if they continue to rely on iso-ball plays for the majority of the game. After one game, the Nuggets have made just 140 passes, which seems like a lot, until you compare to other teams. 14 teams made 280 or more passes in their first game, including the Toronto Raptors, who had a whopping 375 passes on opening night. There’s a time to isolate when you have a good matchup, but Denver was playing hero-ball far too much in the opening game.

At the end of the first half, backup center Mason Plumlee was leading the team with five assists, while starting point guard Jamal Murray had just one. By the end of the night, they finished with 24 assists, and Murray had five in the second half to lead the team with six on the night. However, good ball movement is how the best teams wear you out over the course of a game on offense.

For a team like Denver that loves to push the ball in transition then space out the defense with shooters surrounding Jokic, they shouldn’t be pulling teeth to get the ball moving. The lack of passing is concerning, and it makes even less sense when you consider how effective their passes were. They had 24 assists on the night, which has them tied for tied for sixth in the NBA.

Yes, it’s only one game, so the sample size is small, but that means that every 5.83 passes that Denver made resulted in an assist. They were putting the ball in the basket when they got the ball moving, and it just didn’t happen often enough. If they passed the ball more, they would continue to generate wide open looks, which they were absolutely stroking when they got them.

Denver shot 16 of their 32 (that’s 50 percent for those of you that aren’t math buffs) 3-point attempts wide open, defined as the nearest defender being 6+ feet away. Denver’s offense is designed to generate open looks for their shooters, and that’s what they were doing. Take a look at this play to take the lead late in the first quarter. Plumlee gets some penetration by backing his man down then kicks it out to Torrey Craig, who contributed a solid night, who passed to a wide open Malik Beasley.

Jokic isn’t even in the game, but this play is exactly what we can expect to see from him when he’s not in foul trouble. He scored zero points in the first half, and he still managed to finish with an impressive 20 points and 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes of game action. He only had two assists compared to four turnovers, but one of those two assists was to a WIDE OPEN (Are we seeing the trend yet?) Murray for a corner three.

For years, the gold standard for ball movement was the San Antonio Spurs. That has morphed in recent years into the Golden State Warriors, who, along with the Philadelphia 76ers, were the only two teams in the top five in passes per game. However, the Warriors were the ones that did it the best, as they were number one in the NBA in assists per game in each season dating back to the 2014-15 year.

During the playoffs, the Blazers’ game plan was to leave the Nuggets open from deep and dare them to beat them from outside. Last night was just one game, but that looked like a very foolish plan. This Nuggets team has a variety of good shooters from the point guard up to the power forward spot, and Jokic is just one season removed from shooting 39.6 percent from 3-point range.

Denver’s offense is very explosive because of the way they play in transition, and it gives the team more opportunities for assists, which is why they’ve been in the top five for assists in each of the past three seasons. In order to get assists, you have to pass the ball, and that’s what Denver was not doing when their offense was stagnant in the first quarter. When the bench came in, the ball was moving around, and guys were getting open looks.

With more chemistry and less fouling from Jokic, their offense is going to improve as the season goes on, and, if Michael Porter Jr. gets his way, he’ll see some minutes flow his way. He excels on the offensive end of the floor, and he would give this team another threat off the dribble that they’re lacking when the starters are off the floor. Porter will go out and get them a bucket when they need one, but it’s the structure of the offense that will generate a bucket on its own.

It all starts by moving the ball and passing it to the next guy to the next guy and the most open guy at the end of the chain. Denver didn’t do that in the first game of the year, but they have a lot of time to get this offense rolling in the way that they want it too. Head coach Michael Malone said in his interview after the game that he liked a lot of what they did, but he still wants to see their number assists grow closer to last season’s average. How are they going to do that? They have to get the ball moving. It’s that easy.