With Nikola Jokic as the best player on the Denver Nuggets, they’re never going to be a team that plays at warp speeds like the Milwaukee Bucks or Houston Rockets. However, they need to start playing faster at least a little bit to give themselves more opportunities to score. Their offense has been one of the best over the last month thanks to efficiency, but their shots won’t fall every night which kills your chances of a win by limiting opportunities.
The pace of play in the league has consistently been getting faster, and all teams have increased their pace as a result of playing each other. As it was true before, some teams are still playing slower than others, and the Nuggets are one of those teams. They’re 29th in pace, and that’s a major reason that their offense was just 18th for the first two months of the season.
They’ve been able to increase their offensive efficiency since December 1 in a major way because they’re knocking down shots at such a high rate. They’re shooting 47.4 percent from the field during that time span which is the 6th-best mark in the NBA. Their offense has a lot of talented pieces on it, but they’re going to have games where they go cold which is why increasing their pace will be so important.
When you look at the Nuggets at the beginning of games, they’re rarely coming on out and just putting on a dominant performance. Far more often, they’re starting slow or just trading possessions with an opponent. Their first quarter net rating is +0.3. That is 16th in the NBA, and it’s also only better than three teams that are currently in a playoff spot if the season ended today. Two of those teams are the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets who are currently below .500.
The Nuggets are, unsurprisingly, last in the NBA in pace during first quarters. Games slow down in the fourth quarter because teams are worn out and more calculated during those points in the game, but Denver starts slow and stays slow. They’re 15th in the NBA in field-goal percentage in the first quarter. If that ever drops, they’re going to get buried by their opponent.
Transition Points Matter
Anybody want to take a guess about whether or not Denver is good in transition and scoring fast-break points? Don’t worry. I’ll answer the question for you. They’re not great. They average just 11.6 fast-break points per game which is good enough for 24th in the NBA. Only the Utah Jazz, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder are playoff teams that are below that mark.
After being eighth in fast-break points from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, they were 15th last year with that number further down this year. With the athletic wings that the Nuggets have like Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton, among multiple others, they have the pieces to get out and run, but they’re refusing to do so.
The top teams in offensive rating are great in transition even if they aren’t the most efficient shooting teams. They give themselves more bites at the apple as the saying goes. Especially when Jokic is the one getting the rebound, the other guys on the floor need to start running. He will hit them going down the floor which will put added stress on the defense, and it will wear them out over the course of 48 minutes.
Use the Altitude
The running saying about the Nuggets’ home-court advantage is that teams wear out due to the altitude that Denver plays at. That’s true to some extent, but Denver doesn’t always run fast enough to wear teams out as much as they could. They could leave teams gassed with their hands on the knees, but the pace is allowing teams to stay fresh even late into games.
Last season, the Nuggets lost just seven games at home all season despite dealing with long injuries to Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. They also didn’t have Porter for the entire season. This year, with a largely healthy team, they’ve already lost five games with 19 remaining. The best teams utilize their home court to their advantage, and Denver are not fully utilizing theirs.
This Nuggets team was praised coming into the year for their depth, but, on most nights, they’re not getting into those pieces. With the number of injuries that they’re dealing with, they aren’t going to have a choice. Late during their Thursday night game with the Golden State Warriors, 10 of their 11 active players had suited up for at least five minutes of action.
Unlike some teams that would be running their starters ragged, the Nuggets could deploy the hockey lineup strategy. Go on a run, and, when there is a dead ball, get the next set of guys in there. They have to get things moving, and they have the pieces to do it. It’s just a matter of the team actually putting that plan into action.