What may seem like a tumultuous year for the Denver Nuggets may actually position themselves in a spot of comfortability. The underdog. Of course, the unforeseen injuries to MPJ and PJ Dozier were unfortunate and took a bite out of Denver’s confidence early in the season. Obviously, the Nuggets are a better team fully healthy but these circumstances offer the Nuggets more mystery when facing an opponent.
As MPJ’s game is constructed right now, the book is out on him. Get in his chile, crowd his space, be physical and he often makes the wrong decision or passes it out. I think Porter did slightly improve that aspect of his game in the offseason because he looked to navigate those situations better but his production was never there this season. For as gifted as he is, his talent did not translate to team success so far this season. In some aspects, there has been more success without him.
I will say it again, the Nuggets are a better team with MPJ in the lineup but as it pertains to this season it has not been the case. Michael played in 9 games this season before his injury. The Nuggets were decent at 5-4 but some of the stats were concerning. During October, in which MPJ played the majority of his games, the Nuggets shot 31% from deep (26th in the NBA) and MPJ shot 25% from three.
Since then, the Nuggets are a top 10 three-point shooting team in the league at 37%. Players that were struggling with MPJ in the lineup like Gordon, Jeff Green, and Facu have increased their three-point production significantly. Gordon grew his percentage from 21.4% to 36.7%, Green went from 21.4% to 34.4%, and Facu exploded from 25% to 43.2%. In October, the Nuggets were the 3rd worst offense in terms of points scored at 101.3 and since MPJ’s absence, they jumped 9 spots in the league to 106 points per game.
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) November 30, 2021
It was raining triples last night in Miami ☔️ pic.twitter.com/QJpIDa7VE2
Has that translated to more wins? No, because the MVP was out of the lineup and we know he is the defining factor to Nugget wins or losses, but collectively the Nuggets are playing better offensive basketball. The issue has been defense but with Jokic back in the lineup that should improve. Offensively, the role players are obtaining more opportunities and capitalizing on them. The two new additions in Bones Hyland and Jeff Green appear to be major positives off the bench, Zeke Nnaji is playing his best basketball, and Facu is now one of Denver’s more reliable deep threats so far.
The point is not to disparage Michael Porter Jr. but to foster positivity in this Nuggets lineup. It didn’t seem like MPJ was healthy entering the season and it was hurting his production and the teams’, so allowing him time to heal is what Denver needed. At 10-10, the sky seems to be falling in Nugget land, understandably because Jokic was out for four games, but he is back now and all hope should be restored.
Nikola Jokic is entering a LeBron James-like time in his career where he can carry any combination of talent to win most ball games. The Nuggets are a below .500 team without him but one of the best teams in the league with him. One of James’s best attributes is to enhance the play of his teammates and it is exactly what Jokic provides. No, the team record is not fantastic yet but let’s analyze some individual production so far this season.
First, let's begin with the starters. In my opinion, Aaron Gordon has played the best basketball of his career under Jokic. No, the PPG is not his highest but he is playing winning basketball, defending at a high level, playing within the offense, and has career highs in shooting percentages right now. He is shooting 51.7% from the field (career-high), 35.7% from three (career-high), 57.6% from two-point range (career-high), 76% from the free-throw line (career-high), and 2 offensive rebounds per game (tied for a career-high).
Will Barton is also playing the best basketball of his career. In his age 31 season, he has trumped most of his career highs offensively and also provided strong defense along with great playmaking. Here is the list of his career highs: PPG 16.2, assists 4.3, effective field goal percentage 54.6%, two-point shooting 51.1%, three-point shooting 39.1%, and field goal percentage at 45.6%. Since MPJ’s absence, he increased his PPG and rebounding by two and his 3P% by 6 points.
Since Jeff Green acquired more minutes he also boosted his output. He was averaging 7 points a game and is now at 12 PPG in his last 11. We already discussed his improved three-point shooting and his field goal percentage rose as well. He was shooting 43.8% from the field and has upgraded to the second-highest mark on the team with qualifying minutes at 50%. His plus/minus was -5.3 in October and is now positive at 1.3.
As stated earlier, Facu is having his most efficient stretch as a Nugget. Since MPJ’s departure, every shooting statistic has increased and he has been on fire from three. He is also supplying the energy, defense, and pace of play, the Nuggets need to wear opponents down.
Do I think there is direct causation between MPJ’s injury and Denver’s increased offensive productivity? No, I do not but I think it does play a factor. Some teams do not start efficiently out of the gate in October. Clearly, that was the case for Denver as they were an underwhelming offensive unit. With that being said, if you replace and give all the opportunities MPJ had and spread them across the team, you might have more collective success and that is what we are seeing. MPJ was averaging 5.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked down 1.1 of those. If you scatter those five opportunities throughout the team, they are converting more than 20% of those looks on average.
People might say Denver's championship hopes were destroyed after their recent injuries, and I think that is a fair assessment. On the other hand, to say this team will not share the success they had in the past is undermining the culture Michael Malone has built. They are comfortable in the underdog role, they flourish in it, yet their depth is more talented than some recognize. It’s not the best or near to it right now but with Jokic in the lineup, he helps put them in situations to be dangerous.
Their playoff success hinges on the health of Jamal Murray. I don’t think he will come back 100% but any percent of Jamal Murray is better than none. Once he comes back, he augments the starting and bench unit for this team. It allows the Nuggets more opportunities to use their depth in positions they are comfortable. It’s not the best bench in the league, but they will not have as much responsibility, thus giving them the opportunity to focus on their role and not overcompensate.
With Jamal in the lineup, there are not a lot of teams the Nuggets truly fear come playoff time. The Jazz might be a better team but they are yet to prove their postseason success. The Mavs are a dangerous team but Aaron Gordon seems to frustrate Doncic a bit and they are yet to define their postseason identity as well. The Clippers could get Kawhi back this season so they are a formidable opponent but Denver bleeds confidence against that group.
There are three teams the Nuggets should be hyperfocused against. The Warriors, Suns, and Lakers. Although the Lakers look like a shell of themselves now, it all boils down to a seven games series in the playoffs and nobody wants to face LeBron. The Suns are the second hottest team in the league right now but with Murray in the lineup, the Nuggets play them well. There is one team I do not see the Nuggets getting past and that is the Warriors. They are extremely deep, Klay will come back, and they have the best combination of offense and defense in the league. That being said, there are very few teams, if any, you can say with complete certainty the Nuggets could not beat with a healthy Murray.
Adversity might not be a welcome sight but it is a familiar one to this Nuggets team. Years of success and heartbreak under Michael Malone built the foundation Denver stands on today. That foundation is a mountain of determination and perseverance. Every time you discount their talent, they highlight their fortitude. Jokic is now firmly in the category with LeBron, Curry, and Durant. Would most disregard their chances at a deep playoff run amidst adversity? No.
The sky is not falling under the landscape of Denver basketball. In fact, the skies are clearing, the birds are chirping, and dreams are still alive. Why? The best player in basketball suits up for the Denver Nuggets and he is healthy. He is spreading the wealth to his teammates and providing fans the lens to see prosperity during times of distress. Trust in the big man.