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Stiffs Mailbag: Where did the offense run off to?

Ryan answers Twitter questions from Denver Stiffs readers, particularly about the Nuggets offensive struggles.

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome back in to the Denver Stiffs mailbag! Thanks for clicking. The questions were excellent this week and highlighted just how in-tune the Denver Nuggets fan base is to the early season successes and struggles of this Nuggets team. While the defense has been surprisingly excellent, the offense has fallen to a dark place. If the Nuggets didn’t have Nikola Jokić to prop things up, they would be in serious trouble.

Let’s get into the questions:


Sure!

First of all, the 2020-21 Denver Nuggets started the season 4-5, losing four of the first five games and appearing fairly weak on the defensive end. JaMychal Green was out to start the year, then Michael Porter Jr. got COVID-19 and was out for the next three weeks. Denver won back-to-back games against the Minnesota Timberwolves without Karl-Anthony Towns, a sham of a Houston Rockets team with James Harden not trying, and against the Philadelphia 76ers C team that saw Tyrese Maxey go off for nearly 40 points.

Let’s do Offensive and Defensive Ratings and then Four Factors to start it out:

NBA.com

The 2021-22 Nuggets, interestingly, are an inverse of themselves in the 2020-21 season. With a 26th ranked offensive rating and second ranked defensive rating, the Nuggets have found success on the less glamorous end of the floor to begin the season, and it makes sense. Swapping out Aaron Gordon for Paul Millsap in the starting unit gave the Nuggets a more versatile defensive option, and he’s athletic enough to make up for Jokić’s (reduced number of) deficiencies. Michael Porter Jr. is a year older and a year wiser on defense, and Will Barton has stepped things up in his own right. Jokić taking a leap on the defensive end wasn’t foreseen, but it’s certainly appreciate at this point.

The offensive concerns are strong though. There have been slight reductions in shooting efficiency and getting to the free throw line, but the major culprits in the offense so far have been turnovers and offensive rebounds. Denver’s offense is always going to struggle when Jokić rests, but on top of Denver’s shooting efficiency dropping when Jokić goes to the bench, the rebounding drops precipitously and the turnovers go up. Everything has gotten worse, whereas in previous seasons, Denver could at least rely upon the offense of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to get them through games.


With the way the Nuggets handled the rotation against the Houston Rockets, I would expect P.J. Dozier to start and Austin Rivers to get the first opportunity of the non-rotation guys. He’s a veteran, his defense can be trusted, and there’s no way he can keep shooting as poorly as he has in the first few games (or so one would hope).

Nnaji is an interesting candidate, but as a bigger forward, I expect bench lineups featuring him and both Jeff Green and JaMychal Green to really struggle. None of those guys can really be a playmaker off the dribble, and leaving all of the creation responsibility up to Facu Campazzo and Bones Hyland with a much more crowded paint feels like a disaster waiting to happen. I’d like to see Nnaji get some run though, but I only expect that to happen in place of one of the Greens.

Also, keep in mind, Denver is probably at their most likely to stagger Barton and just play nine guys most of the time. Facu, Bones, Jeff, and JaMychal will fill in off the bench, but Barton will likely be the key.

I also don’t consider Nnaji an actual small forward, which is what the Nuggets truly need at this point and have needed for a long time. People can talk about the point guard position and the ramifications of Murray being out, or the lack of a seven-footer. The true is, the Nuggets needed to go get an actual wing in free agency this offseason, someone who could replace Michael Porter Jr. (or Will Barton) in a pinch as a shooter. Denver’s roster basically goes from smaller wings in Barton and Dozier to bigger forwards in Porter, Gordon, and Jeff Green. None of those guys are perfect for the wing spot, and that has made Denver’s rotation complicated off the bench.

Players like Reggie Bullock, Josh Hart, Nicolas Batum, Otto Porter Jr., Danny Green, and others were signed this offseason for roughly mid-level deals, while the Nuggets decided to sign both Jeff and JaMychal Green to contracts despite being fairly duplicative. Whether those players were interested in the Nuggets or not remains to be seen, but they certainly would have been helpful and were within Denver’s price tag.


I want to see more lineups with Bones Hyland and Nikola Jokić, and I think Denver will go to them fairly frequently. With Barton likely to stagger going forward to add some offense to the second unit, there will be moments in every quarter (if minutes are kept within rotation confines) where Bones and Jokić may share the floor. Giving Jokić a guy that knows how to navigate pick and roll while having the confidence to take important shots is a big deal, and this experience will be huge for Bones as he looks to continue establishing himself at the next level.

Also, the Dozier-Jokić two-man game is great, as you said. Dozier really understands floor balance, and he navigates pick and roll well when given a guy like Jokić who retains so much gravity. I’m hoping to see Dozier really flourish on both ends of the court too, as he gives Denver another strong team defender in their starting five. He will be tested immediately against the Miami Heat on Monday night, dealing with Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro consistently.


Denver’s roster is pretty thin at the moment. With so many of their rotation players not really considered scoring threats, it falls on Jokić, Barton, and Bones to be the most consistent scorers going forward, as unfair as that may be. If Morris is indeed dealing with knee issues, then lumping him into the above scoring group is unfair.

No, the Nuggets need Jokić to be giving them 30+ points every night while Porter sits. It’s unfair to expect so much (especially with Bam Adebayo coming to town Monday) but that’s simply how it has to be. Barton also has to put up 20+, or else the Nuggets will be playing with fire as to whether they cross 100 going forward. Bones also has to be that guy off the bench, which is completely unfair to him but also necessary. He can put up points in bunches, and the Nuggets are at their best when the ball is in his hands (at least with Jokić out). If Bones puts up 15+ relatively efficient points going forward, the Nuggets will have a chance.

Beyond those three, and beyond the normal rotation players, Markus Howard feels like a reasonable option too. I wouldn’t play him and Bones together, but adding another guard who can hit threes consistently is of paramount importance.


This question is tough to answer. The Nuggets don’t have Jamal Murray. That’s part of it. They don’t have a good version of Michael Porter Jr. and that’s part of it too. Their entire bench has been in a shooting slump at the same time, and that’s sort of a big deal when it comes to bolstering the starting group. The team is 29th in three-point percentage at this point, and that’s pretty scary.

To my eye, Denver’s offense has been very predictable to start the year. With the starters, follow Jokić and he will lead you to whatever’s going on, and the rest of the starting unit hasn’t shot efficiently enough around him to capitalize on the gravity he provides in the middle of the floor. With the bench, there’s no dribble penetration whatsoever, and the Nuggets aren’t creating their usual paint threes as a result. On the season, the Nuggets offense is averaging 20.2 paint touches per game, which ranks 23rd in the NBA per Synergy tracking data. They’re averaging the second most points per paint touch though, which means that when they actually get it there, they become fairly efficient. The problem: the bench rarely touches the paint.

Hopefully, Barton and Bones can introduce some more slashing into the bench unit, because passing the ball around the perimeter and then chucking up a three isn’t the way to sustain functional offense for a group of shooters that aren’t elite. They need better shot quality, and it starts with driving the gaps in the defense a bit better.


The Nuggets play the Miami Heat on Monday, the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, and the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday. Though the Pacers and Blazers have had their struggles at times, all four are competent teams, Miami especially, and could give the Nuggets plenty of trouble no matter the circumstance.

The Heat are great offensively, but with Denver downsizing with Dozier in the starting unit in all likelihood, Denver’s actually in a decent position to win if they can hit some outside shots. The Pacers will be troublesome with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, but the Nuggets can also match up with them physically as long as the bench bigs don’t get rolled. The Hawks (and Trae Young specifically) have struggled to adjust to the new regular season, and as long as Denver stays disciplined in pick and roll coverages, they have the formula against the Hawks too. Finally, the Blazers...I mean, Denver can beat Portland with both hands tied behind their backs. They just did it last year.

Still, it’s important to be realistic about these things. Let’s say 2-2 is par for the course, meaning a 3-2 home stand including Denver’s win against Houston. If Denver does that (or better) Nuggets fans should be perfectly happy with the outcome.


I’ve asked Malone questions like that one before (maybe I will on Monday) and he’s generally pretty defensive of his players, in a good way. He would probably say that plus-minus is a team stat as much as it is individual, and that the context behind Facu Campazzo’s struggles can be explained by the struggles of the bench overall. Facu Campazzo isn’t missing Jeff Green’s three-point attempts. Or JaMychal Green. Or P.J. Dozier. Or Austin Rivers. Or even Bones Hyland, who’s quietly down to 30.7% from three through nine games.

But Malone would also acknowledge that Campazzo has been struggling too, and something is happening within the context of the plus-minus data that doesn’t look very favorably on his contributions. One example: the Nuggets four-man lineup of Jokić, Gordon, Porter, and Campazzo has played just five minutes so far this season. Last year, they played 336 minutes together, and those minutes helped bolster Facu’s plus-minus with the new group.

Perhaps more than anyone this year, Facu has been placed in a really difficult situation. He doesn’t have a capable rim roller and rim protector playing next to him like many point guards. He also doesn’t have shooters around him to space the floor on his drives. Those are two key ingredients to Facu being a great role player, working his magic. He had those ingredients last year, but not this year. As a result, he’s being asked to do something he shouldn’t be asked to do, and he hasn’t handled the change well.

I don’t see Facu performing his normal magic this year unless he starts hitting outside shots with more consistency. He isn’t going to put pressure on the rim, and defenses are sagging into the passing lanes and preventing him from doing anything more than hitting the pop man at the top of the key. Until the Nuggets find a counter, it’s going to continue to look bad with Facu running the show out there. At some point, they may have to look at other rotation options as well.


Well, per FiveThirtyEight, the Nuggets have a 20% chance of making the Finals. The Los Angeles Clippers have the greatest chance in the West, per their data, and both the Nuggets and Clippers data is reflected in having Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard back respectively. We will just have to wait and see on that front.

On DraftKings, the Nuggets have +950 odds to make it out of the West, or 9.5-to-1. That ranks sixth in the West behind the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Clippers.

Denver’s odds of representing the West in the NBA Finals come down to three factors: Murray’s readiness, Porter’s growth, and the defense. If Murray returns and gives Denver an immediate boost, that has a residual impact on the entire rotation. From Monte Morris returning to a sixth man role, to P.J. Dozier becoming more of a utility piece, to Will Barton having to carry less weight offensively, to Michael Porter Jr. going from the second option to the third option offensively on many nights. If Porter has emerged from his early season funk and is playing like a true second option, then maybe that makes Murray’s return easier too.

Finally, I don’t think the Nuggets actually have the second best defense in the NBA, but if it’s a Top Ten unit in the playoffs and helps bolster what should be an elite offense at some point, then the Nuggets can match up with any team. From the Phoenix Suns to the Los Angeles Lakers to the Milwaukee Bucks to the Brooklyn Nets, the Nuggets will be just as dangerous as any of them if things fall into place.

I think it’s a fair bet to take.