Alert. Alert. The Denver Nuggets struggle for 36 of the 48 minutes of basketball games. Heck, 41 of 53 minutes.

The biggest key for good teams, in my opinion, is winning in the third quarter. The Nuggets have done that extremely well this year, on par with the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, and San Antonio Spurs this season. The problem? That’s the only quarter in which they perform well.

Here are the Nuggets Net Ratings by quarter and their respective NBA ranks:

Quarter Net Rating Rank
1st Quarter -6.4 25th
Second Quarter -2.6 20th
Third Quarter +12.8 2nd
Fourth Quarter -2.7 20th

This is an alarming trend. The Nuggets have been an above .500 team on the back of an excellent recovery period, but the beginning of the game continues to put them in that position. They aren’t alone among teams that excel in just one quarter, but the formula, as we have seen over the last few games, isn’t sustainable. Expecting the run to happen is one thing, but needing it over and over again has left the Nuggets in a bad position as a young team.

The young core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris has learned to translate their third quarter success into more consistency at the beginning of games, but the rest of the team must follow suit. Jokic has created well for others and limited turnovers (2.76 Assist-to-Turnover ratio) while Murray and Harris have been efficient scorers (59.9 and 61.2 True Shooting % respectively). The rest of the team? Not so much.

Among players that have played at least 25 games (sorry Richard Jefferson) Emmanuel Mudiay and Trey Lyles pace the team in negative Net Ratings, with a -19.5 and -16.7 Net Rating respectively. From my perspective, this illustrates the exact time when the Nuggets really begin to struggle as a team, at around the 4:00 minute mark in the first quarter. The next guys up in Net Rating struggles, Mason Plumlee (-12.1) and Will Barton (-7.4), further illustrating the bench rotation being the biggest issue in Denver right now.

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For the rest of the season, the Nuggets need an adequate backup point guard. Will Barton has been performing double duty for the last 15 games or so, and his efficiency has taken a hit as a result. His 54.0 TS% has been tethered by a 46.9 TS% over his last 15 games, the entirety of the time that he’s shouldered backup point guard duties. In order to put Barton in the best chance to succeed, the Nuggets must find another adequate ball handler on the second unit. Rotating Jamal Murray and Gary Harris next to him just hasn’t been enough, and Malik Beasley isn’t ready for primetime offensively. The Nuggets are going to include Richard Jefferson in the rotation for the next several games, but he’s not really a ball handler. It may be time to give Emmanuel Mudiay another opportunity to succeed as a second unit ball handler. If he fails, or if the Nuggets don’t want to go down that route, then they must find another ball handler on the open market. If Denver can add a player that will facilitate good offense for others and not be a complete sieve defensively, then that will help their playoff aspirations immensely.

The easiest change Denver must make though is to start Trey Lyles at power forward and move Mason Plumlee to a backup role. Lyles has proven himself over the last six to seven weeks, and his scoring punch would give the starting unit a huge boost. Murray and Jokic have struggled with consistency the last few games, while Plumlee and Wilson Chandler just aren’t dynamic at all. Injecting some life into the starting unit until Paul Millsap comes back may be the best option in the short term. If the Nuggets can space the floor for Jokic, let him facilitate offense all over, and provide him with another three point shooter in Lyles, the offense may get going in the first quarter enough to stave off the defensive concerns of that unit.

Either way, the Nuggets have issues to sort out. Being a good third quarter team is important, but when that’s the only thing going positively on a quarter to quarter basis, it’s hard to give too much credit. The Nuggets do a great job of making adjustments and coming out of the second half with energy. In order to translate that energy into wins, they must find success at the beginning of games too.

If that means making a lineup change, so be it.

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