After a much-discussed rough week watching the Timberwolves, we’re changing speeds a bit this time around and taking a look at a team that’s actually moving in the right direction. At 16-10, the Denver Nuggets currently sit in third place out West, trailing the top-seeded Pelicans by just two games. Despite a slow pace, Denver is home to a top-four offense in basketball (and a bottom-five defense), the NBA’s second-best eFG%, and the reigning two-time MVP. Let’s start with him.
Having never had the pleasure of rostering Jokic, I suppose I can muster the tiniest bit of sympathy for those who took him with the first overall pick but are now feeling a bit let down in Jokic’s inability to hold the crown for three years running. Indeed, the two-time MVP has not returned value from 1.1, but it’s still really not all that bad. Currently the sixth-best 9-cat player according to basketballmonster.com, Jokic has taken a small step back from having the best stat set in basketball and is now settling for a line that is merely phenomenal. Output is down from consecutive MVP levels, but the overall production remains so high that at worst we can call burning the first pick on him a nice problem to have.
Jokic’s usage is down from 29+% over the last two seasons to a still meaty 27% this year. Minutes have dipped too, down to 32.5 from 33.5 and 34.6 in campaigns prior. Considering the return to form from Jamal Murray and the overall workload of the past two seasons, the downshift for Jokic makes too much real basketball sense to anticipate a third consecutive season atop the player rater.
The dip in PT and usage explain the drop in scoring for Joker (now 23.8 points per game after previously putting up 27.1 and 26.4 as the MVP), but the decline in rebounds and steals has been more impactful. Last year’s 13.7 boards were a massive boon — only Rudy Gobert’s 14.7 was more valuable — while this year’s output of 10.1 puts Nikola just outside the top ten in the category. Steals too have ticked down from their Jrue-esque 1.5 per game peak to the more pedestrian level of 1.2 this season. Triples, which have always been somewhat hollow, and free throw rate has also ticked down, but it’s the glasswork and thievery that are keeping him off the pedestal this time around.
The dimes, which are actually up to a career-high 9.1, are more plentiful now than ever. Jokic is handing out more helpers than everyone in basketball not named Harden, Haliburton, or Young. Field goal percentage (and True Shooting) also have never been higher, and there’s been no schematic change implemented to fret over. The Nuggets play at Jokic speed (the fourth-slowest pace in basketball) and have the fourth-highest assist rate across the league — he’s still very much the hub here. There will be hit aheads (often thrown by Joker) on occasion, but for the most part, the offense runs through Jokic DHOs and screens set around and above the nail. As long as he’s on the floor, Nikola is a whole offense on his own.
When will he be right? Coming into the season, that was the only pertinent question to ask about Jamal Murray. With almost a third of the season in the books, it seems safe to say that he’s getting pretty close. Some important hurdles have been cleared and a significant few remain.
The Good News: a vital step, that Murray is playing more or less without restriction, has been taken. Denver hasn’t played a back-to-back since late November (Murray sat the second leg of those games) and it seems somewhat likely that coach Michael Malone and Denver medical staff will hold him out in those circumstances, that might be the only restriction that remains on his playing time. He’ll show up on the injury report periodically, but he’s played 30+ minutes in all but one contest – a blowout of the Rockets a few weeks back – since early November. Minutes per game, presently sitting at 30.4, are ratcheting up to pre-injury levels and the stats are starting to follow as well. There’s conditioning to do still. Jamal’s late game laboring this week (which saw him logging 30, 35, and 36 minutes over a five-night stretch) was obvious enough that the Denver broadcast team was compelled to point it out. In general, there’s still a bit of room to grow.
On the surface, there are some obvious deficiencies in his line, namely scoring. This year’s 18.3 points per game are reminiscent of the pre-breakout output of the ’18-19 and ’19-20 campaigns, and the shooting percentages those points are built on explain why the scoring hasn’t come back yet. This year’s 44.3/35.6/78.6 splits are uniformly below career averages, and this week’s efforts produced a bit of a mixed bag from an efficiency standpoint. Murray went a combined 10/32 against Dallas and Portland; 13/19 against Utah. The important thing is that he’s compelled and comfortable in getting those shots off. At 27.2%, Murray’s usage rate has never been higher.
After watching the 51 shots he got off this week, it’s clear where he’s gotten comfortable and what still needs some polish. The midrange jumper, often accompanied by a flurry of fakes, pivots, and feints, is a comfortable spot for him once again. Murray’s midrange efficiency has been in the 73rd percentile or better for four years running, and while this year’s mark currently puts him in the 60th percentile, this week often demonstrated why he’s such a threat from that distance. After struggling for much of the night against the Trail Blazers, it was a fallaway midrange jay that he went to in crunch time prior to the stepback three that won it. He’s got some of the mojo working again.
Always more of a shotmaker than an explosive and effortless finisher, Murray’s ability to convert at the rim still has a ways to go. The 2020-21 season that prefaced the ACL tear had been a breakthrough for Jamal in terms of converting close to the hoop. After languishing around a 60% conversion rate (or worse), Murray was able to put away 68% of his attempts at the cup before the injury, good enough for the 84th percentile – a killer mark for a guard. Back down to 55% now, it’s been much tougher sledding this season. The explosiveness, or perhaps just the belief in his own burst, hasn’t fully reemerged, and given his comfort and talents in the midrange, I wouldn’t expect him to morph into Giannis overnight. My guess is the threes will start to come back around the same time his wind does – ditto his free throw percentage, which currently is a career-worst 78.6% – but the top-tier production at the hoop might not show up until the very end of the ramp up. It’s coming, just maybe not soon.
The rest of the line, especially the 5.1 assists (a career-high) and 3.7 boards, speaks to how far he’s already traveled on this comeback trail. A rebound in scoring will help power Murray into the top 80, but a key factor for his fantasy value is tied to his steals. He’ll never be confused with Dejounte Murray and his ilk, but the most productive version of Murray rips more than a steal a game. At 0.9 per this year, we’re not quite there yet and the recent run of play hasn’t been especially successful in this area. The return of the defensive stats might lag behind even the rim scoring but tracking them should serve as a useful enough gauge for where we are in Murray’s resurgence.
There’s no other way to put it: In his ninth season as a professional and third year in Denver, 27-year-old Aaron Gordon is having a career year – especially on offense. After years of waiting on the breakout in Orlando as a number one option, Gordon has settled in as a third banana in Denver, aided in part by the absence of Michael Porter Jr. (stop me if you’ve heard that one before.) The scoring and rebounding – 16.7 points and 6.4 boards – are in the ballpark of his best seasons in the Magic Kingdom, but it’s his efficiency that’s vaulting him into top-80 production. AG’s 67.7% True Shooting rate is leaps and bounds above his career average of 54.8% and his previous career mark of 60.2% which he racked up last year.
How has he accomplished this massive step forward? By cutting out all the garbage in his shot diet and finally hitting threes at a league-average rate.
An explosive finisher who has found his ideal frontcourt partner in Jokic, Gordon is living at the rim. More than 52% of his FGA are from three feet and in and he’s finishing at an 80% clip. An outrageous 27.7% of his attempts are dunks, putting him on pace for more than 200 slams over a full season. Considering his athletic profile and his track record of turning in seasons of high efficiency at the rim — he’s finished at a 70% rate or better four times in ten seasons, including two straight years in Denver — I’m generally bullish on Gordon continuing to put in easy ones.
The three-point shooting, 38.5% at the time of writing, may tick down given the longer track record we have, but the underlying numbers offer some encouragement. For starters, AG is only attempting 2.8 triples per game and he’s almost never launching when there’s a defender in the area. Only 1.7% of his three-point attempts are being launched while a defender is within four feet, so the bad three has largely been edited out of his shot diet. Gordon lets fly with an “open” three-point attempt (where the nearest defender is between 4-6 feet away) 11.2% of the time and he’s currently hitting them at an admittedly unsustainable 48.1 percent. His “wide-open” threes (those taken 6+feet from the nearest defender) are going up 14% of the time and going down a 35.3% clip, a number that is both not too shabby and reasonably repeatable. The threes might regress some as the season goes on, but all he’s doing at the moment is knocking down the open ones being created for him. Considering the rest of his stat line is more or less what we’ve seen before, I’m not sure there are all that many reasons why this hot start can’t be sustained. Porter will make an impact eventually, we hope, but I think we should worry about how a healthy MPJ fits in when we see him. In the meantime, enjoy the found money of an Aaron Gordon breakout. We’ve certainly waited on it for long enough.
Lower Potency Nuggets
Bruce Brown, currently the 105th-best category player, is getting along just fine with his new home team. A defense and efficiency play primarily, Brown does a ton of little things well and his game is blending beautifully with Jokic in a similar fashion to how he played alongside Kevin Durant in Brooklyn a year ago. His role has grown in the absence of Porter Jr, but his high floor will keep him on the court and makes him an attractive plug-and-play option whenever an injury pops up. With steady steals and threes, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is who we thought he is. Swap the steals for dimes and you get a Bones Hyland. Murray’s resurgence caps the appeal for Hyland as a bench scorer, but his punch is needed at the moment. As for Porter Jr., he’s missed nine straight games with a heel injury, and getting an accurate timeline for his return is exceedingly challenging to find. In early December, Michael Malone said that he was without a timeframe, which is obviously bad news. Considering the investment made in their prized asset, it feels safe to assume there will be a long ramp-up for Porter Jr when he’s finally well enough to take the floor. Kind gloves could follow from there. If you have him, all you can do is stash and hope. Lastly, Christian Braun and Vlatko Cancar can both play a bit and should have jobs in the NBA, but they’re cannibalizing each other’s minutes at the moment and remain speculative or long-term plays only.