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Here's what you've missed from the first two months of the Nuggets' season

Harrison Wind Avatar
December 25, 2019

The Nuggets’ regular season tipped off on Oct. 23 but it’s said the season doesn’t really start until Christmas.

So if you haven’t kept up with the Nuggets until now, don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.

The Nuggets are 21-8 heading into their Christmas Day matchup with the Pelicans (8-23) who are still without No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. Denver sits second in the West behind the Lakers who they beat by 24 points last week (the Lakers were without LeBron James in that matchup). The Nuggets have the second-best defense in the league and after struggling out of the gate on offense, Denver’s attack is up to 13th overall. Michael Malone also got a tattoo of Nikola Jokic’s face on his shoulder.

OK. That last part never happened. But everything else is did.

Here’s what else you need to know from the Nuggets’ first 29 games of the season.

Jokic looks like an All-Star again

If you compare Nikola Jokic’s stat line after 29 games to his averages from last season’s campaign which landed the All-NBA big man in fourth place on the Most Valuable Player ballot, you’d see a bit of a drop off. Jokic’s efficiency has dipped slightly and he’s averaging slightly less assists and nearly three less points per game than he did in 2018-19.

So what happened?

Jokic suffered through the worst offensive slump of his career earlier this season. He scored in single-digits in three-straight games at the end of November and averaged just nine points per game over Denver’s four matchups spanning from Nov. 24 through Dec. 3.

Standing in front of his locker following the Nuggets’ fourth game of that stretch — a nine-point loss to the Lakers — Jokic spoke with honesty. He said he was in a slump, something that the All-Star has rarely experienced throughout his career, but since then he’s been lights out on that end of the floor.

“I’m struggling right now,” Jokic said that night. “I cannot make shots. So it is what it is. Even when I’m not making shots I think I can affect the game in other ways.”

Over Jokic’s last 10 games excluding the Nuggets’ win over the Knicks where Denver won by 37 and didn’t need Jokic’s offense (Jokic scored six points in 25 minutes) he’s averaging 22.2 points on 55.1% shooting from the field, 42.6% from three-point range, 10 rebounds, and 8.1 assists per game. He’s been dominant over the last month, captaining the Nuggets on their current seven-game winning streak.

Jokic has also been clutch. Very clutch. He’s been THE most clutch player in the league this season. Jokic already has two game-winners this year which came in back-to-back games in November and is shooting an NBA-best 66.7% in clutch situations — when the differential is five points or less with five minutes or less remaining. He also has two 16-point 4th quarters to help fuel come-from-behind victories.

Led by Gary Harris, Denver’s defense is for real. Again.

It was a fun topic to banter throughout the offseason and in the months leading up to training camp: would the Nuggets’ defense be able to replicate last season’s top-10 performance. The answer after a third of the regular season is a resounding yes.

The Nuggets have the second-best defense in the league through 29 games and are holding their opponent to an average of 103.5 points per 100 possessions. The Nuggets are actually playing better defense this year than they did last season at this point in the calendar. Through 29 games last year they allowed 104.2 points per 100 possessions, which was the fourth-best mark in the league.

Denver’s defense has been led by Gary Harris. His teammates have been calling him “First Team” in reference to the First Team All-Defense spot Harris is coveting and so far he’s lived up to the nickname. Here are just a few of Harris’ defensive feats this year.

  • Held Devin Booker to 13.7 points on 30.4% shooting from the field and 14.3% from 3 in three matchups.
  • Held Luka Doncic to a season-low 12 points on 3 of 12 shooting
  • Helped hold James Harden to 27 points, which is tied for his third-lowest point total this season.
  • Held Buddy Hield to 21 points on 7 of 20 shooting.
  • Held Bradley Beal to 14 points on 6 of 15 shooting.
  • Harris is averaging 1.3 steals per game, slightly down from the 1.8 he averaged a season ago but has nine takeaways over his last three games including four against Booker and the Suns on Monday.
  • Harris holds the fourth-best Defensive Field Goal% in the league (out of players who have defender at least 200 shots, per NBA.com. Opponents are shooting just 36.6% against Harris this season

Paul Millsap has been his usual self on the defensive end this year too. Jamal Murray has been a better defender than he was his rookie season, and Will Barton has also stood out on that end of the floor. Barton currently ranks fifth overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus statistic.

The bench has been bad — and gives up the big leads

While the Nuggets’ starting group has been phenomenal, Denver’s bench has struggled all season. The Murray-Harris-Barton-Millsap-Jokic five has played by far the most minutes out of any lineup in the NBA and has been stellar, posting a +14.5 Net Rating in 509 minutes this season. And they’ve routinely handed Denver’s bench significant leads which the second unit hasn’t been able to hold.

Against Phoenix, the Nuggets’ starters handed their bench a double-digit lead that was down to five by the time Jokic checked back in midway through the second quarter. Denver had another 10-point lead later on in the third before Phoenix closed to within one point at the end of the quarter and eventually took the lead early in the fourth against the Nuggets’ bench.

Malik Beasley has been up-and-down (mostly up as of late) but hasn’t been a constant in the rotation and is likely to be dealt prior to the Feb. 6 trade deadline. Beasley is likely to garner more money as a restricted free agent this summer than Denver can afford so the Nuggets would be wise to move off of him. Monte Morris’ field goal percentage has dropped from 49.3% last season to 42.9% this year. Mason Plumlee and newcomer Jerami Grant, who started out poorly from distance but has since raised his three-point shooting percentage above 40%, have been solid. Torrey Craig has come up big for Denver at times this season, like in the Nuggets’ marquee win at home over the Rockets, but has been riding the bench as of late. So has Juancho Hernangomez who is another likely trade candidate as the deadline approaches.

Malone tried to run with an all-bench unit early in the season which didn’t work and has since gone to bench groupings that mix some of his starters in with his second team. Nothing has given the Nuggets the consistent play they enjoyed from the bench a season ago.

MPJ has flashed but hasn’t played a ton

The Michael Porter Jr. hype train has certainly slowed from how quickly it was moving this summer. Porter has appeared in 20 of the Nuggets’ 29 games and is averaging 8.7 minutes per contest. He’s flashed, and his length and natural shot-making ability has jumped off the screen. Porter’s been aggressive on the offensive glass, averaging 3.5 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes, and has thrived at times as an off-ball mover in the Nuggets’ read-and-react offense. It looks as if he has a natural chemistry with Jokic in the two-man game.

So far he’s been bad as a jump-shooter. Porter is shooting just 14 of 44 on shots outside of five feet this season and is 8 of 25 (32%) from 3. It’s a small sample size and inconsistent shooting is expected out of any rookie but he’s struggled. He has a lot of work to do in terms of getting up to speed with the NBA game and NBA terminology. Porter said a couple weeks ago that he’s not fully versed in the Nuggets’ playbook yet and when he was subbed in at power forward recently he didn’t have the plays down like he should.

The defensive end of the floor is still where Porter needs to improve the most. NBA defense is incredibly nuanced and complicated and its been a steep learning curve for the rookie so far.

Over the Nuggets’ seven-game winning streak Malone has been deploying Porter in the first quarter. He typically gets a few possessions alongside Denver’s starters with Grant at power forward before playing with a mostly-bench lineup. Porter’s playing time in the second half comes down to game flow. If the score is close or if the Nuggets are trailing Porter may not play the rest of the night.

That’s life for a rookie on a Western Conference contender that’s among the deepest teams in the league and pushing for a top playoff seed. Porter’s potential is obvious and the fact that he’s been durable even in sparse minutes is a positive considering his injury history. Perhaps a trade deadline deal opens up more minutes for him on the wing over the next couple of months. That would seem to be Porter’s most promising path towards more playing time.

Will Barton has silenced his doubters

Barton had a season to forget last year. He hurt his hip/core in the Nuggets’ second game of the season, underwent surgery, and missed the next three months. Barton returned in January but was never himself. He got booed at home in the playoffs during the Nuggets’ first-round series against the Spurs.

But Barton is back and he’s playing the best basketball of his career. Barton’s averaging career-highs in field goal percentage (45.6), three-point percentage (40.4), rebounds (7.0), and steals (1.2), and he’s teamed with the Nuggets’ second unit to help Denver’s bench string together a few positive stretches this season. Barton is also averaging a team-high 32.9 minutes per game.

Before Jokic emerged from his November swoon, Barton had been Denver’s most-consistent two-way player. He’s been instrumental to the Nuggets’ early-season success.

Other things you want to know

  • With Isaiah Thomas gone, the Nuggets’ locker room needed a lead voice, and Murray has taken it upon himself to fill that role. He’s been vocal, both on the court and in the locker room. He’s just 22-year-old but wants the responsibility that comes with the $170 million contract he signed last summer. Murray has also been hot as of late on the court, scoring 28 or more points in three of his last four games.
  • Paul Millsap is shooting a career-high 46.9%(!) from 3 this season on 2.4 attempts per game. All of those extra shooting reps during the offseason are paying off.
  • Second-round pick Bol Bol has been feasting in the G League. Bol’s averaging 12 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.1 block in 19.3 minutes across eight games for the Windy City Bulls this season. The 7-foot-2 center isn’t expected to play significant minutes for the Nuggets this year but Denver is excited about the level that he’s playing at and and also how he’s approached his first professional season.
  • Nuggets two-way player PJ Dozier is having a solid season in the G League too. Dozier just earned G League Player of the Week honors and has played with Bol with Windy City. Dozer is a 6-foot-5 lead guard with size, length, a good feel for the game, and a developing three-point shot.

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