I enjoy reading content from two writers in particular very, very much: Zach Lowe of ESPN and former Big Stiff Adam Mares of DNVR. Lowe does a column every week titled “10 Things I like and don’t like” that is a great combination of in-depth and surface level analysis at teams around the NBA. Mares does a column titled “The List” that hones in on the film of each Denver Nuggets game and identifies key plays and sequences Nuggets fans should be interested in. Both are excellent reads, and Nuggets fans should be absorbing their analysis throughout the year to learn more about basketball.
This column is a sort of derivation of both columns by the Lowe and Mares that will run every Monday morning. I will be identifying big picture ideas and small details seen on film from the previous week and combining those tidbits into a singular space. This will be separate from Stat of the Week on Tuesday, the Weekly Mailbag on Thursday, and Gage Bridgford’s Film Friday posted on...Friday.
I hope you enjoy!
Jamal Murray — Isolation defense specialist
Jamal Murray is taking defense seriously this year. Gone are the days where Michael Malone is hiding Denver’s prized point guard on offense in favor of an easier matchup. Murray is going to guard his position all year, and when he switches onto stars, he’s going to make them work for buckets.
Despite his offensive issues against the Sacramento Kings and a poor start to the game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Murray has been good defensively, especially in the post. Here, Kawhi Leonard gets matched up against the smaller Murray and struggles to get a clean shot attempt.
Here, Kawhi avoids backing down Murray on the switch in transition and instead tries to blow by him. No dice. Murray beats Leonard to the spot and takes a charge on the baseline.
Is it just Kawhi who’s having issues? Nope. Paul George pushes off against Murray on an attempted step back mid-range jumper. Why? Because Murray beat him to the spot.
This version of Jamal Murray defensively is one that the Nuggets haven’t seen much of in other years. Murray made progress last year and began to take pride in his defensive work. Now, he’s flourishing a bit. According to NBA.com, Leonard and George combined to shoot 3-of-10 from the field to go along with two assists and three turnovers when guarded by Murray on Christmas. It’s that kind of effort and execution that the Nuggets have been looking for, and as Murray begins to transition into his prime, becoming a consistently good defensive player will help him become great.
Gary Harris needs a breakout
So far in two games this season, Gary Harris is 0-of-6 from three-point range. It’s too early to evaluate percentages in any sincere way, but the shots Harris has missed have been important within the flow of the offense. With as often as Murray, Nikola Jokić, and even Michael Porter Jr. are creating offense off the dribble, it’s important for the other two players on the court, namely Harris and Paul Millsap, to capitalize on their opportunities.
The above shot is not how to bust a shooting slump. Tightly contested off a dribble handoff with 11 seconds left on the shot clock isn’t going to make things easier for anyone, and for Harris, the offense needs to come easier or not at all.
Through two games, Harris has the dreaded low usage, low efficiency combination on offense. 11.5% usage rate combined with 40.3% true shooting isn’t going to get it done. A couple of possessions after missing an open mid-range jumper, Harris doesn’t trust the jumper in a scramble situation and instead telegraphs a pass to the waiting Patrick Beverley.
The Nuggets need a version of Gary Harris that’s willing to rise and fire when open or move the ball efficiently when covered. It’s possible that said version of Harris is gone after regressing across multiple years, and the Nuggets are running out of time trying to figure out whether that version will ever come back.
It would go a long way if Harris made five three-pointers against the Houston Rockets tonight.
Michael Porter Jr.: making the wrong decision in transition
The Nuggets didn’t grab this rebound.
The ensuing Sacramento Kings possession lasted just four seconds.
The Nuggets want to be a great offensive rebounding team so badly, and Michael Porter Jr. in particular wants to be a great offensive rebounder. He attacks the glass when he shouldn’t, snaring rebounds and getting easy baskets for the Nuggets when the situation is right.
If the situation is wrong, the Nuggets get burned in transition often. Whether it be by dunks, open threes, or mismatches generated by pushing the pace, the Nuggets are often put at a disadvantage when too many players attack the glass. In the above play, Porter has to recognize that three Nuggets are under Sacramento’s basket and hightail it back on defense to prevent an open basket on the other end. He’s late to recognize and jogs back instead, resulting in a wide open three for Buddy Hield, who made the second most threes in the NBA last year behind only James Harden.
Porter isn’t the only culprit on the Nuggets, but he is the primary culprit. He wants to use his size to rebound and create free points, but the trade off between offensive rebounding and transition defense is a big one.
Defensive Rebounding is way worse
The Nuggets are 30th in defensive rebounding rate, grabbing just 68.5% of available defensive rebounds. Nearly one-third of opposing shot attempts are grabbed by the offensive team for second chance opportunities.
Denver is actually allowing just 11.5 second chance points per game right now, which ranks as the 10th fewest in the NBA. There could be something that the Nuggets are doing when opposing teams snag an offensive rebound, but above all, Denver is just getting lucky.
This is poor effort from Will Barton and Paul Millsap. Jokić closes out well and plays strong defense on the Nicolas Batum jump shot, but Barton is quickly overmatched by Patrick Patterson after a half-hearted boxout attempt. Millsap doesn’t sink down to help put a body on Patterson and instead watches the ball in the air while trying to time the rebound. Plays like this will have Michael Malone going ballistic on the sideline, and in a game that the Nuggets lost by 13 points, six or seven of these possessions are the difference.
The Nuggets will never be able to control how the other team shoots from three-point range, but they can control their effort on the defensive glass. It isn’t just one player. It’s the entire group.
If the Nuggets are going to be a good defensive team, then they are going to have to execute the simple stuff.
Nikola Jokić can’t get beat baseline this easily off the dribble by Serge Ibaka. He’s worried about the jump shot, and he’s in an abnormal position for him as the low man on the baseline and then closing out. He just can’t get beat like that. Sometimes, it happens though, and that starts a chain reaction of rotations that never begins because Porter is glued to his man on the other baseline.
You can actually hear Jamal screaming “Mike! Miiiike!” to try and get his attention, but by the time Murray says anything, it’s already too late. Folks were wondering why Porter didn’t close the game, and plays like this one are the answer. Porter can’t be this aloof on a simple baseline drive and justify starting and closing minutes for himself.
Porter actually made some good defensive plays against Kawhi Leonard in the first quarter, and he had what should have been the game-saving block against the Kings.
Denver needs his length and athleticism defensively to have any chance at a ring this year, but they need him to be fully engaged and grow as a help-side defender. He has the physical tools to be impactful. He could become the most impactful defensive player on the Nuggets in a number of years if he worked toward that goal. He has to be better now though. It’s imperative that he improves. Without it, the Nuggets are going to have to be an entirely offensive team or change the plan to something less desirable.