The Endless Potential of the Denver Nuggets’ Offense

Rotation changes and a key offseason addition can propel the Nugget’s offense to all-time heights as they look to return to the NBA playoffs. 

The old adage is “defense wins championships.” The Denver Nuggets have not been following such an adage for quite some time now, resulting in the team ranking 24th or worse on the defensive end every season since 2013-14. They have consistently struggled on defense, relying on their high-powered offense to win games in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

And that is alright! Given the team’s current roster and core players, there is no real viable path to the team creating an above-average defense. What this Denver Nuggets team is all about is putting points on the board, enough to simply outscore their opponents, even if it takes over 120 points to do so. And hey, there’s another adage that “the best defense is a good offense,” and the Nuggets have the potential to post the best offense in the league in the upcoming 2018-19 season.

As things currently stand, Denver is projected to have a starting lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic. Such a lineup only played 65 minutes together last season due to injuries and altered roles (Barton came off the bench for half of the past season), but it was a truly dominant lineup, especially on the offensive end. In that limited sample, that projected starting lineup posted an incredible 123.3 offensive rating, highlighted by a 105.51 pace and 66.1 assist percentage. That pace would easily rank first in the league, and such an assist percentage would clock in at third in the league.

By inserting Barton into the starting lineup, another ball-handler and shooter is added alongside Jokic, the best passing big in the league, and explosive shooters and cutters in Murray and Harris. While Barton can overextend himself offensively at times, playing alongside Jokic and the aforementioned backcourt duo can reign him in a bit and make him more of a secondary or tertiary option and spot-up shooter.

How can you stop an offense with Jokic initiating from the top of the key, Murray/Harris/Barton coming off screens for three-pointers or cutting to the rim, Millsap and/or Jokic taking turns bullying defenders in the post, and a lineup that likes to run in transition and create havoc for defenses? It’s a simple answer: you can’t. With this new starting lineup, the Nuggets’ offense can take another leap and truly join the upper-echelon of unstoppable offenses that strike fear in opposing defenses.

The Perfect Supporting Cast for Jokic

Nikola Jokic is a unique player. His ability to score out of the post, hit three-pointers at an above-average rate and his incredible passing make him a nearly unstoppable offensive force on any given night. It’s likely that if you have Jokic and surround him with enough shooters that can excel on or off-the-ball, you will have an elite, top ten offense.

And that is exactly what Denver has surrounded Jokic with, especially with the insertion of Barton into the starting lineup. Jokic has incredible chemistry with Murray, Harris, and Barton, highlighted by countless dribble-handoffs that lead to open threes and cuts to the rim that result in dunks and layups. Below are a few examples of the connection that the Serbian big man has established with his backcourt/wing mates, from passes leading to open layups and dunks to dribble handoffs leading to quality looks from beyond the arc:

With Jokic initiating the offense both in the half court and in transition, opposing defenses will be scrambling to handle the 23-year-old big man, leading to countless threes and shots at the rim for his supporting cast. However, Jokic can also excel without the ball in his hands by setting effective screens and being a very compelling pick-and-pop/roll option for his backcourt teammates. As a result of Jokic’s play style and the connections he has with his fellow starters, the Nuggets will trot out a very balanced, unpredictable offense that will be nearly unstoppable, especially considering their fast pace.

Another key component of the Nuggets’ projected starting lineup is the amount of shooting they will have in the starting lineup. Just look below at how the projected starters shot from beyond the arc last season, including the volume of attempts:

Murray: 37.8 percent on 5.4 attempts/game

Harris: 39.6 percent on 5.9 attempts/game

Barton: 37 percent on 5.2 attempts/game

Millsap: 34.5 percent on 3 attempts/game

Jokic: 39.6 percent on 3.7 attempts/game

As a team, the Nuggets were eighth in the league in three-pointers attempted per game (30.9) and seventh in 3pt% (37.1), and there is reason to believe that those numbers can increase this season, or at the very least, maintain. It’s safe to say that if you’re looking for threes, you should be tuning in for the Nuggets’ offense. As we have seen from teams such as the Houston Rockets, increased volume of three-pointers can be the driving force for an elite, all-time offense, and Denver would be best-suited to focus on increasing their number of attempts from beyond the arc, especially given the number of quality shooters they have on the roster.

A Bench Lineup Headliner

With Barton almost certainly in the starting lineup, there was a void on Denver’s bench for a scoring guard that can create for both himself and others. Enter Isaiah Thomas, signed to a one year, veteran’s minimum contract last week.

Thomas is joining the Nuggets after an uninspiring 2017-18 campaign in which he only appeared in 32 games, struggling to rebound from his hip injury and the locker room turmoil that plagued his stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thomas averaged respectable numbers of 15.2 points and 4.8 assists per game, but hit just 29.3 percent of his three-pointers and posted a poor 50.8 true shooting percentage. Thomas struggled throughout the season, mainly due to his poor health, which limited his explosiveness when attacking the basket and getting up for three-pointers. Thomas shot just 50.6 percent from within three feet of the rim, which was a far cry from the 60.8 percent he has shot in that range throughout his career.

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom with Thomas’ game and the impact he can have on Denver’s offense (we’re not going to bother mentioning the other end of the floor, because we know about Thomas’ struggles on that end of the floor). Before signing Thomas, there was a glaring need for a backup point guard, with Murray being supported by Monte Morris, Denver’s second-round pick in the 2017 draft. While veterans such as Devin Harris were likely available, why not take a chance on a two-time All-Star and one that, just two seasons ago, was one of the best offensive players in the league.

Thomas has the ability to space the floor (career 36.4 percent from beyond the arc), attack the basket, and create for others. Sure, he is extremely undersized, but that didn’t stop him from handling a 34 percent usage percentage in the 2016-17 season and posting elite offensive numbers, from his 62.5 true shooting percentage to his 10.9 offensive win shares and 8.7 offensive box plus-minus.

Thomas’ main role will be as a sixth man leading a bench unit that includes Trey Lyles, Torrey Craig, and Mason Plumlee. While the Nuggets would be best served to stagger their starters (especially their backcourt), Thomas will likely be the focal point of the offense when he is on the floor. If Thomas can produce anywhere close to his 2016-17 season, the Nuggets will have the steal of the offseason. If he struggles and plays at the level from this past season, Denver still has a very capable backup point guard to handle the offense from time to time.

Another key wrinkle of Thomas’ addition is his clutch play, which may come in handy for a young Nuggets team that will have to close out tough games in order to make the playoffs. As T.J. McBride points out:

“(Thomas) is one of the most clutch players in the Association. Back in 2016-17, Thomas was second in the league in fourth-quarter scoring averaging 9.8 points in the final frame on 46.7 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from three-point distance. He single-handedly won multiple games for the Boston Celtics in 2016-17 by turning into a human inferno when clutch time came around.”

Sure, Thomas weakens the team’s defense, but it wasn’t like the Nuggets were going to have a strong (or even improved) defense to begin with. Denver has gone all in on their offense, and Thomas was arguably the best offensive player available on the market that was a realistic target/fit in Denver.

The Nuggets’ projected rotation of Murray/Harris/Barton/Millsap/Jokic/Thomas/Craig/Lyles/Plumlee has several knockdown shooters, excellent cutters, floor-spacing power forwards, high-quality passing big men, and plenty of players that can create for themselves and others. Denver now has one of the most unstoppable offenses in the league, and one that should be the most exciting to watch in the association.

When it comes to their chances of returning to the postseason, Denver is going to need all of the offense they can muster if they want to stand a chance in the Western Conference. Their offseason has maximized their opportunity to do so at each turn.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com/stats.

Video courtesy of 3ball.io

Jokic’s 15th Triple-Double Leads Nuggets To 120-108 Win vs. Blazers

Nikola Jokic led the Denver Nuggets to a 120-108 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, where he amassed 27 points, 22 rebounds, and 12 assists

Gilgeous-Alexander Scores 34 Points, Thunder Defeat Nuggets 105-100

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the Oklahoma City Thunder to a victory over the Denver Nuggets with a score of 105-100 during Wednesday’s NBA action, contributing 34

Nikola Jokic’s Triple-Double Leads Nuggets To 113-107 Win vs. Bucks

In his first game at the helm for the Milwaukee Bucks, coach Doc Rivers observed a team brimming with potential that could fully realize its