What do you associate Denver Nuggets basketball with? Does your mind immediately wander to Nikola Jokic’s no-look passes? Jamal Murray’s step-back jumper? Gary Harris’ drives downhill after receiving a dribble handoff? All of those are worthy answers. What about the infinitely less unsexy act of securing a rebound?
In the Michael Malone era, hauling in misses has become as embedded in Denver’s DNA as anything. The Nuggets are first, second and first in rebounding percentage in the last three seasons.
“It’s part of our identity,” Malone said. “It’s something that we hammer home all the time: that we gang rebound, which means 1 through 5.”
The Nuggets are grabbing 74.1 percent of their opponents’ misses, the fourth-best mark in the league, and 32.1 percent of their own, the top mark in the NBA. At the halfway point of the season, they’ve outrebounded their opponents 28 times and gotten outrebounded in only 13 instances.
Malone was steaming mad when the Clippers beat his team up on the boards 56-37 on Dec. 22 in L.A.
“They had their way with us,” Malone said nearly three weeks later on the eve of a rematch. “They were more physical. They pushed us around. And they were laughing and joking at our expense. We’ve got to have a hit-first mentality tonight.”
The Nuggets got their revenge that night, walloping the Clippers 53-38 in the rebounding battle in a 121-100 win.
Vertically challenged? No problem
Nikola Jokic gets off the ground like a grand piano filled with cinder blocks. “There’s nothing that he can’t do except jump,” Jamal Murray quipped in December.
Despite his limitations as a leaper, Jokic does an excellent job controlling the glass. The 7-foot Serbian is getting his mitts on 21.9 percent of opponents’ misses and 9.5 percent of Denver’s. That puts him in the 80th percentile in defensive rebounding and the 67th percentile in offensive rebounding among centers, according to Cleaning the Glass. Jokic compensates for his lack of vertical explosion by understanding where misses might come off, using his girthy frame to create space inside and hauling in misses with what might be the NBA’s surest set of hands.
“It seems like he’s always in the right position,” Paul Millsap said. “You don’t realize how long his arms are. He doesn’t jump and tips the ball to himself. All that is hand-eye coordination and being in the right place at the right time.”
Jokic tips the basketball to himself like it’s a beach ball. He averages 3.8 second-chance points per game — the 11th-most in the NBA.
“He’s skilled,” Torrey Craig said. “He knows how to keep the ball alive, tap it back to himself, tap it back in for a score. He’s creative with it. His size, his length really helps him. And his will to want the ball.”
Jokic collects 2.8 offensive rebounds per game. He’s one of three Nuggets to average at least two offensive rebounds per game (Millsap 2.1; Plumlee 2) and one of six to average at least one (Craig 1.5; Juancho 1.3; Murray 1).
“We rebound from every position,” Millsap said.
Power forwards and centers aren’t the only ones responsible for grabbing misses under Malone. When a shot goes up, everyone is expected to do their part. The Nuggets have excellent frontcourt rebounders in Jokic, Millsap and Mason Plumlee. Denver’s perimeter plays don’t just leave it up to them, though. Murray, Craig and Juancho Hernangomez are all above-average rebounders for their positions.
“We switch a lot,” Malone said. “The importance of when you put smalls on bigs, you have to get in the fight, you have to get physical. I think it’s something that we’re good at because it’s something that we preach.”
Murray grew up playing the 5. That background shines through in the way Murray sets screens and crashes the glass. “I like hitting people,” he said.
Jamal’s father, Roger, taught him how to do kung fu. They wrestled when Murray was a boy. “He would put me in a lock where I couldn’t get out,” Murray said. “I’d have to build up that strength to get out no matter what.”
Denver’s point guards, shooting guards and small forwards are supposed to get back on defense when a shot goes up, but that’s more a guideline than a rule. Murray, Craig and Hernangomez have earned the freedom to attack the offensive glass when they sense an opportunity. Craig, who’s in the 96th percentile as an offensive rebounder among wings, per Cleaning the Glass, has a knack for coming up with the ball when he’s outnumbered.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who go for the rebound and don’t get back in transition,” Millsap said. “But they get them, which makes it OK.”
Millsap led the NCAA in rebounding three times at Louisiana Tech. Teammates nicknamed his “Mr. Clean” for his ability to clean the glass. He’s averaging 6.8 per game this season with the Nuggets. “I don’t have as many now because we have so many good rebounders,” Millsap said.
The will to want the ball is the most important part of rebounding, according to Millsap: “Perseverance. At the end of the day, who wants it more?”
Denver isn’t stocked with jump-out-of-the gym guys. Malik Beasley and Craig are springy players, but after that? Yet over the last three seasons, no NBA team has rebounded the ball better than the Nuggets. They play beautiful basketball, but don’t overlook their willingness to do dirty work on the boards as a reason for their success.