The Denver Nuggets are finding themselves.
It has been a rocky road and they are they nowhere near the end of their journey. But after a six-game losing streak that led into their season-long, 14-day, seven-game road trip, the Nuggets’ roster has come together and found a way to get back to winning.
Over its seven-game road trip, Denver managed to go 4-3 despite being without PJ Dozier, Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. — three of their six best players — while also missing three games from electrifying rookie Bones Hyland. The Nuggets secured wins over the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, New Orleans Pelicans, and the San Antonio Spurs and now find themselves at 13-13. Denver is just two losses behind the fourth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
While the Nuggets would much rather be in a better position after 26 games, they are unequivocally still in the hunt for home-court advantage in the playoffs. They are also discovering their way to pull that off thanks to their offense coming back to life despite the defensive falloff and the season-long bench struggles.
Denver’s reinvigorated offense
After a clunky start to the season scoring the basketball, Denver found its rhythm during its road trip. Now the offensive production is the reason it’s winning games.
Statistically speaking, the Nuggets defense is not the catalyst for their winning ways. Their defensive rating in losses and wins over the last seven games is only separated by 2.3 points. On the other hand, the 18.6 swing in offensive rating between wins and losses is significantly more dramatic. In wins, the Nuggets have a blistering 124 offensive rating. But in losses that number falls all the way to 105.4. That means so much of their offensive efficiency comes down to one overly obvious skill: making shots.
While that is a reductive statement — of course, offensive improvement directly correlates to made shots — it is still an important indicator for the Nuggets’ success. There is no worry about the level of production Nikola Jokic will bring to the team on any night, but beyond him the Nuggets’ lack of talent has hindered their success. Jokic receiving help from the rest of the roster; especially when he is not on the floor, is paramount to the Nuggets’ ability to win games. That is what makes Denver’s ability to make shots, in particular three-point shots, so important. And it has gotten a big boost from nearly everyone.
3-point shooting key to Nuggets offensive resurgence
Denver is shooting 39.9% from three-point range on 36.9 attempts per game over its seven-game road trip. Will Barton III is taking 7.3 attempts per game and converting 43.2% of those shots beyond the arc. Monte Morris is shooting just over 40% from deep on 5.3 attempts. Off the bench, Hyland is taking nearly six attempts per game and is shooting 43.5% on those looks; some of which are incredibly deep triples. Additionally, Facu Campazzo and Zeke Nnaji are shooting 44% and 53.5%, respectively, from beyond the arc during their time off the bench. Everyone is finding a way to contribute.
Because three-point shots are starting to fall, the Nuggets assist numbers are beginning to rise. That is always a strong indicator of offensive success for Denver, and any team. The Nuggets thrive when the ball is hopping, and that is why it is no coincidence that the Nuggets assist percentage of 68.5% is third in the NBA over the last seven games has intersected with their offensive improvement. The ball is no longer stagnant leading to tough isolation shots. Instead, they are getting opposing defenses scrambling earlier and creating open shots by moving the ball and using both sides of the floor.
Still, the foundation of the Nuggets’ offensive upswing is Jokic, who is averaging an absurd 26.7 points, 13.4 rebounds and nine assists per game throughout their seven-game road trip. To call him masterful would be to discredit his ability to push the barriers of what is possible on a basketball court. No one in the world has ever possessed Jokic’s combination of mind-numbingly efficient scoring and effortless playmaking. He is having a historic season and spearheads the Nuggets offensive assault in a way no one ever has before.
Nuggets bettors looking for good value should continue to look at the NBA MVP odds. Jokic currently sits at to repeat as the MVP.
Nuggets still have issues left to address
Even with its improved offensive impact, Denver still has problems to solve.
The defensive rating has plummeted with all of the injuries; even in wins. Finding ways to get more stops is paramount and that begins with defending the paint. Over the last seven games, the Nuggets are allowing 30.1 shots per game in the restricted area which is the second-most. But to make matters worse, they are allowing teams to shoot 69.7% on those looks. They are compensating by limiting opposing 3-pointers, but allowing such production at the rim is flirting with disaster.
Denver is also still getting crushed in non-Jokic minutes seemingly every game. During Jokic’s 691 minutes on the floor this season, Denver has outscored its opponents by a total of 189 points, but in the 562 minutes Jokic has been on the bench, Denver has been outscored by 188 points. The Nuggets’ net rating falls from +13.4 with Jokic on the floor to -15.7 with him off the court and both their defensive rating and offensive rating are about 15 points worse when he is on the bench.
Until the Nuggets can stay competitive with Jokic on the bench and find a way to inject some defense into each game, they will not truly contend. But with Jokic’s immaculate season and the rest of the offense coming to life, Denver can still sneak into one of the top-four seeds in the Western Conference.