This season for the Denver Nuggets was enlightening for several reasons. After running the same roster back, save for the occasional inclusion of Michael Porter Jr. and consistent presence of Jerami Grant, the Nuggets learned a lot about what their roster, from what it could be to what it couldn’t be.
Starting with what it could be: the Nuggets learned Nikola Jokic’s playoff dominance was no fluke. When the team needed Jokic to step up his game and carry the group, he proved he could do so against almost every team in the league. While the rest of the roster struggled with consistency issues, Jokic was the player to bring it every single night, save for some late season improvements by Jamal Murray. Defensively, the Nuggets had their struggles, though their performances against the top teams in the NBA was an indicator that they have the capability to play up to the level of elite competition.
What left much to be desired was a down performance offensively. The Nuggets ranked just ninth in Offensive Rating on the season, and though they progressed in the right direction for most of the season, the team dropped down to 13th in Offensive Rating post All-Star break. The Nuggets were an average shooting team for the majority of the year, ranking 15th in three-point percentage and 14th in free throw percentage on the season. Their finishing in the restricted area (64.9 FG% - ninth in NBA) was good, but not quite good enough to be considered elite.
While the Nuggets certainly have talent, that alone can only get them so far. Elite offenses over the last several years like the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, and Houston Rockets have tailored their play style around their superstars. The Warriors led the three-point revolution of the 2010’s, placing in the top four in three-point percentage in every year of Stephen Curry’s 11-year career except this season in which Curry only played five games. The Bucks utilize pace and space to surround Giannis Antetokounmpo, placing seven-footer Brook Lopez at the three-point line. The Rockets have gone full Moreyball to maximize James Harden and Chris Paul/Russell Westbrook, even trading away their paint bound center to clear a lane to the basket.
Denver’s identity of Jokic ball has slowly transitioned into a dribble handoff system. Murray and Gary Harris average the second and third most DHO scoring possessions in the entire NBA respectively. Will Barton is outside the top 50, but he also averages a scoring possession a game.
The chart below shows Denver’s scoring play types in 2019-20 sorted by total possessions:
The three most important play types for every offense are spot ups, pick and rolls with the ball handler shooting, and transition. That’s how over 50% of Denver’s offense is generated, and it’s very similar for every other team in the NBA today. These are the bread and butter categories for most offenses and what teams usually default to when the going gets tough. Either they get out and run before half court defenses are set, or they run pick and rolls until they get a decent shot or a kick out for a three or drive.
The Nuggets don’t do any of those things well, at least compared to the rest of the league.
The left column colored in blue is possession volume. The right column colored from red to green is possession efficiency. The Nuggets rank 20th or below in total spot up, pick and roll handler, and transition scoring volume, primarily because they run offense through Jokic so frequently, but also because they don’t have enough creators they trust in that setup or an offense that features a true rim runner. They trust Murray to be clear, but often, they default to the system their best player thrives in. Jokic creates opportunities for himself and others by running the DHO system, and when he gets int the post, he can either score himself or hit cutters.
That has led to good efficiency in those categories, but Denver’s other scoring play types are lagging behind in efficiency. No other play type ranks higher than 14th in efficiency, showcasing how while Denver is solid overall in several areas and relatively versatile, they don’t excel beyond what Jokic provides them right now. In fact, the only two play types in which the Nuggets as a team have ranked top 10 in efficiency league wide during the last two seasons are post ups and cuts. Both are directly related to Jokic and put into perspective how much he does for the team.
So, based on the above charts, I believe Denver recovering their offensive flow starts in three most important categories: transition, pick and roll, and spot ups.
The Nuggets should be great in transition. Nikola Jokic’s baseball passes the length of the court should be free possessions for Denver’s guards and forwards. Unfortunately, it hasn’t transpired the way one might have hoped. Despite Denver ranking 22nd in points per possession on transition opportunities, they are actually 16th in eFG%, meaning that the biggest problem for Denver in transition is getting to the foul line.
Harris is Denver’s second highest volume transition player, and he struggles to get to the foul line. Among the 121 players with at least 100 transition scoring possessions logged, Harris has the ninth lowest free throw rate, joining a large group of shooting guards who primarily attempt jumpers in transition.
Barton is the player Denver should be most concerned about in transition though. His biggest issue is finishing through contact against bigger players, and his 0.98 points per possession in transition is a black mark on a really nice bounce back season. Whether it’s the explosiveness, his smaller frame unable to push guys out of the way, or something else, Barton struggling to finish at the rim is one marginal way Denver could look to improve going forward. If Barton is finishing at an average clip, the Nuggets could see their overall efficiency jump.
One way Denver could look to improve is with jump shots in transition, hunting the open three that they can sometimes struggle to find in half court situations. The Warriors did this so well for several years, and with Murray, Barton, Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris, hopefully a reformed Harris, and other talented shooters on the roster, the Nuggets have guys who could excel in that structure.
Pick and Roll Handler
Perhaps the most difficult but most important play type to formulate great offense, of the top eight teams in offensive efficiency, six ranked in the top 10 of pick and roll handler points per possession. Those teams had players they could throw the ball to in a half court setting and trust to get an efficient bucket. The other two teams were the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, both teams that ranked top 10 in transition PPP and spot up PPP.
The Nuggets ranked ninth in overall offensive efficiency, and they ranked 23rd in pick and roll handler PPP. While Murray and Monte Morris excelled in this situation, they were the only two Nuggets players to post a PPP greater than 0.90, which is roughly the cutoff for top 10 pick and roll handler efficiency status as a team. The Nuggets need more guys who can reach that level. Barton was at 0.82, Harris was at 0.78. Those numbers aren’t going to cut it, though Barton has been between 0.80 and 0.90 for each of the last five years outside of his injury shortened season. He can be right around that level.
The Nuggets will have to hope for one of a few things. They get some bounce backs from current guards on the roster (Harris returning to form, Barton and Morris improving on the margins). They could get development from Murray or Porter long term, both of whom could still have a ways to go before reaching their ceiling as a pick and roll maestro. They could also acquire someone in free agency or a trade, perhaps a big name guard or wing they have been dancing around for awhile. Some examples: Bradley Beal is at 0.97 PPP, good for the 84th percentile among qualified players. Zach LaVine is at 0.89 PPP, 62nd percentile and respectable in Chicago’s shambolic offense. Jrue Holiday is at a 0.78 PPP though, 37th percentile and definitely not representative of an upgrade (I happen to think Holiday is a bit overrated anyway).
Either way, if the Nuggets are going to be a top tier offense, they will need multiple top tier pick and roll handlers in their starting unit. Murray projects to get there at some point. We will see if Barton can join him or if Denver needs another guy to step up.
This is the area in which I am least concerned about of the three categories I laid out. Spot ups are tailored so heavily to shooting, and the Nuggets have a player in the pipeline in Porter whose jump shot and ability to dribble drive after that is so smooth. On spot ups, Porter averaged 1.20 PPP, ranking in the 87th percentile league wide as a rookie. The only players 6’10 and taller to reach that level of efficiency on spot ups this season: Davis Bertans, Nemanja Bjelica, and Karl-Anthony Towns, true big man sized snipers. There’s no reason to think plays like these are going away any time soon.
The crazy part of this was that Barton was even better than Porter on spot ups this season at 1.22 PPP and in the 89th percentile. Barton doesn’t project to be as high volume from outside as Porter does, but as long as he capitalizes on those opportunities, Denver is in a good position on the wings for next year. Even Harris was creeping back up from a poor shooting performance for most of the year to finish the season at the 55th percentile league wide. If he comes back and shoots it well, Denver could be in for a serious uptick in efficiency.
This doesn’t mention solid shooting pieces like Morris and Jerami Grant who project to have big roles next year, Paul Millsap if he comes back should continue to contribute there, and both Murray and Jokic have potential to grow as shooters as well. While the Nuggets ranked 14th as a team in spot up PPP this past season, Denver’s future iterations project to be a top 10 group in my eyes.
With the NBA evolving at every turn, it’s fair to ask whether the Nuggets should be focusing on categories other teams are good at rather than forming a new path. The true is, with their personnel going forward, they should be a very versatile offense. Lots of cutters, post ups, coming off screens, and a guy in Porter who should accumulate some extra points on rebounding opportunities as well. Still, every team needs a fallback plan, and when opposing teams have the opportunity to scout Denver’s offense and figure out what makes them tick, it pays to just have players who can create and make shots. In addition, it pays to get easy buckets whenever possible, and transition opportunities should, in theory, yield better efficiency than half court looks.
The Nuggets are in a good position for a bounce back year offensively, but they have to commit to being better in their decision making, personnel, and coaching moves. There’s only so much Nikola Jokic can do, and formulating an offense in the regular season that helps him stay fresh and not overwork him every night can only pay dividends.
Let’s see if Porter can help shift the equation going forward.