How did the Denver Nuggets get here?

The Nuggets needed a 38-point offensive explosion in a full quarter’s worth of garbage time to crack 100 points last night against the Golden State Warriors. Prior to that, the Nuggets had only cracked 100 points in four of the previous five games. Heading into the season, scoring was the last aspect of the game in which anyone expected the Nuggets to struggle.

And yet, all seems to be fine, at least depending on who you ask. If you talk to Jamal Murray, everything is fine.

If you talk to Nikola Jokic, there seems to be something wrong.

Michael Malone also weighed in on the offensive struggles after last night’s abysmal performance against the Golden State Warriors, saying “There’s nothing, like, mysterious, like: ‘Let’s dive really deep.’ Unfortunately, we have quite a few players on our roster right now probably struggling more so than any time of the season than right now” (via Nick Kosmider of The Athletic).

So, is it as simple as guys not making shots? This is Stat of the Week after all, so let’s dive deep and make sure.

Inside the Numbers

To fully understand where the Nuggets are struggling, let’s look at the recent struggles through multiple lenses:

  • Where are the Nuggets shooting the ball?
  • Are the shots they are taking contested?
  • Do any players stand out positively or negatively?

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The Nuggets are certainly an unconventional offense, using their centers as facilitators for guards that move, cut, and screen for each other. This generally leads to an open paint, with opposing centers and rim protectors vacating the paint to match up with Nikola Jokic against the starters and Mason Plumlee against the bench.

But the Nuggets haven’t been able to get all the way to the rim in recent games, instead settling for shots in the non-restricted area of the paint and the mid range, inefficient spots on the floor. The Nuggets have two guys who can and should settle for these shots because of their skill level in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Outside of those two though, only Monte Morris has shown an ability to make those shots truly worthwhile attempts.

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Getting all the way to the rim is an important skill for any offense. The difference in efficiency between shots at the rim and shots in the paint five feet away or more is generally large. More often than not, players attempt shots away from the rim because they are contested, and it really showed in last night’s game.

This is not a good shot. Settling for that look and not kicking the ball out to Gary Harris once recovering the offensive rebound is one of the reasons why Denver hasn’t figured things out offensively. With so many players struggling, the number of possessions where Denver players have found the extra pass have dwindled.

This leads into the next portion: taking open shots.

In the last six games, Nuggets opponents have packed the paint, forcing the Nuggets to shoot tightly contested two-pointers and open three-pointers, none of which the Nuggets are hitting. From two-point range, the Nuggets have taken the fifth most tightly contested shots in the NBA during this time period. Compounding the problem is the fact that Denver is dead last in efficiency on these shots, shooting 43.7% from two-point range with a defender close by. The Warriors, by comparison, lead the NBA and are shooting 63.7% under the same circumstances.

But the even bigger story, somehow for the Nuggets taking a ton of contested twos and missing them, is the Nuggets missing every three-pointer in existence over the last six games.

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Yikes. That’s a lot of red.

Quite simply, the Nuggets aren’t doing themselves any favors by not shooting well. Whether it be shots in rhythm, shots at the end of the clock, or something else entirely, the Nuggets have missed all of the shots.

And the blame goes to everyone here, outside of Paul Millsap and Gary Harris who have shot 42.9 and 38.1 percent from three respectively.

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There are only so many games the Nuggets can win if they shoot this poorly as a team. Michael Malone an Jamal Murray are right about that.

But Nikola Jokic is also correct, the issues go deeper than just shooting poorly. The type of looks the Nuggets are creating contribute to the issues. They can’t get all the way to the rim, settling instead for less efficient looks in the least efficient spots on the court.

So, how can the Nuggets solve these issues?

Feed Nikola Jokic in the paint

Jokic averages 6.7 paint touches per game on the season, but that number is down to 4.6 in the last six games. When he receives the ball on the roll in the middle of the paint, opposing players are forced to help off of the players they are guarding. More often than not, Jamal Murray and Will Barton are the handlers in these situations, but they have done a poor job of hitting Jokic in a spot where he can either use his short floater or kick out to a three-point shooter.

Play Jamal Murray or Will Barton with the second unit

The numbers for Morris and Beasley have been alarming as well, and one of the reasons is the heightened attention they have received as ball handlers. Against Golden State, Morris was shadowed by Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala for much of his two stints on the floor. When two of Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles, and Juancho Hernangomez are on the floor at the same time, Morris becomes the primary ball handler in nearly every set. Defenses are making his life hell, and he doesn’t have the handling support or shooting around him to compensate for that.

Get all the way to the rim

Whether the Nuggets need some new actions to create easier looks or the players need to execute those actions more effectively, the Nuggets simply have to be better at getting to the rim. The closer they get to the rim, the more efficient shots they generate, whether it be by their own hand or a kick out to the three-point line. Good offenses get to the rim or take threes. The Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets, and Golden State Warriors lead the NBA in shots per game from 25 to 29 feet. They have prioritized sets where they generate those shots, and so many of those looks begin by touching the paint first, being a threat to get to the rim.

Can the Nuggets recover? Time will tell, but the time they have left is running out.