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The Denver Nuggets’ starting five has the chance to make sweet music together in 2018-19. By swapping Will Barton for Wilson Chandler on the wing, the Nuggets are surrounding Nikola Jokic with three guards in Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Barton who can all pass, shoot and dribble. Their collection of skills, plus a Paul Millsap who’s had a season to acclimate to Jokic’s improvisational style, means the Nuggets could harmonize to make “At Fillmore East” on the offensive end.
The Murray-Harris-Barton-Millsap-Jokic lineup only logged 65 minutes together last season, but the results were impressive in that brief amount of time. The Nuggets lit opponents up for 124.7 points per 100 possessions. There was too much speed and skill to keep up with.
After finishing fifth and sixth in offensive rating the last two years, Denver has the potential to be the top offense in basketball. A lot has to break right for that to happen, of course. The Nuggets need to avoid any catastrophic injuries; they need head coach Michael Malone to strike the right balance between calling plays and letting his team riff; and they’ll need some individual improvement. But that’s the ceiling.
To further examine what makes the Nuggets so dangerous offensively, I’ve selected one number for each member of the starting group to help explain their game. The hope is that figure gets at the essence of who that player is on the offensive end. Tim Connelly, Arturas Karnisovas and Co. have assembled a unique collection of talent through the draft (Murray, Harris and Jokic), trades (Barton) and free agency (Millsap). There’s a chance it coalesces into something special this season.
There were 2.8 seconds remaining, and Jamal Murray had to get all three to go down. On April 1, the Nuggets faced the Milwaukee Bucks in a game they desperately needed to win to stay competitive in the playoff race. They were on the verge of completing a wild comeback and forcing overtime — as long as Murray could sink three consecutive free throws.
“No pressure,” Murray said after going 3-for-3 and helping his team win in overtime. “It’s my favorite shot in the history of basketball. I talk about meditation and being calm and composed and all of that. I couldn’t wait to go up to the line and hit them. So I did just that.”
It turns out having a picture perfect stroke and nerves of steel are ingredients for success at the free throw line. Last season, Murray shot 90.5 percent from the charity stripe — the fifth-best mark in basketball. He became the first player 20 years old or younger to shoot above 90 percent (minimum 100 attempts).
Murray prides himself on being mentally tough. As a kid, Murray’s father, Roger, taught him breathing techniques and the importance of visualizing success. Murray meditates regularly to this day. His approach is working. Murray was one of the Nuggets’ most dependable players in big moments last season. He tied for the team lead in clutch scoring (last five minutes of the game, score within five).
Murray believes in his bones he’s going to deliver under duress. One of the first questions he got after the Milwaukee game had to do with pressure: did he feel it up there with the season hanging in the balance?
“What am I shooting from the line?” Murray asked. It was a rhetorical question.
Gary Harris is one of the NBA’s best finishers around the basket, but being efficient wasn’t enough to prevent him from getting roasted by teammate Richard Jefferson last winter.
“Gary Harris dunks like a 1970s big man,” Jefferson joked on an episode of the Road Trippin’ Podcast. “He jumps out of the gym, but never catches no bodies. How do you not catch bodies?”
A lack of pizzaz is perhaps part of what’s kept Harris from getting his due nationally, but those who’ve watched him closely the last two seasons know the Nuggets employ one of basketball’s best shooting guards in their back court. Harris is a dead-eye three-point shooter. He’s also one of the league’s elite scorers around the cup. The 23-year-old converted 69 percent of his looks from 4 feet and in last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, an almost LeBronian rate.
Harris’ ability to overpower opponents at 6-foot-4 is impressive. He’s hard to slow once he builds up a head of steam and lowers his shoulder. His football background shines through in those moments.
“I think you have to remember that he is a former All-American high school football player,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said in January. “He could’ve gone anywhere in the country to play football. He’s not going to shy away from contact. He’s a tremendous athlete. And he’s got really big hands. He’s able to absorb the hit and still finish. His finishing — when he gets going to his right hand downhill, good things usually happen.”
There was a time in Will Barton’s life when he was unsure if he’d stick in the NBA. Barton believed he had the talent, and he knew he put the work in. There just wasn’t much opportunity for him to get on the court with such a crowded back court rotation in Portland. His fortunes changed in February 2015 with a trade to Denver. Barton went to a place where he could grow.
Fast-forward three and a half years and Barton is in line to become a starter on a team with 50-win aspirations. Barton has become so much more than just a slasher in Denver. In 2016-17, Barton shot a career-high 37 percent from three-point land on 3.9 attempts per game. He followed that up in 2017-18 by going 37 percent on 5.2 deep balls per game.
Barton doesn’t have the prettiest form, but his shot falls consistently — a testament to the hours he’s put in.
“The man puts in the work,” Harris said after Barton scored 25 points in a win over Golden State in February. “He deserves everything he gets. He’s just going to keep coming at you. That’s what he does. He makes big plays.”
Developing a reliable three-point stroke has created driving lanes for Barton that didn’t used to exist. And there’s reason to believe he could shoot a career high from behind the arc again in 2018-19. Barton should get even more minutes next to Jokic because they’ll be in the starting lineup together. Last year, Barton knocked down 39.5 percent of his threes when he shared the floor with Jokic. That number dipped to 33.3 percent when Jokic sat.
Paul Millsap was coming off four straight All-Star appearances when he signed a three-year, $90 million deal with the Nuggets in July 2017. It would’ve been hard to fault him for wanting to come in and seize the reins to Denver’s offense. Most of his teammates were a decade younger and far less accomplished. Instead, Millsap saw Denver already had something special brewing, so he tried to fit in instead of demanding others fit around him.
There were kinks that needed to be worked out, sure. But as the season wore on, Millsap ceded control of the offense to Jokic because he noticed the Nuggets were at their best when things flowed through their Serbian center.
“He’s such a humble guy that sometimes he looks for me to do things, and it’s him,” Millsap said in March. “He’s our team. He makes a lot of things go for us, so he’s got to continue to stay aggressive. I’m here to help him and back him in any way possible.”
Millsap attempted 11.4 field goals per game, his fewest shots per contest since the 2012-13 season. Jokic, Harris, Murray and Barton all averaged more looks than him. Millsap didn’t seem to mind. He picked his spots and spent most of his time and energy trying to turn Denver into something more formidable than a turnstile on the defensive end.
Millsap, who’s coming off a left wrist injury that limited him to just 38 games last season, figures to be the fifth option in Denver’s starting lineup. He’s still got plenty of juice when healthy; a 36-point game against the Thunder in March was proof of that. But there are only so many shots to go around. Millsap will likely have to sacrifice.
Many players claim to care about winning above all else. When Millsap says he does, you don’t doubt him for a second.
On the rare occasions when Nikola Jokic dunks, Nuggets coach Michael Malone likes to joke that it’s cause for celebration. “Everybody in the crowd should get a free hot dog when that happens,” Malone said in February.
If that were the case, the Kroenkes wouldn’t have to dig to deep to foot the bill for complimentary dogs. Jokic recorded only eight dunks all year.
Jokic is soft around the edges and can barely jump over a deck of cards, yet he somehow became the sixth player ever to average 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in a season. You might have heard of the other guys on the list: Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett and Russell Westbrook.
Jokic’s ability to anticipate plays before they happen help him make up for some of his deficiencies. So does his otherworldly hand-eye coordination.
“I think he has the best hands I’ve ever seen in terms of touch around the rim, how soft his runners are, how soft his shooting is coupled with his passing,” Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas said. “We watch him in practice every day. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
This winter, Jokic began relying on a funky looking wrong-footed fadeaway shot because he was still dealing with the lingering effects of a sprained ankle.
Imagine pulling off a more difficult version of Dirk Nowitzki’s signature shot all because your ankle hurt.
Jokic’s unorthodox approach has powered the Nuggets to consecutive finishes in the top six in offensive rating. This year, with all the pieces around him in place, he could lead Denver to even greater heights.