Look, I know there’s a lot to complain about after an embarrassing home loss to an undermanned Hawks squad. If you are of the mind that the Nuggets have serious, systemic issues that have to be corrected immediately or we’re looking at a lottery berth and dramatic uptick in “NuggLife” tats city-wide, I will direct your attention to five or six articles from the last day or two by very smart people who cover the Nuggets and who are very concerned.
I’m simply not in the mood to continue to talk about Jokic’s BMI or the guards’ shooting slumps or the bench’s ineffectiveness—issues that I think will be corrected in time. The fact is that the Nuggets are 7-3, and there are at least five positives that are being overshadowed by this brown cloud of disappointment, so I’m going to discuss them.
Will Barton’s 3-point shooting
I had a strange moment during the 4th quarter of yesterday’s loss to the Hawks. After Harris missed his 10th, possibly 40th three, of the game, I actually muttered to myself, “We need to be feeding Barton.”
I’ve mentioned this briefly before—but for readers new to my biases—Barton has been Target Number One for me since I started covering the Nuggets publicly. Last year in the playoffs, I made the argument on The Dig that Barton’s offensive production drops off dramatically against playoff teams and in crunch time, which I used as proof he shouldn’t be starting. I viewed him as a shoot first, second, and third guy whose assists came from begrudgingly giving up the rock only when 15 seconds of dribbling and driving had run its course.
What has happened that would make me—me, of all people—want Barton to be shooting threes in crunch time now?
Last year, Barton shot 34 percent from three, which isn’t great for a wing. And even still, it felt worse than that. It seemed like he didn’t make a three for two months as the Nuggets headed into their playoff run. For his career, Barton is 34.5 percent from range—about the same. This is a seven-season sample size, so we pretty much know who Barton is at this point: he’s never been an elite shooter.
But through 8 games this season, he is hitting on an eye-popping 53 percent of his 4 three-point attempts per game. He has been, far and away, the Nuggets’ best 3-point shooter. Not only that, many of his threes have come when the Nuggets needed momentum or with the game on the line, like this absurd shot he hit to keep the comeback alive against the Sixers:
So my gut reaction watching brick after brick from Jokic, Murray, and Harris (who went 3-22) turned out to be right. Barton, the only Nugget making more than half his 3s—and who had made 4 of 7 in that game—needed to be shooting more, and the rest of the core needed to be feeding him.
Strange things are afoot this season for the Nuggets. Here’s another.
William Norman Barton III’s rebounding
Raise your hand if you had Barton averaging eight rebounds per game.
Barton has always been a competent rebounder, averaging ~5 RPG since joining the Nuggets. Perfectly respectable. But the 7.9 RPG he’s grabbing so far is not only a significant jump over previous years, but it puts him into elite rebounding company. The only guards or small forwards ahead of him are Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Tobias Harris. That’s it. Then it’s Will Barton, sitting at 31st in the entire NBA in RPG.
As with his shooting, he seems to be digging out a lot of the big rebounds, too—the possession or game-saving variety that come from heart and hustle more than position or technique. Since the Nuggets find themselves in a dogfight nearly every game due to their tepid shooting, rebounding has been key, and Barton has been doing his part.
Barton’s scrappy defense
Yet another revelation this season has been Barton’s defense. His 1.4 steals per game is double his career average. In fact, he’s a full steal better than he was last year, when his rate dropped to a paltry 0.4 per game. He is also averaging almost one block per game, and his 94.7 defensive rating is borderline elite, much better than Gary Harris, for example, whose D has been praised to start the year (including by this blogger).
As with his shooting and rebounding, many of his biggest defensive plays seem to be coming when the team desperately needs them. Some examples, thanks to Joel Rush:
As just the 27th scoring team in the NBA, the Nuggets have earned their seven wins largely because of their defense. Barton has been as big of a contributor on D as anyone on the team.
Will’s fit in the starting rotation
The Nuggets’ best lineup by far includes Barton with the starters. His net rating of 13.9 is double that of Jokic’s thanks to a slightly better offensive rating and a much better defensive rating. In fact, even with the shooting struggles of the Big 3, the starters are one of the best units in the NBA right now in large part due to how good Barton has been on both ends of the floor. His underrated defense, surprising 3-point shooting, and hustle plays have held that unit together.
While his assists are down, poor shooting from the rest of his team is the primary culprit. Barton has taken better shots and found open teammates consistently this season. At times, he looks like the only one who remembers how to move and cut. And he’s been a calming, steadying influence during the many tight games we’ve witnesses already.
The spark of Will the Thrill
Seeing as I have never been a Barton guy, I am perhaps the most credible person to make the following statement: Will Barton has been the Nuggets’ best player so far this season.
I’m not even sure who a close second is. Maybe Millsap? Murray has definitely improved his defense and playmaking, his two biggest areas of weakness. But he isn’t providing the consistent scoring, three-point shooting, and moxie this team desperately needs from him on a night-by-night basis. While Jokic is still the most important player on the team whenever he’s on the floor, his shot has been off, he looks a step slow, and he doesn’t seem to care much at the moment. Harris can’t throw a pea into a black hole, and the bench is in total disarray.
Amidst this morass of mediocrity, The Thrill has hustled and scrapped and shot his way through 8 tough games including during crunch time, hitting some of his biggest shots in the biggest games of the young season. He has been the lone spark. Jokic gets credit, to be sure, for his game winners and spurts of greatness, which have gotten the Nuggets over the hump against the contenders they’ve faced so far. But Barton is probably the biggest reason this team is 7-3 and not 4-5.
That is something I did not see coming, and that turn of events could mean much, much sunnier times are ahead for the Nuggets once Jokic, Murray, and Harris get back to playing the type of offense we know they can. If that’s not happening by Christmas, then I will eat all this optimistic homerism, but at least I’ve been officially converted into a Will Barton Stan.
It feels good for now.