If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.
From the start of the season until December 31st, the Nuggets had a record of 17-16 with a net rating of -0.5. They were struggling to win more than two games in a row, and they were toiling in the eighth spot in the Western Conference with the roster dropping like flies around superstar Nikola Jokic. When the calendar flipped, a switch seemingly flipped with it, and the rest of the league has started to look over their shoulder at this team from Denver that’s starting to make some noise despite continuing to play without two of their three best players.
Since January 1st, the Nuggets have the fifth-best net rating in the NBA at +5.8, and they’ve won 17 of their last 26 games. That stretch includes wins over the Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets with all of those games taking place on the road. Denver’s now pushing towards the playoffs as they’re looking to keep the heat on the team’s ahead of them, and they’re playing with house money right now. If you had told most Nugget fans that Denver would be in 6th place in the Western Conference despite receiving a total of 265 minutes from Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. through the end of February, they’d have been thrilled.
Rumors have started to swirl that Murray is nearing a return in the next month or so, while Porter, who was once thought to be done for the year, could be making a return near the start of the playoffs. It was very brief last season, but, when the Nuggets’ starting five of Jokic, Murray, Porter, Aaron Gordon and Will Barton suited up together, they were a menace every night. Now, what has happened over the last two months that has the Nuggets playing at such a high level?
The Bryn Forbes Effect
For one, the team as a whole has improved since the start of the new year, but, specifically, the bench has begun providing a positive impact when they’re on the floor. Prior to January 1st, the Nuggets had six players with a positive net rating, with one of those being Petr Cornelie, and Davon Reed was the lone non-starter that was in the green for that category. Since January 1st, that list has grown substantially, as they have 14 players with positive net ratings in that timespan. Removing Vlatko Cancar, Bol Bol and Rayjon Tucker still leaves you with 11 players, including five off of the bench. The bench still has off nights here and there, but they have been improving as a whole.
Bryn Forbes started slow when he first joined Denver, but he has been shooting the lights out as of late. Since arriving in Denver, he’s shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range, which is second among active Nuggets’ players. Forbes doesn’t do anything overly special on this play, but it’s his shooting ability that helps to unlock this lineup which doesn’t feature a ton of great shooters. Outside of Forbes, Austin Rivers at 34.4 percent is the best outside shooter on the floor. Forbes gives this unit spacing and a bailout option from outside that they can have confidence in, and it makes sense as he knocks down the open shot.
Forbes’ current role on this Nuggets’ roster is very similar to the one that Jamal Crawford played for the “Lob City” LA Clippers in the 2010s. He comes off of the bench, and his job is to put up points while putting pressure on the defense. That’s exactly what he does. Looking at last night’s win over the Sacramento Kings, Forbes played 21 minutes while scoring a whopping eight points. He only took four shots, but he affected the entire defense while he was on the floor. With 10 seconds left on the shot clock, he catches the ball out by the 3-point line and immediately starts attacking towards the basket. He draws the attention of four different defenders, which means there are plenty of wide-open shooters to choose from. The ball gets kicked out to JaMychal Green, who knocks down the triple. Forbes isn’t going to average 20 or more points a night, but that’s ok because of everything else that he brings to the team. Forbes wasn’t the biggest name moved in a trade this season, but he has been a huge success for Denver off of the bench.
Don’t Forget About These Guys
If and when Murray and Porter return, it would send ripple effects through the roster as minutes, shot attempts and possessions all would become adjusted. For now though, we’ve seen a trio of players all step up in massive ways over the last two months. Barton, Gordon and Monte Morris have all made strides in that time span. That group had a combined net rating of +11.2 prior to January 1st. Since January 1st, their combined net rating is +26.7. Jokic remains important, but this trio elevating their play has directly impacted the team’s success.
Looking at the play above, Barton probably could have passed it out to someone else. He had two defenders on him, and he didn’t need to force up a shot in this situation. He already had 25 points on the night, and he was feeling himself. Having a player other than Jokic that can get hot and go get your team a bucket is something this team lacks with Murray out of the lineup. Barton helps to assuage some of those problems. He starts driving towards the basket off of the screen by Jokic. Even with two defenders on him, he’s always thinking about the shot, and he eventually gets it which really helped stifle any chance of a comeback by the Sacramento Kings.
The play of Gordon can not be overlooked during this stretch. He’s embraced his role as an athletic big this season, and he’s been quite successful doing that. Most often, Gordon has taken advantage of mismatches, but, in this situation, he doesn’t have that size advantage. At 6’8” & 225 pounds with a 6’11” wingspan, Harrison Barnes has the size and length to bother Gordon. That doesn’t matter because Gordon is determined to score. After establishing position down low, he calls for the ball again and goes up strong and scores through the contest by Barnes. Gordon and Barton may see their roles reduced over the next couple of months, but, for now, they’re playing a key role in a team that’s rolling through the NBA.
One MVP Goes A Long Way
When you’re as good as Jokic is, you’re going to draw the attention of every defender on the floor for your opponent. It doesn’t matter if he’s having his worst game of his career. He’s going to have every eye on him, even if that means the defense will put themselves in a terrible spot elsewhere. On this play, Jokic starts to back down Domantas Sabonis which prompts De’Aaron Fox to bring the double team. As soon as that happens, it leaves Barton wide open from 3-point range. No one is able to close out on him, and Barton cashes the open look. It all started because Fox knew that he couldn’t allow Jokic the one-on-one opportunity from anywhere on the floor.
Imagine for a second that you’re Damian Jones. You’re 6’11” & 245 pounds. You were picked at the very end of the first round in the 2016 NBA draft, and you’ve been one of the biggest guys on the court for your entire life. Now, you’re matched up with one of the few guys in the world that’s bigger than you, and he just gets to whatever spot that he wants while you do everything you can to stop him. Jokic has the ball on the right block, and he just starts working towards the basket. There’s nothing Jones can do to stop him. Jokic frequently gets called a finesse center by casual fans because of his passing and ability to stretch the floor with his mid-range shooting, but he still has more than enough power to take a possession over and score. That’s what an MVP can do for you. When no one else can score or is able to get open, Jokic can take the ball and get the job done no matter what.
For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.