The Denver Nuggets have struggled to start the season, mostly on the defensive end. Let’s talk about why.
Paul Millsap needs to be better on the perimeter
Paul Millsap has the second highest defensive rating (115.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) of all Denver Nuggets rotation players this year behind only Michael Porter Jr. (122.8, SSS). For three straight seasons in Denver, Millsap posted one of the lowest defensive rating marks when he was on the floor due to his basketball intelligence and ability to see the floor and cover for weaknesses in his teammates.
Now, it’s Millsap who needs covering for on the perimeter. In three of Denver’s losses against playoff caliber Western Conference opponents, Millsap has been a step slow guarding the perimeter against floor spacing forwards at his position.
The Utah Jazz were a terrible matchup for Millsap in the playoffs last season, and they are a terrible matchup once again with Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale capably spacing the floor. The two combined to shoot 7-of-12 from three-point range on Sunday night, and while it wasn’t just Millsap’s responsibility, he wasn’t able to handle that assignment comfortably while on the floor.
There’s a lot of ground to cover in Denver’s defensive schemes for a player like Millsap. Often, Nuggets players have to account for Nikola Jokić not being able to cover enough ground. Now, Millsap is the one the Nuggets perimeter players are covering for. He has struggled in completing many of the rotations defensively that the Nuggets have had him do for the past three seasons. It’s one of many contributing factors for why Denver is struggling defensively.
This isn’t an easy problem to solve. The entire NBA has begun to use a wing-sized player as a stretch power forward. By my count, over half of the league uses a combo forward as a starter at Millsap’s spot rather than a traditional power forward or bigger. Things just keep trending smaller, and with an emphasis on spacing, the Nuggets need to find a way to cover that space more effectively. Opponents are shooting 39.1% from three-point range against the Nuggets, the fifth highest mark allowed in the NBA. That has to end.
Facundo Campazzo is still adjusting to his role
Facundo Campazzo fans from Spain and Argentina, look away.
Campazzo has not been good this season.
It’s never as simple as just that, but it’s important to look at the numbers and film and be honest about what’s happening. When Campazzo is on the floor, the Nuggets have a 105.3 offensive rating, tied for the lowest on the team with backup center Isaiah Hartenstein. Part of the reason for those struggles has been too much ball handling and not enough playmaking.
Campazzo stands in the corner here because that’s what he’s asked to do, and he’s been a good floor spacer there, shooting 9-of-12 on corner threes to start the year. Unfortunately, he has shot 3-of-17 on above-the-break threes, a microcosm for how, when he’s the playmaker off the bench, the Nuggets have mostly struggled. Monte Morris and PJ Dozier have been effective in that role. Jamal Murray and Will Barton frequently rotate in when Jokić is still off the floor. Sometimes, that leaves Campazzo fourth on the pecking order of handling and playmaking, a far cry from his role with Real Madrid.
Defensively, though the numbers have been good overall, when there’s a quality ball handling guard to contend with, Campazzo is going to have some issues.
Chris Paul is a tough cover for everyone, but Jordan Clarkson shouldn’t be so tough. Campazzo can’t be this willing to let Clarkson go by him, because once he does, Campazzo is no longer a defensive threat in any way. Campazzo has to close the space more efficiently.
In addition, the fouling has become a concern. Averaging 6.4 fouls per 36 minutes, Campazzo’s foul rate is the highest among all NBA guards to play at least 100 minutes. Those fouls bring Denver closer to the bonus, and they allow a team like Utah to attempt 13 more free throws on Sunday night. The Nuggets give up a lot of free throws defensively, which is one of the reasons why their defense has fallen off this year.
So much of why Campazzo hasn’t been good for Denver isn’t entirely his fault. Roster construction isn’t doing him any favors, as big, lengthy, defensive minded wings would have helped Campazzo adjust defensively while giving him more free rein with the basketball offensively.
Unfortunately, because these extenuating circumstances are out of his control, it’s difficult to find ways to solve such issues without major changes in personnel. Monte Morris is above Campazzo in the roster pecking order, and PJ Dozier is closer to joining Morris than he is sliding behind Campazzo at this point. When Michael Porter Jr. returns, the most likely scenario is that Will Barton replaces Campazzo on the bench unit, for better or for worse.
This isn’t the start to the season the Nuggets were hoping to have with the European star point guard.
Will Barton’s finishing is still a concern
I’ve spoken about this in the past, so I will keep it brief. Barton struggled to finish around the rim again on Sunday night.
The versatile wing is now shooting 44% from two-point range this season. Among the 94 players with at least 80 two-point shot attempts, Barton ranks 90th out of 94 in FG%, ahead of only Cole Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Markelle Fultz, and Dillon Brooks.
Among the players with at least as many total field goal attempts on drives as Barton, Barton’s FG% of 35.1% ranks dead last.
The Nuggets need Barton to be more consistent at the rim. So much of his ability as a secondary playmaker is tied to finishing the play when he gets into the paint. He’s doing all of the hard work to free himself up on the perimeter. Finishing at the rim is the last piece of the puzzle. If he can get a couple more of those to drop every game, it will go a long way in easing the burden on Jokić and Murray.
JaMychal Green at power forward vs JaMychal Green at center
Watch JaMychal Green sprint across the floor to set a screen for Jamal Murray here.
When Green is at center, he is the focal point of everything offensively. He’s the only true big man screener on the floor, and because of that, he’s asked to be involved on every single play. His pick and pop ability is incredibly strong, but it’s best used as part of a greater offensive scheme rather than as THE play.
To be clear, it’s a good play. I like the Green pick and pop, but unless the Nuggets have another play, teams are going to adjust when that’s the only thing the Nuggets run with Green at center. In the 44 minutes the Nuggets have played with Green at center without another big next to him, Denver has a -21.2 Net Rating, particularly because of the defensive end and playing with four guards.
When Green is on the floor next to Jokić, the Nuggets have a +23.6 Net Rating in 85 minutes. When Green is on the floor next to Isaiah Hartenstein, the Nuggets have a +21.2 Net Rating in 49 minutes.
In my opinion, Green should be a power forward for the vast majority of his minutes, and when he plays center, it should be with Michael Porter Jr, next to him to offer up additional size.
Speaking of Michael Porter Jr. ...
There has been a lot of interest in the 22-year-old’s role for this Nuggets team when he comes back from a prolonged absence due to COVID-19. Michael Malone put some of that to bed with his media session on Monday.
Michael Porter Jr. won't play tomorrow vs. OKC. The hope is that he's back in the lineup in Phoenix on Friday.— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) January 18, 2021
"Bottom line is he's our starting small forward that's 6-foot-10, averaging close to 20 pts per game and seven rebounds. Of course we'd love to have that," Malone said.
It’s expected that Porter will reprise his role as a starting small forward when the time comes. It might take a game or two to get him adjusted from a bench role, but Malone is on the right track here by outlining his role. The fact is, he’s too good to be playing off the bench anymore, and it’s up to him (along with the rest of the starters) to figure out how to make everything work.
If it were up to me though, Porter’s return would prompt me to cut the rotation down to nine players. The five starters would be Murray, Harris, Porter, Millsap, Jokić, and the four bench players would be Monte Morris, Will Barton, PJ Dozier, and JaMychal Green. Porter can and should start games, but he should also spend time on the second unit, providing additional size as a bench power forward similar to Danilo Gallinari or Wilson Chandler back in the George Karl days. His floor spacing will help that unit out, as he provides an additional pick and pop threat for the Nuggets to utilize when Green does in fact slide to center.
Porter would be the third option with the starters and the first option with the bench, the right scoring distribution for the time being as he gets adjusted to playing games again. The Nuggets need that extra punch to give Jokić and Murray some plays off, and having a bench that could keep pace with the opposition would be a boon to Denver’s short and long term success.
Until then, the Nuggets have a lot of work to do.