The Denver Nuggets currently rank 28th in the NBA in third quarter net rating 23 games into the 2020-21 season.
The only teams that rank below the Nuggets? The Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings. Both teams are improved, yes. Still, that’s not the company the Nuggets were hoping to keep at the beginning of the year.
Yes, the Nuggets have faltered in third quarters. Their third quarter net rating is -9.7 points per 100 possessions, the single worst quarter in terms of net rating of any quarter in the Michael Malone era.
But why? What causes such painful struggles for a veteran team that’s supposed to be preparing for a championship run?
Here are Denver’s net ratings and ranks quarter by quarter:
Going column by column, the offensive rating dropping from historically great to subpar throughout the game is a definite concern. The same players that start the first quarter also start the third quarter. Whatever Denver has been doing at the start of the game hasn’t translated to success after halftime.
The defense shows similar trends in the first/third and second/fourth quarters. The starters have yet to put together a strong performance to open each half while the bench and whichever starters play with the bench tend to figure things out defensively. That third quarter defensive number is definitely a concern, but not the most jarring thing on the table.
Nope, that’s the net rating rank from the first quarter and third quarter respectively. Those numbers are simply insane. The most jarring change isn’t the the defense either, though the defense does grow worse by 5.3 points per 100 possessions. The most jarring change is the offense, which drops 19.1 points per 100 possessions from first to third quarter.
To dive deeper into why the offensive numbers are dropping the way that they are, let’s look at the scoring volume and scoring efficiency of Denver’s players, separated by first and second half performance:
The scoring volume for all of Denver’s starters (outside of Nikola Jokić) drops from first half to second half. Part of this factors in less playing time in the case of Paul Millsap. Part of this factors in a reduced scoring role in the case of Gary Harris. Michael Porter Jr. has also seen a reduction in production and efficiency.
However, the most impactful drops in production and efficiency have come from Jamal Murray and Will Barton respectively. Murray’s points per game dropping so drastically from first to second half is a major concern. His three-point percentage has also dropped from 43.3% in the first half to 24.6% in the second, nearly a 19% drop in efficiency. Barton also sees a major drop in production, scoring 47% fewer points in the second half as compared to the first. The true shooting percentage is also of major concern for the 30-year-old scoring wing.
Often, the bench has come in and picked up the slack for the starters, with the trio of Monte Morris, JaMychal Green, and PJ Dozier showing some effectiveness in the second half. The starters are of incredible concern though, as they make up the bulk of the minutes and often close the game next to Jokić.
So much burden is on Jokić to carry the Nuggets throughout games. There are only so many points he can score, and if Murray and Barton continue to struggle in the second half of games, then the Nuggets are going to have to find other ways to score. Michael Porter Jr. might be an option, though he has to operate within the flow of the offense in order to see those opportunities and for his teammates to trust him. All of those things are possible if given the time, though the Nuggets may be looking for a quicker solution than that.
The easiest thing would be for Murray and Barton to find some regression to the mean and balance their scoring production between both halves. There should be no reason that both are struggling as often as they are, and it’s hurting Denver greatly in third quarters.
In addition to offense, the Nuggets have to find a way to defend with their starters at the beginning of the second half. The last seven games have seen opponents produce the following third quarter point totals: 36, 26, 32, 37, 37, 34, 34. It’s incredibly difficult for offenses to consistently match that total, let alone exceed it given the struggles of Murray and Barton to score efficiently to start the year. Jokić often puts together herculean efforts, but he can’t be the only one. Someone has to help him out.
It’s mind-bending that the Nuggets struggle as much as they do offensively in the third quarter given their proficiency in the first quarter. The situations are generally the same, and the team just falls apart as a whole. However the Nuggets decide to do it, they hav to fix this issue. It’s the biggest reason why the team isn’t winning games anymore, and if the Nuggets continue on this path, there’s no telling how far they might fall down the standings before ultimately picking themselves up again.