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The Sixth Man: Small Steps Denver Can Take to Win a Championship

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The Nuggets look to acclimate new talent into a winning culture

Atlanta Hawks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Nuggets fans, I cannot express how excited and grateful I am to cover the team I have loved since Marcus Camby was blocking shots all the way back to Grand Junction. This is an incredibly exciting time to be a Nuggets fan, so I am excited to see where this season and beyond will take us. My name is Tommy Knowlton, and I am here to bring you “The Sixth Man.”

The sixth man is an essential yet often overlooked role for many teams throughout the league. This piece is designed to highlight and analyze the often unnoticed keys upon which success is built. Whether it be communicating through screens, boxing out, or taking a charge, these plays can create massive momentum swings contributing to victory.


Hedging the pick and roll

After one of the more exciting trade deadlines in recent years for Denver, the acquisition of Aaron Gordon provides more options in how they guard the opponent’s screen game. He gives them the ability to switch, stay home, and also hedge screens acting as a momentary switch until his teammate recovers back to the ball handler.

When the Nuggets entered the NBA bubble last year, they struggled mightily in guarding the pick and roll resulting in numerous defensive breakdowns. Many teams like to isolate Jokic in these situations because he is not the most athletic defender.

Here is a clip of a defensive breakdown when guarding the pick and roll:

This is how many teams will continue to attack the Nuggets. Capela is going to set the screen on Murray, and Trae Young acts as he will go right but crosses over to the left losing Jamaal Murray. At that point, Jokic is about eight feet away from one of the most dangerous 3-point shooters in the NBA. Jokic does not take one step towards the ball handler and it results in three points for the Hawks.

To prevent this, Jokic must take at least a couple steps towards the ball handler, try to hold Young as long as possible until Murray recovers, and then switch back to Capela; thus, hedging the screen. Now, Jokic is not the most fleet of foot so this is a tough play for Denver to handle, but by adding Aaron Gordon he undoubtedly can handle switching, hedging, or fighting over the screen and staying on his man.

Basketball IQ

Basketball IQ will not reveal itself in the box score every night, but it is absolutely imperative when making a championship run. Although Facundo Campazzo is an NBA rookie, he has several years of professional experience playing overseas. He might not stand out when glancing at the statistics as of late, but he creates a massive impact on the game.

Initially, Facu is guarding Kemba Walker on the top corner of your screen. Here we have an isolation situation with Murray guarding Tatum. Facu does a great job of keeping his eyes on both the ball handler and his man, and once Tatum penetrates to the right, Facu follows. He knows Murray has help to his right with JaMychal Green, so Facu comes to double Tatum. Like a lion stalking its prey, Facu remains hidden until it is time to attack. Once Tatum spins, Facu is right there with active hands taking the cookie out of the cookie jar.

As a team, the Nuggets rank 14th in the league among opponent turnovers with 14.3 per game, while the Toronto Raptors lead the NBA with 16.3 per game. With Facu on the court, the Nuggets’ opponent turnover percentage is 16.3%, with him off the court it is 13.8%.

No, these statistics do not separate playoff teams from those below, evident by the fact Toronto leads the league in opponent turnovers and is eleven games below .500. What they reveal are glimpses into the defensive impact Facu has on a nightly basis.

Another representation of basketball IQ is veteran Paul Millsap. As his bounce and athleticism have declined, his instincts and intelligence have not. Let’s not forget Millsap was named to four consecutive All-Star teams and was the fifth Hawks player ever to do so.

Here is a great example of how veteran instincts and intelligence can help alter the game.

Here, Millsap receives the ball in the low post while Barton cuts to the rim. Wisely, Millsap does not wait for Barton to clear, positioning Barton at the rim for a missed shot. He fakes the pass and immediately drives baseline, shot fakes getting Zion off his feet, and comes right back up making the basket and the foul.

As they say in many courts across the country, “Don’t jump youngblood.” Zion’s youth may display his talent in ways we haven’t seen before, but Millsap’s veteran instincts seemed to change the tide in that game. Denver was down by eleven at that point. The Pelicans had all the momentum, and Zion was relentlessly getting to wherever he wanted to on the floor. This play seemed to echo throughout the lineup as the Nuggets saw and capitalized on a potential weakness.

Taking a Charge

It is not mandatory for a team to grade among the league’s best in charges drawn per game. In fact, the Utah Jazz have the least amount of charges drawn at 0.22 per game, yet they have held the league’s best record for the majority of the season. With that being said, basketball is a game of momentum. One team will go on an 8-0 scoring run followed by the opponent having its own 10-0 run. When teams are battling for momentum, one of the best ways to ignite collective energy is by taking a charge.

Here is a clip of PJ Dozier taking a charge against Kyle Kuzma in Game 2 of the 2020 Western Conference Finals:

Dozier is initially guarding Danny Green as Green slides to the bottom corner, but Dozier recognizes the James-Kuzma pick and roll and relocates himself to the front of the basket. Once the ball is released from LeBron, Dozier immediately positions in front of Kuzma and anticipates contact remaining upright and frozen in place. After the charge is taken, the whole bench stands up and erupts in applause while the commentators offer some praise.


Last season was an extraordinary ride. Now that Denver has tasted once again what it is like to make a deep playoff run, there is championship anticipation.

The off-season did not seem to enhance that championship outlook, at least on paper, as Denver lost key forwards Jerami Grant and Torey Craig. Fast forward to March, now the Nuggets remedied the situation by acquiring a star-caliber talent in Aaron Gordon, and championship pedigree in JaVale McGee.

The road to the Finals could very well be tougher than last as the Lakers and Nets have been locked in an arms race to acquire the best talent. The Lakers recently acquired possibly the best rebounder of his generation in Andre Drummond to pair with LeBron and Anthony Davis. Meanwhile, the Nets have three first-ballot Hall of Famer’s in their starting lineup, along with former All-Stars Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Michael Malone era in Denver has never been known to play hero or isolation basketball. Denver hangs its hat on being team-oriented and doing the little things well. The Nuggets locker room places a high priority on trust, and if the team can continue cultivating trust and paying attention to detail, this will be a very dangerous team for any opponent, especially in the playoffs.