Last Word On Basketball

Why the Denver Nuggets Offense is Struggling

Denver Nuggets struggling

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 12: Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets reacts to being called for fouling Hassan Whiteside (21) of the Portland Trail Blazers during the fourth quarter of Denver's 114-99 win on Thursday, December 12, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The Denver Nuggets offense is struggling. Last year, they were able to win in a shootout, usually due to a monster performance from Nikola Jokic. This year, however, the script has flipped. Denver is in the bottom 10 in points per game, but they are in the top five for points allowed and defensive rating, and Jokic is not performing like the First Team All-NBA center he was last year. They are still a good team, sitting at 16-8, but not the same.

Reasons the Denver Nuggets are Struggling

The Bench

The Nuggets last season had one of the top benches in the league. Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig, and Juan Hernangomez broke out, and Denver rode them to a conference semi-final appearance. This year has been much of the opposite. Denver’s bench unit has been fairly disappointing. Beasley and Craig have been in and out of the rotation, Morris isn’t shooting like he did last season, and Plumlee’s play has significantly dropped. Hernangomez has played well enough but has gotten minutes over Michael Porter Jr., Denver’s prized rookie. Jerami Grant has been used as a spot-up shooter instead of a slasher, which was his specialty on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Only Hernangomez has a positive +/- out of all bench players to play reasonable minutes. So basically, whenever the Nuggets bench is on the court, they lose ground. A complete 180 from last season where the bench saved games for Denver in crunch time situations. If the Nuggets want to be contenders this year, the bench has to step it up.

Their Shooting Numbers

Oh boy, these are rough. Denver is ranked 23rd in field goal percentage, and 25th in points per game. Luckily, their defense has cranked it up to keep them in games. But they simply can’t put the ball in the bucket. The starters who, last season, were key for them shooting the ball, have regressed. Gary Harris, riddled with injuries the last two seasons, is only averaging 11 points per game and is shooting 42 percent from the field. Grant is starting to heat it up, but he is still shooting 45 percent as compared to 50 percent last year. Jamal Murray’s stats are nearly identical to last season, shooting only 43 percent from the field and 34 percent from three.

Paul Millsap is the only player to improve upon his shooting numbers, as he is in the top 10 for three-point shooting percentage. But with Millsap being 34, the Nuggets can’t rely on him to be a potent source of offense.

Nikola Jokic

Jokic is the best player on the Nuggets. The last two seasons have supplanted him in the upper echelon of centers. This season, however, he hasn’t been even a top-five center. His numbers aren’t bad. 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists a game is hardly something to worry about. But it’s his general impact on the offensive end that isn’t what it was. Jokic last season was the focal point of the offense. He caught the ball in the high post nearly every possession and would go to work. When a double came, he passed out of it to an open shooter and made the ball move. If there was no double, he just worked in the post and shot a high percentage shot.

Jokic this year isn’t playing with the same urgency. He is averaging fewer shots per game and is shooting a career-low 47 percent from the field. Jokic is also settling for way too many jumpers. Even though he is shooting less from the field, he is shooting a career-high four threes per game, and only making 23 percent of those attempts.

The best Nuggets offense is when Jokic is able to draw double teams early in the shot clock and get the ball moving. Jokic scoring the ball is the way for those doubles to come. Jokic has said that he likes passing more than scoring, but the Nuggets need his scoring more than his passing right now.

Silver Lining

With all the offensive problems the Nuggets have, Denver is still 16-8. They have shown potential to be great on offense, with blowout wins against the Miami Heat, Portland Trailblazers, and Memphis Grizzlies. Jokic has had a double-double in four of the last five games. Grant and Harris are starting to find their groove on offense. Murray, while not having taken a leap on offense, is still averaging 17 points per game.

While the offense has been a struggle, the defense is still excellent. They are first in points per game allowed and second in defensive rating. The Nuggets have improved in record every single year under head coach Michael Malone, and they were in the top 10 for both offense and defense last year. If Denver can figure out which offense works best, a top-five finish in both seems like a real possibility, as does a deep playoff run.

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