On what is currently a four-game winning streak, are the Denver Nuggets “back” or are there still problems to work out?
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): At this current moment, the Nuggets rank 25th in offensive rating and 4th in defensive rating, according to Cleaning the Glass. Denver’s clutch play has masked what has become a treacherous offensive lifestyle to lead, and it seems unlikely that Denver will have any sort of playoff success with an offense ranked near the bottom in efficiency. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray look good overall, but the shooting has to come around for Jokic if he’s going to average 4.6 three-point attempts per game. Given the current state of the offense, he may have to eclipse 38% from three-point territory.
Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): I’d say the Nuggets are back just because their 7-2 record would not suggest otherwise. Not all of the Nuggets wins have looked great, especially Sunday’s performance in Minnesota, but that game still resulted in a victory. The Nuggets have played pretty solid defense to start the season, which is evident in their 4-0 record when they hold teams under 100 points. If Denver’s offense could start to find a rhythm, the Nuggets are going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Gordon Gross (GMoneyNuggs): The Nuggets are not back - they’re just fearsome. Any team that can be this far from their signature style and still rack up wins is impressive. There’s no reason for this team to be a bottom-tier offense. They didn’t have the personnel changes to necessitate it and they have too many good players to all turn into early-career Emmanuel Mudiay at the rim all of a sudden. The defensive effort is solid, in late game situations excellent. It’s a clutch team, or at least Murray and Jokic are proving clutch again. But until the offensive execution shows up, the Nuggets are not back. The thought that they have a couple more gears to find should be scary to other teams.
Denver’s bench has had its fair share of struggles offensively thus far. Can those be fixed without a change in personnel or using starters on the bench unit?
Blackburn: The biggest concern I had heading into the season was whether a Jerami Grant-Mason Plumlee front court could space the floor. With such a heavy reliance on interior offense with the bench unit, the power forward has to be able to shoot. So far, Grant’s jump shot hasn’t translated, which makes life harder for those around him. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley have less space to finish inside, and the small forward has to hit threes at a high clip. So far, it doesn’t look like Torrey Craig fits that role well. I expect a change to happen within the next two weeks if the bench continues to struggle, probably starting with more Michael Porter Jr. and going from there.
Ewing: Mixing in some starters with the second unit could certainly do the trick, but I am not ready to give up on this Nuggets bench quite yet. Just last year, you could argue that Denver’s bench was one of the teams greatest strengths, which certainly has not been the case to start the season. On the bright side, Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant are playing some pretty good basketball right now. If Monte Morris and Malik Beasley can start to find their groove, that is going to be huge in elevating the second unit. Not to mention, if Michael Porter Jr. can start contributing sooner rather than later.
Gross: No. A change is needed. You can’t run a bench unit where all your expected scoring positions are slumping together. Morris and Beasley are struggling from 2, and Craig at small forward isn’t out there for his offense. It leaves some open threes for Grant, who is not hitting them currently, and some pick and roll with Mason Plumlee, who has had trouble with the ball in traffic but is at least finishing at the rim. The Nuggets have to get MPJ out there to provide some scoring while Morris and Beasley find their way, or they need to mix a scorer from the starters in. The bench last year was great in stretches because Beasley hit everything and Morris was clutch while making all the right decisions. But Denver’s normal starting 5 has a Net Rating of 16.3 while the normal bench has a -8.1. That can’t continue.
This week, the Nuggets play the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets at home followed by the Memphis Grizzlies on the road. Could Denver post another 3-0 week?
Blackburn: They certainly could go 3-0, and if the urgency level remains high, then I expect them to win all three games. The Hawks will be without John Collins. The Nets are obviously without Kevin Durant, and the Grizzlies aren’t a good team right now with the fourth worst point differential in the NBA. As long as the Nuggets stay focused, stay healthy, and continue working for open three-pointers, they should finish the coming week at a crisp 10-2.
Ewing: I like the Nuggets chances in both of their homes games this week, but have my doubts on the Memphis game. That being said, the Nuggets should finish this week 3-0 and I think they have a good chance at doing so.
Gross: Well sure, they could. I expect them to drop one, probably to the Nets. At some point one of these disaster quarters will lead to a close finish that Denver is on the wrong side of, and Murray’s foot issue could be a concern against all these fast point guards that the Nuggets will face this week. 2-1 is still a good week, so let’s not all lose our collective minds if a loss shows up on the schedule, all right?