We have a good one, Stiffs! The Nuggets are coming off their most complete performance coupled with a monster game from Jamal Murray on Sunday in Memphis. They’ve matched last season’s 9-3 start, trailing only the Lakers and tonight’s opponent, the red-hot Rockets, in the Western Conference. We should learn some things tonight about where this team is at after such a wobbly start. Here’s what I’ll be watching:
Will James Harden shoot more free throws than the Nuggets’ starters?
James Harden is great. His foul drawing play style is also an abomination to the game of basketball. In the ~30 years I’ve followed the sport, I can’t think of a player I have hated watching more than him. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever hated watching truly great players. Maybe the Bad Boy Pistons? Maybe?
And yes, I know — he’s a genius. He finds ways to improve his game that other players don’t (or won’t). I’m just jealous he isn’t on my team. Blah blah whatever. Watching Harden play basketball is akin to getting gaslighted by the NBA. The league keeps telling me he is getting fouled and is not traveling, but my eyes and brain keep telling me the opposite. Am I the crazy one?
Case in point: Harden is shooting — wait for it — 14.5 Free Throws per game. Let’s put that in perspective. The Nuggets’ entire starting five of Jokic, Murray, Harris, Barton, and Millsap shoots 15.1 FTs per game. All of the starters. Combined. Five talented offensive players. Does this happen because Harden actually gets fouled as much as the cumulative bodies on other teams? Or does it mean that, just maybe, the rules (or the refs) aren’t equipped to handle a serial abuser?
I realize this narrative is getting tired. The problem is that it’s profoundly true, and instead of the NBA correcting this brazen deconstruction of its game, it keeps allowing Harden to get away with more and more elaborately crafted flops and fourth steps so that fans get to watch two hours of set shots. It’s horrendous and I hate it and I don’t care if he’s manipulating the rules fairly. He is still manipulating them. And if he is playing by the rules, then the rules stink and need to change and maybe a little common sense, maybe a little discretion could creep its way back into the whistle.
Related: Will my new remote survive the night?
I will be streaming a virus-filled hack to a cheap new TCL 55” I just added to my office. The room is now officially a “cave,” I believe, which means I will be free to act like a “man,” which means the first time Harden does this...
don't you just HATE it when this happens? pic.twitter.com/KKtaLjNn5W— Adam Ward (@adamcward) November 19, 2019
...my poor little Roku-ready remote is going to take the brunt of it. We’ll see how well some chintzy technology holds up to a Nuggets season. My guess is not well.
Will Jamal Murray shoot more threes?
Goodness I hope so. Here’s another silly stat: Harden is averaging 14.3 3PA per game. The back-court trio of Murray, Harris, and Barton? 13.1 — combined.
Now, you might be thinking, “That’s because Harden is a great 3-point shooter!” Is he, though? While it’s definitely early, and Harden has actually been in a shooting slump (despite averaging 39 PPG), he’s missing more threes than Murray is even attempting. In fact, he’s missing almost twice as many 3s as Murray is even attempting.
At 37% from beyond the arc — and with Jokic’s drop in offensive production — Murray needs to get more aggressive with his 3-point shot. We saw what his shooting did for the offense on Sunday. When Murray shoots 10 threes or more in a game, he averages 34.9 points. Of course, the Nuggets play a much different (better) style of basketball than Houston, so 10 attempts isn’t a realistic average, or even a magic number to target. But when Murray is aggressive and shoots from distance within the flow of the offense, he opens up the floor for Jokic and his cutters to go to work inside.
Is the bench fixed?
Juancho bench? Got yo bench!
Finally, we’re seeing the strength of the Nuggets’ depth, which we expected to be evident from the opening tip a month ago. Juancho’s energy has been contagious, but he isn’t the only player who seems to have found new life. Monte Morris got off to a bad start this season, but he’s back to his old one-thousand-to-none assists-to-turnover ratio in addition to improved scoring. Grant seems to have found his place with this group, too, and Plumlee has been the Nuggets’ most consistent contributor this side of Will Barton.
But are they really there yet? It’s unclear if something more is going on with Malik Beasley, who was out with an illness for a week. It seems unlikely that the Nuggets’ most improved player last year suddenly became a liability, but the bench’s improvement is undeniable since Beasley exited the rotation. MPJ, too, continues to have a short leash. It seems that daily Malone talks about being more patient with his 6’10 phenom, and before the ink is dry on those statements, he’s pulling MPJ for missing a switch.
While the bench has its mojo back a bit, it’s hard for me to imagine a championship run this year that doesn’t involve Beasley and MPJ making a significant contribution.
Can the Nuggets reestablish the best home-court advantage in basketball?
Despite the Nuggets’ wildly unfair home-court advantage, they are only 4-2 at The Can so far. That’s not a bad record, sure, but this year’s team has been a shadow of the squad that disrespected their guests so often last year.
The Nuggets went 34-7 at home in 2018-19, the result of superior play almost across the board. They shot better at home, they had more rebounds, assists, and steals with fewer turnovers and a +/- that was 12 points higher. This year, the Nuggets are shooting only 32% from 3 at home, a full 8 points lower than on the road. The FT percentage is also down. Perhaps more than that, though, the team has often looked disinterested or unmotivated until the fourth quarter, a bad habit that’s undeserved and that’s bit them several times already. This uneven, and often ugly, home performance hasn’t done any favors for the atmosphere inside the arena, which has been antsy and subdued for much of the early season.
So I’m looking for the Nuggets to crank up their home-court advantage. They’re going to need all the help they can get to slow down a Rockets team that’s averaging an NBA-best 119.5 PPG, led by Harden’s insane production through the first 14 games. Some of the home struggles have to do with the slow pace the Nuggets have played at all year. While the Jokic/Murray two-man game will remain the bread-and-butter in tight games and at playoff time, the Nuggets need to get back to playing faster, movement-oriented offense that takes advantage of the altitude. And they need to make shots in their own gym. If they can, the crowd is going to be right there with them in this big early-season test.
Now, if we could just watch the game on TV, too ...