I found myself scratching my head a lot during the Nuggets’ loss to the Lakers on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t from dandruff. I checked. The Nuggets are a confounding team right now—in more ways than the five below. The record is good, but they feel bad, but the defense is great, but the offense is awful, but the starters are among the best in plus/minus, but the bench is among the worst, but Millsap has had a resurgence, but Grant has had a regression, but they’ve had some huge wins, but they’ve had some inexcusable losses. And on the dichotomies go.
Here are five especially itchy issues for me.
Nikola Jokic’s offense
Look, the big guy is off. Everyone knows that, including him. After a disappointing game against the Lakers where he managed just 13 points on just 4-12 from the field, Jokic said, “I never thought [I was] struggling, but I’m struggling right now. I cannot make shots. It is what it is.”
So what is “it”? For starters, Jokic’s 3-point shooting has been bad all year. He’s hitting just 22%, a steep decline from last year, which was a steep decline from the previous year when he shot nearly 40%. Since defenders don’t need to respect his three, he’s forced to work more in the mid-range. There, too, he’s in a shooting slump. Last year, Jokic hit 52% of his shots from 10-16 feet; this year, a dismal 37%. He’s also under 80% from the line and getting there about half as often as he did last year.
What “it” is that Jokic is dealing with is a shooting slump that’s causing him to be less aggressive offensively. Since his shot isn’t going, he’s trying to get other guys shots, but when he isn’t a threat to score, the defense has a much easier job guarding Denver’s outside shooters and cutters. All of this can change in a week or two, of course, if Jokic’s shots start falling.
“No one’s doing nothing to him,” Barton III said to media after the game. “He’s just missing.”
Gary Harris’s finishing
In 2017, Gary Harris was one of the better finishers in basketball. His back-cutting, high-percentage shooting, and three-point range made him the perfect piece to put with an emerging point center. Where has the time gone?
So far this season, Harris has been up and down offensively, but what seems especially odd are his shots closer to the basket. He is getting the least amount of shots from 0-3 feet in his career, and his percentage on those shots is down by close to 10%. It seems like more often than not, when Harris has an open look at the basket and the Nuggets are searching for an easy hoop, he has failed to deliver.
The story isn’t better from further out. He is shooting just 27% from 3-10 feet, which is dramatically worse than the 41% he shot from the same distance in 2017. If we go out a bit further (10-16 feet), the difference gets even worse: 32% compared to 47%. While Harris has been shooting better from 3 than last year, he’s still down in the 35% range, which is significantly worse than he shot in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
So, what’s the deal? Is he taking too many floaters? Is he exerting more of his energy on defense, where he’s been terrific? Is he just getting unlucky? Is he not fully back from his core injury last year? I don’t have the answers, but he is not the same guy offensively right now as the one who earned a big extension and cemented himself as part of the Nuggets’ future.
Paul Millsap’s 3-point shooting
Not all of the Nuggets’ head-scratchers right now are negative. Millsap is hitting a whopping 50% of his 3-point attempts, a full 16 points higher than his career average. In fact, his best season was in 2010-11 with Utah when he shot 39%. The thing is, though, he averaged less than one attempt per game at that point in his career. This is the best, by far, that Millsap has ever shot from the outside.
Sign me up for Paul Millsap, 3-and-D Big Man Extraordinaire. I don’t know what headbands he wore or discarded in the off-season that led to this much of an improvement in his outside range, but let’s hope this hot shooting is a late-career renaissance and not a flash in the old pan.
Jerami Grant’s 3-point shooting
Equally as baffling is Jerami Grant’s struggles on offense, particularly his 3-point shooting. Millsap’s backup is shooting on average one more three per game than him but making just 31% of them. It feels even worse. Last year with OKC, Grant shot nearly 40% from three, which made him an enticing fit on this team. Unfortunately, so far, he feels like a more athletic, less disciplined Trey Lyles.
Yikes. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
What’s equally confusing is why Grant is unable to use his athleticism to get more open looks at the rim, easy buckets, and offensive boards. As with a lot of players on this team, though, the easy points just haven’t been there for Grant. With his 3-point shooting also MIA, he’s contributing to a broken bench that continually gives up leads or compounds deficits. It’s not all on Grant, but it is certainly confusing why he hasn’t been a better addition to a talented bench.
The Denver Nuggets’ free throw shooting
If it has seemed to you like the Nuggets never get to the line, you would be right. They are currently in the bottom four teams in the NBA in the percentage of points they get from free throws. At just 14%, the Nuggets are far behind the league-leading Rockets, who get almost 20% of their points from free throws. Since the Rockets also score a lot more than the Nuggets, this disparity is quite dramatic.
Murray, Harris, and Jokic are the main reasons the Nuggets don’t get a higher percentage of freebies. Jokic is averaging a silly 2.7 FTs per game. For a little perspective, Mason Plumlee averages 2.6 FTs in half the minutes. Now, I’ve loved the Plumdog ever since running into him at Tattered Cover a couple years ago, but he is not the offensive threat that Jokic is. While Nikola’s game is more finesse than other big men in the league, his inability to get to the line is exacerbating his current shooting slump.
Murray isn’t much better. The 90% free-throw shooter only averages 3 FTA’s per game. Imagine if Murray was able to create contact as well as other top point guards in the Western Conference. James Harden is a freak, and his game can’t be replicated, but even Donovan Mitchell, for example, shoots almost twice as many FTA’s per game as Murray.
And Harris is taking the least amount of free throws since his rookie year. At just 1.6 attempts per game, he is below several Nuggets’ bench players including Jerami Grant, who plays 10 less minutes per game.
These numbers are not abnormal for this team. They were in the bottom of the league last year in points off free throws, too. But the starters’ inability to draw fouls is being amplified by the slumping offense, poor shooting, and lack of pace. The Nuggets need easy baskets wherever they can get them right now, but they are consistently unable to get them at the stripe.