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.

As a writer, there are a few times of the year that I enjoy writing the most. One of them that’s at the top of my list, is right around New Years. The main reason it’s high on my list is that it gives me an easy way to pick a topic no matter what team I’m writing about. I can focus on the team heading into the new year and what they need to change about themselves just as the rest of us look in the mirror to figure out our New Year’s Resolutions.

The Nuggets, they’re 22-12 and tied for first place in the Western Conference. They’re a sparkling 12-3 at home with an 18-8 record in the conference. Nikola Jokic is a top five MVP candidate, and every night he plays he seemingly accomplishes another thing that hasn’t been done by anyone since the 1970s. They’re second in offensive rating, and, while their defense still has room to improve, they’re 16th in defensive rating in the month of December, which is a strong improvement from the 24th they were from the start of the season to the end of November.

Aaron Gordon is having the best season of his career while offseason additions Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have looked as good as the team could have hoped. For the most part, this is the strongest the Nuggets have looked since they dealt with the massive rash of injuries back in the 2020-21 season. This team has big aspirations, and they’ll have to make a couple of changes to reach those dreams.

Bench Movement

With Bruce Brown and Jeff Green dealing with injuries, this may seem like I have a recency bias that’s clouding my judgment, but I can assure you that this isn’t the first time this season I’ve talked about this. The Nuggets’ bench has a lot of talented pieces on it, and there are times when it can look good. However, most of the time, we’re seeing the ball stop moving and players getting way too locked into isolation-heavy basketball. 

The play above is a prime example of that. Less than two seconds into the play, it becomes apparent that Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji are the only two guys that are going to be moving on this play. The goal is to get Jaren Jackson Jr. switched onto Bones with the screen. That happens, but that’s really where the play stops making sense. Nnaji tries to get position on his man, but, when he sees he isn’t getting the ball, he allows his man to slide out from behind him to alter Bones’ shot attempt which ends up getting blocked by Jackson. Green, Brown & KCP never set foot inside the 3-point line, and their defenders never worry about them moving because they know how this offense is operating.

I think this is the part of this team that frustrates me the most at times. They can move. They don’t have to stay stagnant and just relate on isolation-heavy play because they have enough talent to win as a group. On this play, Brown is the only one that’s not directly involved in any sort of screen or action, but he’s also serving a role still on the play by being out there. Jamal Murray sets a screen for Green who carries is man to the corner closest to Bones. Off of that screen, Zeke sets one on Murray’s man. This forces the defenders to either switch, or Murray’s man has to fight over the screen to prevent the 3-point shot. Bones gets the ball to Murray who has space in front of him to start moving toward the rim. As soon as Zeke’s man commits to Murray, he flips the alley-oop toward Nnaji who finishes with the dunk. Remember when I said Brown was serving a purpose on this play just by being in the corner? Take a look at his defender throughout the play. When Zeke is rolling towards the rim, he wants to slide over to try and help, but he doesn’t want to give up the open triple, and that results in an easy dunk. There is a time and place for guys to go iso, but this team needs less of that and more of this.

Keep Michael Porter Jr. Engaged

Know that the next sentence that I’m writing is meant with the utmost respect. I think Michael Porter Jr. is the fourth-most important Nugget behind Jokic, Murray and Gordon. That’s not meant as a shot at him in any way, shape or form. I think that what he brings to the table on the offensive end as a shooter is something that can’t be taught, and he is lethal when he sees his shot falling. However, the reason I say you need to keep him engaged is because of what happens on the defensive end afterward.

I don’t have any fancy advanced stats to back up this claim. All I have is the gameplay that I’ve watched from MPJ since he entered the league. One of the main things that I’ve noticed is that when he’s feeling himself on offense, his defense just seems to go up a notch or two. He doesn’t become an elite stopper or anything like that, but he does seem to be able to harass opponents a little bit more than when he doesn’t have it going on offense. Prior to this play, MPJ had just knocked down a pull-up jumper on the other end and had drilled a contested 3-pointer two possessions before. Malik Monk had 33 points off of the bench in this game, and we’ve all seen MPJ get taken advantage of on defense by smaller guards. On this play, Monk gets by him, but Porter doesn’t give up on the play. Instead, he stays close before using his long arms to get the block. Denver doesn’t secure the rebound, but they do get it after Domantas Sabonis missed his own jump shot.

Alright, so MPJ just got a block on the defensive end. He’s scored two of the last three baskets for the Nuggets, and he’s four-of-four, including 2-of-2 on 3-pointers in the quarter. His confidence level could not be any higher. This play starts with Ish Smith driving with the ball on the right wing. After he gets past the first level of the defense, he somehow finds a way to get the ball to Vlatko Cancar in the corner. Cancar immediately passes the ball to MPJ, who’s man had just closed out on Cancar, and MPJ proceeds to drill a one-dribble stepback jumper with time winding down in the first period. He scored 13 points on five shots in the quarter, and he had two blocks on the defensive end. He finished the game shooting 6-of-12 from the floor and went 1-of-5 from 3-point range in the final 36 minutes. Sometimes the shots just simply won’t fall, and MPJ has to do his part to stay engaged no matter how he’s doing on offense. However, if the Nuggets can make a point to keep him involved on that end, this is a situation where the tide will raise all of the ships with it.

Offseason Paying Off

I wish there was a different topic to write about for this third section, but this is just where we have to with this one. There’s simply no other place to go here. If the Nuggets are going to win a championship or contend for one at the end of the year, the defense is going to have to go up a level, and I don’t think that this is one of those teams that can just ratchet the intensity up overnight by flipping a switch. I think the change needs to start happening now.

The play above is a prime example of what I’m referring to. You’re in a tie game, on Christmas Day, late in the fourth quarter against a top four team in the Western Conference that has played most of the game without their best player. Despite Devin Booker being out of the game, Landry Shamet has come off the bench, and he is lighting up everyone. After struggling in the first quarter, he got rolling with 15 points in the second, and he finished the game with 31 points. He’s already hit one 3-pointer on you in the quarter, and Murray just straight-up loses him here. He gets caught watching Chris Paul vs MPJ, and, while he’s standing in no man’s land, Shamet drifts to the corner and nails the triple with plenty of room to get a shot off.

For a little bit of context on the start of this play, Gordon gets switched onto Deandre Ayton following a screen. Ayton looks like he’s got an easy trip to the rim for a dunk, but Gordon never gives up on the play and is rewarded with the block. From there, things just continue to get crazy. MPJ throws the ball a little out of Gordon’s reach, but he hustles for the ball and chucks it inbounds in the general direction of Jokic. Jokic wins the jump ball with two defenders around him. After starting this play with a block against a bigger player, Gordon has now hustled the length of the floor, and he’s found himself with a free run at the rim because the defenders were vying for the loose ball. This is one of those four-point swings that all started on one end and results in frustration for the opponents afterward, as you can see by Paul’s smacking of the ball following the make. Denver’s defense doesn’t have to be elite in order for them to win, but, if they can put together average to above-average play for a month or two, they’re one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA. 

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.