The Denver Nuggets had a record of 1-4 after January 1st. Michael Porter Jr. was forced to deal with Covid-19 health and safety protocols for a few weeks. Gary Harris was shooting poorly from three-point range. Things were not looking good to start the season, perhaps the worst start to any season of the Michael Malone era.

And then, things suddenly weren’t that bad. After an 11-5 month of January that has seen the Nuggets right the ship and Nikola Jokić solidify his MVP candidacy, it’s fair to wonder just how the Nuggets have managed to do it.

Let’s talk about the how and why:

  1. Solidifying the bench unit
  2. 5th in offensive rating, 10th in defensive rating, 3rd in net rating
  3. Quality shooting at every position

Solidifying the bench unit

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the Denver Nuggets starting unit this season, given the presence of Porter and the ramifications his development has on the future of the team. Though Porter hasn’t truly figured things out yet on either side of the ball, he has been impactful in a bench role since returning from health and safety protocols, averaging 24.3 minutes, 14.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and an absurd 70.5 True Shooting % in six games.

However, when discussing the bench unit, the conversation should always begin with Monte Morris, the point guard that stabilizes everything the Nuggets do. Morris’ numbers don’t stand out as wild anymore (10.4 points, 3.4 assists, 0.6 turnovers per game) but he’s clearly having a positive impact on the team when he’s on the floor. At a +102 raw plus-minus in 412 minutes and a +11.6 Net Rating, Morris has made strides as the all-around impactful guard the Nuggets have needed coming off their bench. When the bench unit needs a boost, he sets the table for everything. When the Nuggets need a big-time shot, Morris has delivered. When the Nuggets just need someone to fit in during crunch time and play low-mistake basketball, is there a player in the NBA that makes fewer mistakes than Monte Morris? I doubt it.

In addition, JaMychal Green has made an elite impact of his own on both ends of the floor. Operating as both a backup power forward for Paul Millsap next to Jokić and as the backup center when Jokić sits, Green has one of the most important roles on the team. The team needs Green to be the greatest facsimile of Jokić he can possibly be, and the way he has shot the ball and rebounded at center. Green has put together 55.9% three-point shooting, 73.2% true shooting on a 24.8% usage rate, and a 22.2% defensive rebounding rate in the minutes without Jokić or Hartenstein on the court (i.e. as the back center). When Jokić and Green are on the floor together, Green adapts his game, averaging just a 12.7% usage rate and taking a backseat offensively. His ability to adapt is why he’s a great role player.

Finally, Facundo Campazzo, PJ Dozier, and Isaiah Hartenstein have each had their moments, with R.J. Hampton and Bol Bol occasionally subbing in to provide some energizing minutes. Hartenstein leads the team in net rating in January. Campazzo is second and has actually played significant minutes during that stretch, moving the ball with a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio and playing well on both ends. Dozier in particular has been the Swiss army knife Denver has needed, though an injury against the Miami Heat has knocked him out of the rotation for the last couple of games.

Improved Defense

Michael Malone hounds on it consistently, probably because it’s true. When the Nuggets defend well, they generally win. During the month of January, the Nuggets had the 10th best defensive rating in the NBA, adding to the fifth highest offensive rating to form a +6.9 net rating, good for third in the NBA behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz.

The offense has always come easy for Denver, but the defense is where things get dicey. After losing Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig, two wing-sized players to match up with the top players in the NBA, there were major defensive concerns. Those concerns still exist against certain teams; however, those teams (and capable players) are few and far between. Among their 16 games in January, the Nuggets only played four games against teams with a scoring or playmaking wing to be seriously concerned about: Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks twice, Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets, and DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs. Denver went 1-3 in those games and 10-2 in all others.

Against all guard opponents other than Chris Paul, the Nuggets have found a way to defend. The trio of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton has been good enough defensively to exchange assignments, read the court, and make defensive plays on the perimeter, while Nikola Jokić has made a serious impact defensively in the passing lanes. Jokić led the entire NBA in total steals in the month of January, underscoring just how impact he is as a defender in clutch situations by getting his hands in passing lanes. This one taken from Cameron Payne in the clutch is just beautiful a bait and switch tactic.

When the starters are off the floor, lineups with Morris, Dozier, Green, and Campazzo have actually been great defensively. With Hartenstein on the floor as a true big, Denver has maintained an 88.5 defensive rating in 46 minutes. Sub in Porter for Hartenstein to add more spacing and offensive burst, and the defensive rating still stays at 98.0 in 24 minutes. It’s a small sample size, but Denver maintaining strong defense with Jokić and the starters off the floor has been a big deal, keeping games close for the most part and extending a lead in others.

Quality Shooting

Sometimes, solutions can be very simple, and one number stands out above the others when discussing what the Nuggets have improved upon in the last month: three-point shooting.

Among the 11 players that spent the most time in the rotation this past month, all shot at least 34.8% from three-point range in January. Jamal Murray, the player with probably the highest level of three-point gravity on the roster outside of Porter, shot the lowest three-point percentage in the regular rotation. Everyone else shot an average or above average percentage:

  • Jamal Murray — 32-of-92, 34.8%
  • Gary Harris — 21-of-55, 38.2%
  • Will Barton — 27-of-67, 40.2%
  • Paul Millsap — 17-of-45, 37.8%
  • Nikola Jokić — 24-of-63, 38.1%
  • Monte Morris — 19-of-54, 35.2%
  • JaMychal Green — 33-of-70, 47.1%
  • Michael Porter Jr. — 16-of-28, 57.1%
  • Facundo Campazzo — 15-of-39, 38.5%
  • PJ Dozier — 12-of-32, 37.5%

Sometimes, it can be as easy as spreading the floor with competent three-point shooting and making shots. Only two players were significantly above their career averages (Green and Porter) but the thing that stands out is a lack of shooting weakness overall. The heavy minutes for a non-shooting backup center like Mason Plumlee are gone. Isaiah Hartenstein doesn’t shoot threes either, but he only averaged 8.8 minutes per game during the month anyway. Torrey Craig isn’t playing heavy minutes and clogging up everything Denver does either.

Beyond all that, the real turnaround has been Gary Harris. After shooting 17.6% from three-point range in the four December games, it was Harris who righted the ship the most. He went from liability to strength in the matter of a month and deserves credit for staying the course. He will go through up and down months, but it’s notable that he is shooting the ball as confidently as anyone not named Mike right now. The adductor strain came at an extremely inopportune time. Let’s hope it’s something Harris can recover from and get over because a healthy, confident Harris makes things easier for the rest of the team.

The improvements in Denver have been all-encompassing. Though there was no need to panic after a 1-3 December, the team has come together around an MVP-caliber season from Jokić and turned a bad start into an important reminder. When the entire team plays well, the Nuggets can still do some incredible things despite issues with their personnel. PJ Dozier and Gary Harris may be out for several games, so Denver will have to rely on their depth at the guard spots and make sure a strong month can develop into a strong season.

I have my concerns, but for now, it’s important to recognize that Denver can still do some incredible things. Denver ranked 29th in defensive rating in December and improved that to 10th in January. They haven’t even hit their full stride offensively, though a 129.3 offensive rating against the Utah Jazz on Sunday was a great way to cap off a strong month.

Let’s see whether Denver can build on their success rather than plateau.