It certainly feels like the Denver Nuggets offense is missing something.
Last month, I wrote a Stat of the Week on ways Denver’s offense could look to improve, centered around spacing the floor, cutting more frequently, and putting a concerted effort into pushing the pace of play. After looking into the numbers with those principles in mind, my focus on the issues at hand hasn’t changed.
According to Second Spectrum, the Nuggets accumulated the fewest points of any team in the combined transition, spot up, and pick and roll ball handler play types. That may sound arbitrary, but given league trends toward perimeter superstars, not operating well in those selected play types is generally a death knell for elite offense. The Nuggets this season ranked 20th in combined points per possession for those three play types. They weren’t the worst team in those categories, but it’s pretty clear that being elite in that combined group is a big step toward elite offense.
All 10 teams with the 10 highest points per possession for transition, spot ups, and pick and roll handling appeared in the top 13 in Offensive Rating.
The six most interesting teams to appear in the above chart are the teams with the greatest differential between points per possession (PPP) rank and Offensive Rating rank: San Antonio, Toronto, Sacramento, LA Clippers, Denver, and New Orleans.
The first three teams have a system that is analytically sound despite inferior personnel. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich should receive a lifetime achievement award for generating such efficient offense with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge consistently taking shots from inefficient locations on the floor. The Raptors just won a championship, and even though Kawhi Leonard left, they continue to be spectacular, using an efficient system to take advantage of Pascal Siakam’s strengths while minimizing the weaknesses of other players on the floor. Sacramento and De’Aaron Fox have found a formula, especially with Nemanja Bjelica spacing the floor offensively from a big man position, despite weaknesses on the overall roster.
The last three teams are the underachievers in these categories based on the talent they have. The Clippers primary pick and roll threats in Lou Williams and Kawhi Leonard are comfortable settling for long two-pointers, but their real problem was being the team with the fourth worst efficiency in transition. The Pelicans had a similar problem with pick and roll ball handling as they were the very worst team in PnR handler efficiency. For a team with such significant talent, not being able to score out of the pick and roll was an issue that neither Jrue Holiday nor Lonzo Ball could combat.
The Nuggets are the final team, and they had the strongest difference between combined transition, spot up, and PnR handler efficiency and what their Offensive Rating actually became. Frankly, it’s a miracle the Nuggets offense ranked in the top 10, because over 50% of what they put out there this year was below average. Jamal Murray put together a nice scoring season, but unlike many elite guard scorers, a significant portion of his offense came from off ball actions like handoffs and cuts. Will Barton was strong as a spot up shooter but possessed below average efficiency in pick and roll and transition. Those were Denver’s only two high volume options as perimeter creators. The entire Nuggets roster struggled in transition, despite Nikola Jokic throwing tremendous outlet passes on a consistent basis.
Where the Nuggets operated well was on the margins.
The Nuggets performed well as a team on cuts and post ups, ranking 3rd and 4th respectively in PPP efficiency in both categories. These are “Jokic categories” which represent the areas where he as an interior scorer and passer helps out the most. In addition, handoffs are a high volume number for Denver as a marginally more efficient option than standard pick and roll. Cutting the floor in half makes it easier for Denver’s scoring guards, who aren’t traditional point guards and aren’t often tasked with reading the entire floor.
But Denver’s offense can’t top out at this level if the team wants to win a ring. The last decade has featured championship teams ranked primarily in the Top 5 in Offensive Rating, so settling for a ninth place finish while having Nikola Jokic on the roster feels like a missed opportunity.
Here are three things I would consider with Denver’s attempted offensive improvement:
Michael Porter Jr. - A more dynamic Danilo Gallinari
It has been forgotten quickly just how good Gallinari was in his last few years as a Nugget. His combined numbers in 2015-16 and 2016-17 (Jokic’s first two seasons) are a great example: 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 37.8% from three, and 88.4% from the free throw line are very solid starter numbers. Gallinari’s play type numbers from the 2015-16 season are incredible, as he ranked above the 50th percentile in every single play type, including above the 90th percentile as both a PnR roll man and post up threat.
Porter has the capability to match those numbers as soon as next season if afforded enough playing time, and he can do so in many of the same ways Gallinari impacted the Nuggets early in Jokic’s career. The versatility of Gallinari’s game allowed him to work both with and without the ball in his hands, moving seamlessly from being a dangerous pick and pop shooter to posting up a mismatch.
Porter didn’t have a ton of opportunities to work the pick and pop game, but there are signs of growth.
Notice this action doesn’t involve Jokic. It could though, with Jokic operating as a ball handler at the top of the key and Porter settling a brush screen for him. Either way, involving Murray and Porter in pick and pop actions while Jokic rests ais perhaps the single best way for Denver to create efficient offense while Jokic sits.
Porter can of course post up and shoot over smaller players much in the same way that Gallinari did.
For an offense like Denver’s that doesn’t have amazing individual scoring options, being able to throw Porter the ball and expect a good shot to come from it is a very important dynamic. For Denver’s current starting lineup of Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap, and Jokic, only Jokic displays a consistent ability to score efficiently without assistance from his teammates in any way. When the playoffs eventually come around, Porter could be an excellent release valve for Denver when the offense isn’t flowing well.
Jerami Grant - A Wilson Chandler-Kenneth Faried hybrid
Grant’s first two months in Denver were largely unimpressive. He was the backup power forward for Paul Millsap and put up some of the worst On-Off numbers on the team. He struggled to figure things out on the fly but finally started to put things together as a starter next to Jokic in January. As a starter, Grant’s average plus-minus was +3.5. As a bench player, it dropped to -3.7. Grant was more dynamic as a defensive player and accumulated more steals and blocks in fewer minutes, and he shot the ball more efficiently, including shooting 40.5% from three as a starter.
In my mind, Grant projects as an elite role player starting next to Murray, Porter, and Jokic, and two of the best role players the Nuggets had in the 2016-17 season were Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried. While the comparisons between Porter and Gallinari are easier to see, Grant has a more difficult comp to the old era; however, Grant utilizes pieces of both Faried’s and Chandler’s game that the Nuggets can utilize on both sides of the ball.
First off, shooting 40% from three is of massive importance in today’s NBA, especially at forward. Next to Jokic and Porter, Grant’s spacing could either make or break Denver’s offensive sets. If he shoots 40%, opposing players can’t leave him open in favor of sending an extra defender to muck up the interior defensively. in 2012-13, Wilson Chandler shot 41.3% from three as a sixth man, and the Nuggets spent Chandler’s next four seasons attempting to recreate that shooting. Chandler never got back above 36%. If Grant can stay above that threshold in high volume, he’s a dangerous spot up shooter.
Second, Grant found some chemistry with Nikola Jokic as a cutter during their month in the starting lineup together.
This play starts with a high pick and roll between Murray and Jokic (more on that later) in which Murray draws a double team (he scored 36 points on 14-of-17 shooting in this one). Murray gets the ball to Jokic in the middle of the floor who then has a brief 4-on-3 that results in a Grant dunk. The play looks very similar to how Faried and Jokic interacted while they briefly played together.
Spacing the floor isn’t always about shooting, and Grant’s versatility as a super athlete who can also shoot should allow the Nuggets to use him as a multi-tool all over the floor offensively. Spotting up in the corners or above the break, waiting in the short corner for the drop off pass, or even as a screener who could slip the screen to the basket or pop out to the perimeter once more.
More than anything though, there was strong evidence that Grant learned throughout the year how to move and create space while Jokic had the ball. I can’t wait to see if the two can build on that chemistry going forward.
Jamal Murray drawing extra attention on the perimeter
For Murray to take the next step to become a star, this shot has to be automatic.
Hunting the open pull-up three is what almost all perimeter stars are doing today, and for Murray, a guard without the speed of De’Aaron Fox or leaping ability of Russell Westbrook, that shot has to be a lifeline he can rely upon consistently. Murray shot 32.5% on pull-up three-pointers this season, and among the 25 players to attempt 150+ pull-up threes this year, that percentage ranks 19th, right in between LeBron James and Luka Doncic. The differences between Murray and those two players are stark though: size and elite passing vision/execution top the list. So, Murray has to elevate that percentage in order to provide a similar effect. Shooting 35% on pull-up threes places him on the low end of the top ten for high volume guards. Getting up to 38% puts him squarely in the top five along with players like Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum.
More than Murray’s individual scoring though, that extra attention opens up the rest of the floor for the Nuggets, and everything is connected. Murray takes attention away from Jokic so the Serbian big man can be a playmaker. Jokic draws Grant’s defender away from either the short corner or the three-point line to give Grant easy opportunities to finish plays. If it all breaks down, throwing the ball to Porter and asking him to get his own bucket could mitigate several problems anyway.
It all starts with Murray at the point of attack though. Him being lethal as a scorer and shooter won’t always mean being the scorer. It means becoming willing to have a few nights with 10 points and 10 assists, or even running off screens and occasionally not receiving the ball at all. The way Stephen Curry draws attention running around screens and moving all over the floor, that’s something Murray can also do in the right system.
For Murray to use this on and off-ball gravity to his advantage, that three-point percentage has to come up. Teams won’t run out at his as a shooter with reckless abandon if he’s not shooting an elite (or close to elite) percentage. 34.5% on the year is okay, but 38% or 41% just sounds so much more dangerous. Think Damian Lillard territory rather than Stephen Curry territory. Murray may never be the GOAT shooter than Curry is, but he has the touch and the range to get up to where Lillard is right now in the prime of his career: 37% to 40% on 7 to 10 threes attempted per game. That’s legitimately dangerous, and there’s no reason why Murray can’t build himself toward that.
(I’m also trying to imagine Murray running off staggered screens from Porter and Grant while Jokic directs the offense from the free throw line extended. Just a small recommendation.)
As a team, the Nuggets ranked 26th in three-point attempt rate during the 2019-20 season. They will likely never be in the top five given the type of stars Murray, Porter, and Jokic are or project to be, but they can certainly push that attempt rate back to league average levels. If Jerami Grant and one of Gary Harris or Will Barton are also out there, the Nuggets should have several accurate three-point shooters out on the floor at any given time.
If it were up to me, I would continue to push the pace as well. The Nuggets finished second-to-last in pace of play this year, and it certainly felt like the tempo of the half court offense suffered because the Nuggets rarely tried to get out and run. Given the athleticism and length of Porter and Grant, Jokic should have consistent targets to outlet a fast break if Denver’s philosophy changes.
Lastly, the Nuggets need to have more fun and try to do more fun stuff on offense. So much of what is currently run is very formulaic and step by step. Murray-Jokic pick and roll into a Harris or Barton DHO. Post up Jokic if it doesn’t work and cut as often as you can. There are ways Denver can have fun while also winning and generating good offense. Putting the ball in Michael Porter Jr.’s hands more frequently is a good start. Letting Murray operate off-ball more frequently so he can run around, put in some good screens, and create some easy shots for himself and others while not having to be “the guy” is also a great option.
Either way, the Nuggets need a shot in the arm heading into their next stage as a franchise. Changing things up and rediscovering their identity as an offensive team is a good place to start.