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Stat of the Week: The Nikola Jokic-Jamal Murray duo remains strong, despite a slow start

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Through 12 games, Denver’s dynamic duo has started slow but grown immensely

Brooklyn Nets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

When a team gives a player a massive contract, there’s a degree of wishful thinking placed in the hands of that individual, a new expectation agreed upon. Even if those words aren’t shared publicly, the general sentiment still stands.

Jamal Murray needed to elevate his game after last season, and he has. He may not be an All-Star this year, but the numbers he is producing through 12 games are better than where he was. Not by much, to be clear, but certainly more steady:

Per Game Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference

Murray’s numbers were dragged down by a bad week he recently had. Three games of shooting under 45 percent from the field, including a 1-of-11 performance against Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets, gave Murray plenty of motivation heading into Memphis on Sunday evening. The Grizzlies received the best version of Jamal Murray last night, with Murray piling on 39 points on 24 shots, including a 7-of-12 mark from the three-point line, to go with eight assists, zero turnovers, and great defensive numbers. It’s very possible that this performance kickstarts Murray and helps him increase his per game numbers even more.

What’s more interesting than the individual numbers is how strong his ongoing connection with Nikola Jokic continues to be. The Serbian superstar has yet to truly break out this season, though it will happen at some point. Even without top performance from the Joker, Denver’s foundational duo continues to work well with each other and others.

According to PBP stats, the top assists duos in the NBA are as follows:

  1. LeBron James to Anthony Davis - 33 assists
  2. Malcolm Brogdon to T.J. Warren - 30 assists
  3. Fred VanVleet to Pascal Siakam - 29 assists
  4. Bradley Beal to Thomas Bryant - 28 assists
  5. James Harden to Clint Capela - 28 assists
  6. Jamal Murray to Nikola Jokic - 27 assists
  7. Ricky Rubio to Aron Baynes - 27 assists
  8. D.J. Augustin to Nikola Vucevic - 25 assists
  9. Eric Bledsoe to Giannis Antetokounmpo - 24 assists
  10. Trae Young to Jabari Parker - 23 assists
  11. Nikola Jokic to Jamal Murray - 23 assists

Even factoring in the improvements of Will Barton and Paul Millsap, the struggles Jokic has had to start the year, and a couple of poor games from Murray recently, Denver’s dynamic duo remains strong.

There aren’t many better ways to use Jokic and Murray than in the 5-1 pick and roll. Murray is a strong screener for his position, and no center in the NBA has a better feel for where to deliver a pass to the roll man. In this case, it’s Murray diving to the rim after double-high screens were set, and Jokic threads the needle when the window opens up.

These assists aren’t just limited to pick and rolls though. The Nuggets finally started to get out in transition last night, and Murray was the biggest beneficiary. With Jokic and others running the floor looking for easy shots, Murray continued floating to the three-point line, and he continued making those shots look easy.

The biggest part of Murray’s game that has yet to open up is his three-point shot. He’s shooting 37.7% from three this year, nearly the best mark of his career, but the attempts are down to just 5.1 per game. With as good a shooter as Murray is, he should be hunting those shots. They open up Denver’s offense considerably and make Denver a better team when he’s aggressive from the perimeter.

Amazingly, in Murrays three-plus years playing for the Nuggets, he has only attempted double-digit threes seven times. When he cracks that number, the Nuggets are 6-1 with Murray averaging an absurd 34.9 points per game. The games most think of when Murray hits this mark are his performance against the Boston Celtics last season when he had 48 points and on the road against the Phoenix Suns when he had 46. It’s notable that Murray takes this number of threes so rarely, generally saving it for when the Nuggets need to catch up or when he’s in flamethrower mode.

Either way, Murray averages 34.9 points per game in the games when he crosses double-digit threes. That’s a big deal.

Jokic has started the year slowly from a scoring perspective, but it’s notable that his jumper just isn’t operating at peak efficiency right now. There isn’t much to say about Jokic except that if he were averaging his career efficiency from three-point territory and the foul line, his points per game average would rise from 16.0 to 17.9 per game. That isn’t far off from last season’s average of 20.1, and as he gets hotter, he will likely take more shots in general.

I’m not worried about Nikola Jokic’s slow start. When he has to be good, he has been good. His point totals are dragged down by outings like last night, when he had just nine points but was a +22 in a blowout victory on the road that featured eight assists and zero turnovers from him in 26 minutes.

The Nuggets will need better efficiency from Jokic on his jumper to keep defenses honest in the Murray-Jokic two-man game. Too often, the defense will snag off and look like this while Murray is running around looking to free himself with Jokic passing the ball.

Jokic’s current three-point percentage sits at 24.6 percent. That will rise with time, as there have only been 12 games to set the current average. If the Nuggets are going to be an elite offense though, it starts right here. The top of the key three-pointers that Jokic takes so often have to start going down at a higher rate. Until they do, Denver will be at a disadvantage, since it’s hard to hit cutters in the paint with the hulking body of Alex Len parked in the middle of the lane.

Either way, Denver’s star duo, despite some necessary improvements, continues to be awesome. Even without a high three-point percentage from Jokic, the Nuggets are scoring at a high rate with Jokic and Murray on the floor. A 114.6 Offensive Rating to be exact, which would be the highest Offensive Rating in the entire NBA among all teams. That drops to 99.4 when they both sit.

Whether each individual is playing well or not, the fact is, they are at their best when they play together. That’s what great NBA duos do—make each other better.