Michael Malone has been the primary scapegoat when the Nuggets have come up short of a win this season. Of course, some of the players (more often than not Will Barton and Mason Plumlee) have also taken some of the blame by Nuggets’ fans but who’s really to blame? I have consistently been monitoring the Nuggets rotations and how certain players play with their peers.
Players like Malik Beasley energize the entire team after good plays which usually leads to more emphasis on defense and a willingness to pass on offense. Although some players might not manufacture impressive individual stats, them being on the court helps the team on its own. Wilson Chandler is having one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, yet he consistently helps the team win. Plus and minus might not be the most telling stat but it helps you at least begin to decipher which players improve the team and which players don’t.
Devin Harris, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray lead the team in real plus and minus. Devin Harris has only played 2 games with the team and is already making an impact that their previous backup point guard hasn’t.
Bad Apple Sent to the Madison Square Garden
I’d like to start by saying I have had a long time bias towards Mudiay and consistently put him above D’Angelo Russell in every ranking I ever did. Disregarding every stat that said Mudiay negatively impacted the team and players around him, I was blinded by his “potential.” That is not to say I do not believe he doesn’t have a chance to turn his career around. This video via 3Ball.io shows Mudiay’s improved shooting motion in which he removed a hitch that has hindered his shot since his rookie season.
Recently traded Emmanuel Mudiay has been a negative impact player his entire career (albeit an extremely short one thus far). He has improved his individual stats this season, shooting-wise but his team oriented stats have either been stagnant or have decreased since his rookie season. Muddily was the worst shooting rotational guard his rookie season holding a true shooting percentage of 43.7% and recorded a plus and minus of -1.7. He has upped his TS% to 49.9% this season (an impressive feat) but is still a negative (-3.3) while on the court. It is difficult to understand why a young guard who is currently shooting well negatively impacts his team. The answer is the rotations, so I will break down some of the Nuggets’ better rotations and some of their worst.
The Denver Nuggets Introduce “The Core”
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic have been dubbed as “The Core” by Nuggets’ fans all over Twitter. The Nuggets youngsters are the best amongst trios on the Nuggets who have played at least 5 games together at scoring, rebounding and passing. The chemistry between the 3 of them has only gotten stronger as the season has gone on. Compared to the Portland Trailblazer’s trio of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, “The Core” is scoring 5 more points in .7 more minutes and doing so at a 2% better rate. The Nugget’s trio has also outscored their opponents by 1.8 more points. In games that all 3 have shared the court, the Nuggets are 26-19 this season while the Blazer’s stand at 24-22.
Nuggets Star Shooting Guard Gary Harris
The Nuggets’ unsung hero since last season has been Gary Harris. James Holas has been singing his praises (whilst unjustly downplaying Jokic’s) since the summer. On December 15th of 2016, Nikola Jokic turned the Nuggets offense into a top 5 offense in the NBA for the season.
Wild that the "OMG look at DEN when Jokic became the starter" crowd don't mention that Gary Harris came back healthy on that exact same day.
— James Holas (@SnottieDrippen) August 10, 2017
What most fans don’t realize is that at the same time, Gary Harris came back from injury. After a 16 game hiatus, Harris came back on December 15th of 2016 and scored 18 points. He also grabbed 4 rebounds and had 5 assists and 2 steals as he ended the game a +13.
Harris is one of the most important players on a Nuggets team that lacks experience. While he leads the team with 34.8 mpg this season, they score 78.8 points per game in those minutes. The 6’4″ guard is a pest on the perimeter and he sets the tone defensively more than just about every Nugget not named Paul Millsap. Harris has expanded his offensive repertoire as he’s been more of a threat off the dribble. He has increased his dribble pull ups by more than 10% and is connecting on nearly 10% more of them than last year.
Roughly 55% of Harris’ shot attempts came without dribbling last season and that number has dropped to 42.7%. Although he has been creating more offense for himself and the team this season, there hasn’t been an alarming drop in his efficiency. Amongst starting guards who have played at least 40 games so far this season, Harris is 4th in effective field goal percentage with 56.9%.
It isn’t a coincidence that Harris has been dubbed one of their most important players and has constantly gotten praise from his backcourt mates.
Will Barton Should Have Been A Starter
Malone is not getting enough praise for his decision to start Barton. In 22 games this season where he has started, Barton is averaging more minutes, points, rebounds and assists while increasing his efficiency. He went from a -1.4 as the sixth-man to a +3.9 as a starter. Barton is shooting nearly 5% better from the field and nearly 6% from the three point line. 6 games into February, Barton is averaging 18.2 points per game while on the season he’s only averaging 14.6 points per game.
Barton could sometimes get into “hero” mode when he’s the best player on the court which leads to tunnel vision. He’s a perfect complimentary piece to the Nuggets’ best players where he feeds off of their attention and plays secondary point guard to help Murray find shots off of screens.
Paul Millsap is the X-Factor
Fans are wrongfully forgetting the Nuggets biggest acquisition of the decade via free agency. Matt Moore of The Action Network recently brought the fact that the Nuggets are performing well with one of their most impactful players out due to injury to my attention with a recent tweet.
Every now and again it hits me that the Nuggets are four games over.500 after missing Millsap for two months in a brutal Western Conference and usually their games are 60/40 other team's fans and local radio goes out of its way to say the team is irrelevant.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) February 14, 2018
Millsap is in the Nuggets best rotation of the season and he has only played in 15 contests this season. Per 100 possessions, Millsap was a positive with players he has played at least 120 minutes alongside. Theres no telling what the Nuggets’ lineups will look like once he returns but with a little time to gel, the team could reap the benefits of their $90M man. He fits with Nikola Jokic due to his ability to stretch the floor although they must still figure out when two step out and when to play the paint while sharing the court.
Another reason for fans to be excited about Paul Millsap’s return is his play with the Nuggets’ young guard Gary Harris. They were a low turnover – high efficiency duo as they shared the court while outscoring the opponents by a total of 7.2 points per 100 possessions.
In this video by 3Ball.io, we see Millsap get the offensive rebound and step back for a slightly contest 3 pointer which he nails.
Last but not Least – Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic is the Denver Nuggets’ best player. It shouldn’t be a surprise the Nuggets are better with him on the court. It might be a surprise that Nikola Jokic has played best alongside Paul Millsap. Denver is outscoring its opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions while the duo shares the court. Mason Plumlee would be the next best running mate for Jokic as they outscore their opponents by 6.5 points per game. Jokic holds the best plus minus of the team at 3.4 while the Nuggets shoot 5% better from the field while he’s on it.
5-Men Lineups that Include Jokic
I began scouting Jokic by digging into the Nuggets’ best lineups that include their big man and found something quiet interesting. Nikola Jokic being placed strictly at center has been something everyone has been asking for but Malone has time after time placed him at power forward next to Mason Plumlee. The Nuggets have 23 five men lineups that include Jokic and that have played at least 25 possessions throughout the whole season. Jokic has played center only in 17 of the 23 lineups. The Nuggets’ top 3 lineups feature Jokic at center while he mans the paint with Paul Millsap in the top-2 and is surrounded by Wilson Chandler, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton in the 3rd best lineup.
Other interesting statistics from the Nuggets’ 23 lineups are Will Barton being the 2nd most used player as he has played in all but 6 of the 23 lineups and Harris and Murray following up with 14 appearances. Malone’s rotations have progressively gotten better and when Millsap comes back, it will be interesting to see if the trend continues.
Nuggets’ Best Lineup
Their best lineup features Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. They have a total of 224.3 minutes together and have a total net rating of +48. The lineup is shooting 48.5% from the field and 37.8% from the 3pt line. Being efficient from the 3 point line allows for Malone to get creative on offense and play a spread out offense which gives Jokic more room to operate. This groups assists to turnover ratio is 1.90 while their second best lineup’s is 1.57. It is obvious that after Millsap went down, the Nuggets have been a little inconsistent with their lineups. The aforementioned lineup played 224 minutes in 14 games while the next most used lineup has only played 169 minutes in 15 games.