At 16-7, the Nuggets sit high atop the Western Conference standings, looking down at the Warriors, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Thunder and every other playoff team that qualified for the postseason ahead of them last year.
So how did Denver arrive here? Here are five numbers that explain why the Nuggets have clicked so far this season and why their hot start is no accident.
The Nuggets are only allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions this season, good for the third-best defense in the league. A year ago, Denver gave up 109.9 points per 100 possessions and was the 23rd-ranked defense. The Nuggets have also seen their field goal percentage defense jump up from 30th overall in 2017-18 to 10th this year. But the most surprising defensive stat? The Nuggets are holding their opponent to 31 percent shooting from distance. It’s an astonishing turnaround for a team that returned 78 percent of its minutes from last season’s group that finished dead last in that category.
“That’s our identity,” Michael Malone said after a recent Nuggets win.
It’s not just Paul Millsap, who’s the best defender on the Nuggets’ roster and should be a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors at this juncture of the season. Everyone from Nikola Jokic to Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez has bought into the idea that Denver can only achieve its goals this season if they fully dedicate themselves on the defensive end of the floor.
Jokic didn’t move with this type of force on defense throughout his first three seasons in Denver, but this year he looks committed to rewriting the poor defensive narrative that’s followed him closely throughout his career.
Late in the fourth quarter against Portland, with Denver clinging to a one-point lead in need of a stop, the Nuggets’ defense came up big again. Denver navigated through rotation after rotation, closing out to one three-point shooter after another in a possession that spanned 26 seconds. Eventually, Hernangomez secured the biggest rebound of the night. Jokic was right in the middle of this defensive possession too.
When the Nuggets and Jokic met to go over their offseason goals after last year, they focused on three areas of improvement for the big man to work on: his mental toughness, leadership and quickness. The last factor was a priority so Denver could play a more aggressive style on defense that involved Jokic playing in space more often. He’s shown improvement in all three facets.
Jokic has been able to switch out onto smaller and quicker guards with more regularity this year. The aggressive defensive scheme has helped Denver hold the last three All-Star point guards they’ve faced — Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry — to a combined 36 points on just 13-46 (28.2 percent) from the field and 5-26 from three.
The Nuggets are outscoring their opponent by 7.6 points per 100 possessions when Jokic is on the floor this season. It’s a solid point differential that’s in line with the 6.5 Net Rating Denver had with Jokic on the court a year ago. But why it’s significant is because the Nuggets are outscoring their opponent by 7.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench.
That’s right. Denver is posting a slightly better point differential when its best player sits. How? It’s because of the Nuggets’ bench and how elite Denver’s second unit has played this season.
The Nuggets’ Jamal Murray-Monte Morris-Malik Beasley-Trey Lyles-Mason Plumlee second unit has been dynamite. On the year, that fivesome has outscored its opponent 304-279 in 131 minutes. When they’re on the court, that lineup is shooting a healthy 48.2 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from three. Their defense has been stellar too, allowing just 100 points per 100 possessions. Plumlee has the best Defensive Rating in the league (94.9) among players who are averaging at least 17 minutes per game. The Nuggets’ starters (Murray, Millsap, Jokic, Hernangomez and Gary Harris) are giving up 105.8 points per 100 possessions — a solid number but not close to how stingy Denver’s second unit has been this year.
Statistically, it’s the most-used and among the most-efficient bench lineups in the league that feature at least three non-starters.
Uncharacteristically, Denver’s bench struggled Monday in Toronto. Murray, Morris, Beasley, Lyles and Plumlee were outscored by nine points in the 10 minutes they spent on the floor. The high efficiency they still maintain on the season even after an off night like that shows just how dominant they’ve been this year. Even more dominant than Denver’s starters.
Denver couldn’t buy itself a three-point shot to start the year. The Nuggets were the second-worst three-point shooting team through their first eight games despite going 7-1. But Denver’s luck started to change in the middle of November. Over their last 15 games, the Nuggets are the sixth-best three-point shooting team in the league, mostly thanks to three guys.
Hernangomez, Beasley and Morris are the Nuggets’ three-best three-point shooters this season. Maybe Hernangomez was a name many had pegged to be one of Denver’s best long-range snipers this season, along with Harris and Jokic. But the Nuggets’ deadly dribble-handoff combo has struggled for most of the season from three, leaving Denver’s role players to pick up the slack.
That trio has answered the call. Together, Hernangomez, Beasley and Morris have combined to shoot 85-200 (42.5 percent) from three. All three are hitting better than 40 percent of their shots from beyond the arc too. They’re shooting into a very large basket now, as Denver’s coach likes to say. Hernangomez, who crossed the 40 percent mark from three in his rookie season, is 24-50 (48.0) percent from distance on 4 1/2 threes per game since Denver inserted swingman into its starting lineup 11 games ago. Beasley is shooting 40.3 percent from long-range on a healthy 3.1 attempts per game and has hit 15 of his last 25 attempts from three. Morris, who didn’t have much of a rep as an outside shooter heading into his second NBA season, is up above 40 percent too. Labels can be shed quickly in this league, especially ones that are assigned to younger players. Morris, like Hernangomez, is just 23-years-old. Beasley is only 22.
The Nuggets are also hitting their open threes all of a sudden after struggling on shots of that variety earlier this year. Denver is ninth overall in wide-open three-point accuracy, per NBA.com, in its last 15 games.
Denver didn’t panic when their shots weren’t falling at the beginning of the season. Their fortunes have turned.
The Nuggets have started the season 7-4 on the road with resume-building wins over the Clippers, Thunder, Trail Blazers and Raptors away from Pepsi Center. Denver has the best road record in the West and second-best record away from home in the league. It’s a stark reversal from last season when the Nuggets went 15-26 on the road — the second-worst record out of playoff hopefuls. Last year, Denver didn’t get its seventh road win until Dec. 23.
What’s behind the Nuggets playing better on the road? A more mature group that’s not going to pack it in if they get off to a slow first-quarter start or give up a big-time run out of halftime. A roster that’s grown more confident in late-game situations. And also a defense that’s traveled.
A year ago Denver was second-worst road defense in the league. This season, the Nuggets are only allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions away from Pepsi Center, good for the fourth-best mark in the league and more than a seven-point improvement from last year.
That’s how many minutes the Nuggets have played at full health. Free agent signing Isaiah Thomas is still rehabbing from hip surgery. The same goes for rookies Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt. Starting small forward Will Barton played just 54 minutes before suffering a hip/core muscle injury that shelved him for the last six weeks.
Denver’s next man up mentality makes its start even more impressive. Everywhere the Nuggets turn, they’re finding contributors. Morris, Beasley and Hernangomez have been thrust into bigger roles this season and are living up to expectations. Plumlee is giving Denver 17 A+ minutes (his season average) every night behind Jokic and Millsap.
Even Torrey Craig, who’s gone from receiving DNP-CD’s one night to the starting lineup the next, is finding ways to contribute. Craig, a career 26 percent three-point shooter, hit two of his three long-range attempts in Toronto.
Craig is also the top offensive rebounder at his position this season, averaging 3.4 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes. He swept the glass against the Raptors, securing three offensive rebounds in only 17 minutes. Sometimes Craig is just in the right place at the right time. He’s also especially aggressive when attacking the glass and has the innate gift of being able to anticipate how balls will bounce off the rim.
“I’m just glad I lead the league in something,” Craig told BSN Denver. “I don’t really look into it, but it’s an interesting stat. I just try to find any little way to contribute. That just happens to be one of my specialties, having a nose for the ball.”
If he can string together similar stat lines to what he did Monday, Craig is a fine option to insert into Denver’s starting lineup Wednesday in Orlando and going forward if Harris, who left the Toronto game in the first quarter with a hip injury, misses an extended amount of time.