Let’s quickly take a look at the Western Conference standings, shall we?
You’ll see that I’ve helpfully highlighted a middle section there for you. That’s because it’s currently the most interesting group of teams in either conference.
The Thunder, Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Clippers and Nuggets are separated in the standings by a total of 3.5 games. They’re all at least three games behind the tied-for-third Timberwolves and Spurs heading into Wednesday night’s games, as well as at least 4.5 games ahead of the 10th place Jazz.
In all likelihood, four of these five teams will make the playoffs and one will be left at home come April. So, over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to dive deep on what each of the five teams does, what they don’t, and why and how those attributes do or don’t align with what we expected of them before the season.
On Tuesday, we dug into the Oklahoma City Thunder. Next up: the Denver Nuggets.
What they do well
The Nuggets currently occupy the No. 8 seed in the West, which is pretty impressive considering they’ve been playing two-thirds of the season without their big-ticket free-agent signing and second-best player, Paul Millsap. Denver’s a game below .500 in Millsap’s absence and has been outscored overall during that time, but considering the team was 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with Millsap on the floor than off prior to his injury, per NBA.com, experiencing a drop-off of only 2.5 points per 100 when playing without him for the last two months is not so terrible.
While numerous players have stepped up in Millsap’s absence, the most impressive — and most important for the Nuggets’ future — has been Trey Lyles. Lyles played only 45 minutes TOTAL prior to Millsap’s injury, but he’s averaged 25.3 minutes a night off the bench since then. He’s been incredibly productive, tapping back into the inside-outside prowess he flashed during his rookie season in Utah. As an added bonus, he destroyed the Jazz twice: 42 points on 16-28 shooting, 15 rebounds, plus-32 in 55 minutes across two wins.
Since Nov. 19, Lyles is averaging 13 and 6 while shooting 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3 on nearly four attempts per game. In the minutes he’s shared the floor with Gary Harris (who often plays with Denver’s second unit), the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s the fourth-best mark among 17 two-man combinations the Nuggets have used for at least 400 minutes this season.
Lyles has also been instrumental in helping the Nuggets become one of the NBA’s better defensive rebounding teams. He’s grabbed over 23 percent of available defensive boards while on the floor, the best mark on the team behind only Nikola Jokic (a shade under 28 percent). Denver as a team has the NBA’s eighth-best defensive rebounding rate, and the Nuggets accordingly rank second in the NBA in second-chance points allowed per game. The Nuggets also checked in fifth in defensive rebound rate and second in opponent’s second-chance points last season, so it should not come as too much of a surprise that they’ve maintained their success in those areas.
Similarly, just as the Nuggets ranked second in offensive rebound rate and first in second-chance points per game last season, they rank second and first again this year. Kenneth Faried has done his usual excellent work on the offensive glass when healthy, while Jokic and Mason Plumlee have contributed in that area as well. One of the few true strengths of the Jokic-Plumlee frontcourt the Nuggets have been rolling with for the last few weeks has been its rebounding.
It should come as no surprise that the Nuggets, long one of the NBA’s best transition teams due to the altitude advantage in Denver, are once again one of the NBA’s better teams on the break. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets rank ninth in points per possession in transition and sixth in the percentage of plays that occur in transition. Jokic’s outlet passing, Will Barton’s relentless pace-pushing and the attacking style of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris all play roles there, but the whole team really seems to excel in that area. (Murray and Harris are flat-out studs, by the way. Those dudes are awesome and keep getting better. Denver doesn’t really need to pursue the point guard upgrade everyone wanted to see them make last summer if Murray is going to keep progressing as he has this season. And Harris is just a terrific two-way talent.)
It took them a while to get into the swing early on, but their shot distribution has come around. The Nuggets have the eighth-highest share of at-rim attempts and the 11th-highest share of 3-point attempts in the league, per Cleaning the Glass, and the third-lowest share of long mid-range shots. Early in the season their shot distribution was all out of whack, with the departure of assistant coach Chris Finch receiving a lot of the blame for that. The Nuggets have since gotten back to taking better shots, though, and it’s helped the offense push back into the top-10 in the league. (They’ve been worse since going full-time to the Jokic-Plumlee starting frontcourt.)
Considering all they’ve dealt with this year — Millsap’s extended absence, Emmanuel Mudiay’s inconsistent play, Wilson Chandler’s fall off a cliff, Juancho Hernangomez’s battle with mono, Jokic’s occasional bouts of offensive timidity, etc. — the fact that the Nuggets haven’t fallen further in the offensive efficiency rankings is actually pretty impressive. And considering Millsap should be back inside the next month or so (his initial timeline was three months, which puts his return in mid-February) and that the Nuggets have several pieces with which to pursue an upgrade at the deadline, it’s possible they could jump into the upper-echelon of offenses in the league over the rest of the season.
What they don’t do well
Denver’s offense would probably be a heck of a lot better if they could take care of the ball. The Nuggets have the second-highest turnover rate in the NBA, as every player that has played more than one game for the Nuggets save Lyles has turned it over on at least 10 percent of his possessions. (And Lyles is at 9.8 percent.)
Mudiay, Jokic and Plumlee are the worst offenders. With Plumlee’s turnover rate skyrocketing even further than it did when he came over from the Blazers at last year’s deadline, it is now over 20 percent. Mudiay’s turnover issues have submarined Denver’s second unit offense whenever he’s been healthy, as the team has been 8.1 points worse per 100 possessions offensively with him in the game. Even pairing him with Jokic hasn’t done much to perk up the offense, because taking the ball out of Mudiay’s hands neuters what effectiveness he does have. The Nuggets have scored just 99.4 points per 100 possessions when those two have shared the floor. If you’re an offense-only contributor but you can’t play alongside your team’s best player and you can’t carry an offense on your own, you’re not an especially valuable player.
The Nuggets’ team-wide turnover problem carries over to the defensive end, where they struggle badly in transition. They have allowed the second-most points off turnovers per game this season, and they’re third to last in Cleaning the Glass’ opponent points per 100 possessions added through transition opportunities off steals. Far too many of their turnovers have been of the live-ball variety, leading to a parade of easy buckets on the other end.
It should maybe not be a surprise given the limitations of Jokic, Plumlee and Faried and the absence of Millsap for much of the year, but the Nuggets have also generally struggled to defend the paint. They rank 21st in opponent points in the paint per game, 28th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim and their opponents have made 52 percent of their shots on the drive, per NBA.com, far worse than the league average of 46 percent.
Poor transition defense and poor paint defense would be bad enough, but the Nuggets have also struggled to defend in the half-court overall. (That should come as no surprise, given their aforementioned struggles containing drives.) They rank 23rd in half-court points per possession allowed, per Cleaning the Glass, with pick-and-rolls and off-ball screens in particular giving them major issues. Denver opponents have struggled to connect on corner 3s, but have been sniping away from above-the-break, knocking down nearly 38 percent of the longer looks.
The overall defense has ticked up a bit over the last few weeks, but because it’s coincided with a dip in scoring, it hasn’t mattered quite as much as it should. Millsap returning to the fold should be a major help on that end of the floor, while getting either better play from Chandler or an upgrade on the trade market would be a boon as well.