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The Sixth Man: Three encouraging signs from Denver’s 6-4 start

The MVP is enhancing his game, Will Barton looks like he’s 24, and Aaron Gordon is playing like the hulk. We could be in for deep playoff run folks

Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Through their first ten games, the Denver Nuggets hold a 6-4 record which is good for 6th in the West right now. They certainly have not played their best basketball, but they do have some great wins to show for it. The Suns, Mavs, and Heat are all contenders in their respective conferences and the Nuggets blew them out of the gym. The Suns dominated them in the playoffs, but from start to finish the Nuggets showed they were the better team that night. The Mavs game was a blowout to begin with and so was Monday’s game against the Heat. Many people viewed the Heat as the best team in the league, yet without Murray and MPJ the Nuggets dominated them on both ends of the court.

This year we are seeing a completely different Nuggets squad. What was once an explosive offensive team turned into a defensive juggernaut ten games into the season. Their shooting numbers are disappointing so far but the defensive turnaround is astounding. Last season, Denver was an average defensive unit in terms of statistics but this year they are among the league leaders.

If they can keep this up, Michael Malone has to be in contention for coach of the year. He took a team who couldn't guard a nosebleed in the playoffs and transitioned them into a stifling defense holding elite teams to under 100 points. The Nuggets only have one elite defensive talent in Aaron Gordon but every player is buying in and doing their part on the defensive end. It is a marvelous change to witness and if they continue this good play, get MPJ and Murray back healthy, they are a serious championship contender this year.

Defense

As I mentioned before, this defense is the best feature of this Nuggets team right now. They have held seven of their first ten opponents to under 100 points. In 72 games last year, they held only 11 opponents to under 100 points. They also lead the league in opponent PPG (98.5) and are second in defensive rating at 100. It has been a complete 180-degree shift in their defensive production and it begins with the leader Nikola Jokic.

Throughout his career, Nikola Jokic has never shown the ability to be an elite defender until now. Everybody, including myself, doubted his abilities and called him a bad defender, but this year he is proving the NBA landscape wrong. Sure, he’s not the ideal rim protector but neither was Marc Gasol and he won defensive player of the year in 2012. Jokic’s defense this year is very reminiscent of prime Marc Gasol. He doesn’t let people get deep in the paint, he has quick hands and feet, and his defensive IQ makes up for his lack of athleticism.

Malone has done a great job coaching this unit to enhance their defensive identity but Jokic’s improvement seems to have directly correlated to their defensive success. So much of it is reliant upon Jokic because teams love to isolate him and get him moving on the perimeter. This year, he looks incredibly confident guarding the pick and roll. He knows when to hedge, switch, and play off coverage. There has simply been no hesitation in his game. Throughout this year, we’ve seen Jokic hegde a screen a roll above the three-point line, sprint back to his man in the paint, and get a rebound. His effort level has been spectacular and it is relaying throughout the whole team.

The rejuvenation of Barton and Gordon

There were some concerns heading into the season regarding these two but so far they have put them to bed. Will Barton has been known to be streaky and inconsistent but he has proven to be Denver’s second most reliable scorer on this team. He is averaging 16 PPG, shooting nearly 40% from three, and averaging 4.5 assists per game. If Barton continues this pace, this will be his best year as a pro at the age of 31 and his consistent play is a massive reason the Nuggets are 6-4 now. With the disappointing production out of MPJ, Barton has picked up the slack and in key moments. When the Nuggets struggle shooting, it is often Barton that takes it to the rim and ignites some energy throughout the group.

Aaron Gordon is the key to the Dever defense but he is also finding his rhythm offensively. He has worked on his post game in the off-season, putting it on display this year as he looks comfortable with his opportunities from the post. He also looks stronger. He has always been a strong guy but at times last year, he played a little timid on the offensive end resulting in bad shots and missed rebounding opportunities. This year, he is putting a shoulder into folks and breaking a rib. He is absolutely moving people out of the post, obtaining good position inside, and converting in the paint. He’s averaging 12 PPG, 6 rebounds, and shooting 53% from the field which would be the best of his career.

Bones Hyland

He hasn’t found his shot yet but the eye test will tell you this guy belongs in the NBA. His first NBA bucket was a beautiful pull-up, mid-range jumper off a screen just like how Chris Paul does it. No, I’m not comparing the two but it looked so effortless for him because he found the soft spot in the defense and rose up with confidence as he knew he wasn’t going to miss. He has also shaken good, veteran defenders on his way to the basket as well. He lulls people to sleep with the dribble, explodes past them, and slithers to the rim with great finishing ability.

Most rookies struggle with their shot coming out of college so I don't think there is any reason for concern because his deep shot may be the best part of his game. He is taking threes four feet beyond the arc and although he is missing them, it is interesting to note that he is allowed to take those shots. If Malone didn't want him taking those he wouldn't but Malone is instilling confidence in this young man. He knows eventually, those shots will fall and when they do, Ball Arena will erupt and it provides a great momentum shift for Denver.

His playmaking has been the most impressive aspect of his game for me. Usually rookies with his scoring talent force shots in the paint, but he is recognizing where the help is and kicking it out to the corner or passing it to a cutter. Even in transition, he’s not playing too fast, he notices where his guys will fill the lane and getting it to them with a little flare. Malone is giving Bones 15 minutes a game which is pretty high for a late first-round pick in his first year on a playoff team. Malone is priming Bones for playoff minutes later in the season and once he combines his talent with consistency he will be Denver’s Jordan Clarkson. He is a human microwave that can put up 10 points in two minutes and if Denver can get that production off the bench it finally offers Jokic some much-needed rest.