The offseason is officially over as many teams radiate their playoff aspirations. The Denver Nuggets are no different, but as it pertains to the fans, these are not aspirations. They are expectations. Especially considering the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. coupled with the additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown.

On paper, it is assumed the Nuggets will be able to increase their record and status in the West because of Murray and Porter Jr. Some also presume Denver to be a top-five team in the West or maybe the entire league, but how do they manifest these expectations? When you add two great offensive talents back into the rotation, the offense will surely improve over time, but it also offers the Nuggets more complexity on both ends of the court.

Without Murray and Porter Jr., Denver had not been able to excel in the areas they did with them in the lineup. The Nuggets found some success in the pick and roll last season, but with Murray back, those actions become some of the more dangerous in the NBA. Denver was a top-six team scoring in the paint last season, so with their two offensive stars returning, the floor spacing will be augmented, thus creating open lanes throughout the court. Defensively, the Nuggets may not return two elite defenders, but they add length that hinders opponents from dominating the paint.

This team is a clear threat with Murray and MPJ back in the lineup, but in order to predict how dangerous they can be, we need to analyze the actions that can create such danger. Forecasting both players to return to 100% of their abilities early in the season may be naive, but if they can restore these actions on both ends of the court, this team is a dark horse candidate to make a Finals run.

Master two-man play

This is what Suns head coach Monty Williams had to say regarding Jamal Murray’s impact on the Nuggets. When describing the two-man game between Jokic and Murray, Williams laughed to convey its unguardable tendencies at times. That type of respect is eye-opening coming from a coach like Monty Williams. He knows exactly what great ball movement and pick-and-roll play looks like because he has coached arguably the best floor general of his time in Chris Paul. Williams might not be indicating any fear of Murray or Jokic, but he certainly is not itching to watch that two-man drop buckets on his team.

The chemistry Jokic and Murray have is a piece of art. Their skill sets mesh beautifully in the pick-and-roll and two-man game. The options they create are plentiful. They both can score from anywhere on the floor, but they also don’t need the ball in their hands to impact offense. We have seen countless times where it may look like they are about to run a direct handoff or a pick and roll, yet Murray cuts backdoor for an easy layup. That type of action can force the defense to stick to Murray like glue, but when they do, that’s when Jokic can set a screen and free Murray for driving lanes, or open three-point and mid-range baskets.

What you may notice in these clips are the downhill movement these two create within the offense. Many times throughout last season, Nugget guards would probe around the perimeter for too long and without purpose at times, developing stagnation throughout the group. What this offense really missed is Murray’s ability to attack the basket. He is an acrobatic, crafty finisher but he is also aggressive. Won’t take no for an answer type of mentality, and that confidence is crucial when others are not finding their offensive rhythm.

What you may also detect is the substantial amount of space this two-man game creates. It evolves throughout the game, but the perimeter shooting of role players is a massive factor in the success of those plays. In several of those clips, you see opponents glued to a Nugget on the perimeter because they know if they are left open, they will be found and can knock down the shot. When these two assert their dominance in the two-man game, it is picking your poison for the defense. You switch on the screen? Nikola will take you down to the post. Go under the screen? Murray will hit the three-point shot. Have a help defender shade on these actions? Murray or Jokic will kick it out for an open shot.

Another aspect they add to Denver is tough shot makers. Jamal Murray is a guy who can shoot from anywhere on the floor but also from any platform. Spin jumper, fadeaway, step-backs, post-fades, he has it all. MPJ has not perfected all those certain mechanics yet, but he is just as lethal of a tough shot maker, if not a tad better because of his elite range.

He is 6’10” so he is often unphased by closeouts because it doesn’t impact his vision of the basket. Alongside Jokic, MPJ and Murray are also Denver’s best mid-range shooters, so all the options they bring to the offense are crucial but especially late in the shot clock and late in games. The Nuggets, other than Jokic, don’t have many players that can bail them out when the going gets tough. In the playoffs, they will not have as many comfortable looks compared to the regular season, so they need more guys that can convert tough contested shots.

Ability to excel inside and out

Part of the fundamentals of basketball is playing inside out. Getting the ball inside collapses the defense and offers open perimeter opportunities. Inside activity creates outside success and vice versa. If you look at several Nugget losses last season, you will notice the other team dominating the paint. Sure, the lack of an inside defensive presence hurt, but it was also their inability at times to match the opponent by attacking the paint. We have witnessed stretches where teams score 8-10 points consecutively in the paint, and the Nuggets respond by chucking up a bunch of threes. Although Murray and MPJ won’t bring elite, individual talent to significantly bolster the defense, they do compensate for that on the offensive end.

Both Murray and MPJ can devastate the defense with their cutting abilities. Defenders are so focused on their perimeter talent, they often offer cutting opportunities because they defend so tight on the outside. Denver is one of the best ball movement teams in the league, led by one of the best passers in Jokic. They ranked as the 3rd best assist team in the NBA last season. So if cutters are present Jokic will find them, and cutting opportunities will be provided because of Denver’s perimeter threats.

What we also may forget is how great of an offensive rebounding team the Nuggets are with MPJ in the lineup. When MPJ was last healthy, they were the 8th best offensive rebounding group and the 6th best second chance point team as well. Michael Porter Jr.’s best attribute is his shooting ability, but he has the potential to be Denver’s second-best rebounder. Jokic is considered the Big Tipper for a reason, so he is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, Aaron Gordon is a physical rebounder, and MPJ has the length and jumping capacity to average near ten rebounds a game. When you put that trio of rebounders together, you can create a massive advantage inside, especially considering how small teams like to play these days.

Additionally, we can revisit the Jokic and Murray two-man game because these actions create the inside-out play the Nuggets missed last season. It’s exciting to think about Murray’s regular season return and the success he will bring individually, but it also helps the role players. You see how fearful defenders are to sag off their assignments because they know Jokic and Murray have the vision to locate the open man. Furthermore, I think the Nuggets have better perimeter talent now than they had previously which will create serious havoc for a defense.

This next clip will show MPJ’s 37 points in the bubble, but I would like to highlight how important the inside game was in that contest. It initiated Porter Jr.’s hot start, but it also helped the Nuggets win an overtime game in which they dominated the Thunder 50-28 in the paint. When you look closer at that box score, you see how much Denver struggled from three-point land. They only hit 7 threes in 28 attempts, and MPJ accounted for four of them. The Nuggets and MPJ could have forced more three-point attempts, but instead, they attacked the basket, and that appeared to be the deciding factor.

Four of MPJ’s first five attempts in that clip came inside which was important because that is often how players find a groove. Seeing a couple of shots go in from close range can give a player confidence they have the right shooting stroke for that game. He also had 12 rebounds in that contest which shows he took command in as many areas as he could. He attacked the offensive glass, driving lanes, cutting opportunities, mid-range looks, and deep shots.

This is why inside-out basketball remains important even in today’s NBA. It’s all about obtaining comfortable looks, so if you give a professional defense one look, such as the three-point shot, they are going to key in on it and find success defending it. If your offensive is versatile and shows tendencies to score from all areas of the court, the defense needs to defend all sections of the court, and that is much more difficult than focusing on one area. That is exactly what Murray and MPJ bring to this offense. Versatility.

Defensive length and variety

If we examine a healthy Denver starting five, the shortest player will be Jamal Murray at 6’4,” which is great size for a point guard. He also added weight over the years, so at 215lbs, the Nuggets have the length and strength to compete at a high level defensively. No, I will not sugarcoat it. Murray and MPJ are not elite defenders, but they have the tangible characteristics to fit well in this defensive system.

The Nuggets held teams to 110.4 PPG last season which positioned them 14th in the league. They also ranked among the top ten in opponents 3P% at 34.6%. These aren’t astounding numbers, but they are impressive considering the Nuggets only had one elite defender last season. I don’t presume a healthy Denver squad to be a team holding others to under 100 routinely, but I do expect them to fix one of their fatal defensive flaws. Points in the paint.

I’ve discussed the notion that when Denver loses games, it is often because they either can’t score in the paint or they can’t defend the paint. The Nuggets gave up 49.9 points in the paint last season which ranked 24th in the league. Prior to last season, Denver was the 6th best team in opponent’s PITP. Why? Because they had effective length and versatility.

When the Nuggets have Porter Jr. and Gordon in the lineup, they have two forwards that can block shots which was an area of weakness all season. Offenses might not fear Porter Jr. individually, but they will have to finish amongst the trees when Jokic, Gordon, and MPJ are there to contest. During the 2020-2021 season, Denver averaged their highest amount of blocks when MPJ and Murray were on the floor.

What you see in that clip is MPJ’s potential to be an effective help defender, and how that turns into offense at the other end. Most teams will bring Jokic out in the pick-and-roll to evacuate him from the inside, and Gordon frequently defends the opponent’s best wing or perimeter player. So when that happens, the Nuggets do not have many strong options to guard the paint. When MPJ is on the floor, he gifts Denver the ability to be beaten on a play but still recover with a good contest or a block.

The added length of Murray and MPJ gives the Nuggets more options to guard the opponent’s screening game as well. Last season, teams were taking advantage by forcing players like Barton, Morris, and Bones to switch the screens and isolate with their better players. This troubled Denver numerous times because teams capitalized with their size, but Murray and MPJ can help remedy that. Again, Murray is 215lbs. so he is a bulkier guard for his size, and MPJ’s length can make shooters uncomfortable because of his wingspan. Neither player is the most talented defensively, but within this system, they play their role and their role is essential for efficient defense.

Although we can’t always accurately predict the strengths and weaknesses of a team in a new season, Denver will still have to show they fixed their deficiencies from last season. They had issues guarding the paint, they avoided scoring in the paint at times, they were not a great rebounding group, and they didn’t have another consistent, trusted offensive threat other than Jokic. When we view the return of Murray and Porter Jr., we can’t just expect the offense and defense to be fixed immediately. There are nuances to this game that directly impact the macro view of this team. We assume their production will positively impact this group, but it matters how they impact the game.

These two are the second and third largest puzzle pieces to this team. Those parts will need to fit in their allotted slot for the Nuggets to be a championship contender. They are two elite offensive threats, but the notion of “empty points” can still remain. 20+ PPG from one or both players will be welcomed and much-needed, but they must impact winning more than the box score. I do not say that to cast any aspersions on Murray or MPJ because I do not think they chase stats, in fact, I think both just want to impact the game in a positive way. But for those who expect the Nuggets to return to the Western Conference Finals just because MPJ and Murray are back, I say be patient. Rather than await the scoring totals each night, examine their role and how well they executed it because if both can star in their responsibilities, this team is not far from a title.

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