Denver Nuggets - Poetry in Motion
In addition to being one of the best teams in the league at the moment, the Nuggets are, in my opinion, the most fun team to watch. Lots of movements without the ball, lots of interesting and non-traditional actions, and some of them can even be called crazy.
Cover image: Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images
And one of the main reasons for their attractive basketball is the man with whom the whole Nuggets story begins and ends, Nikola Jokić. Objectively speaking, he should be the main candidate for the MVP award, due to the recent absences of other MVP candidates, but also the fact that he is probably the best offensive player in the league today. This is not a small thing, when we take into account that at the same time in the league players such as Embiid, Dame, Steph, Harden, LeBron, KD exist…
Although in the Balkans we mostly call him Jokic or Jokara, he is more known worldwide as “Joker”, which is actually a very appropriate nickname for a player who plays unpredictably and attractively.
Joker - orchestra conductor and a man with hundred faces
Judging by his height and weight, Jokić would be classified as a center, but if in today’s basketball there is any player who breaks the concepts of positions, Jokić would be everyone’s first thought. The reason for this is his versatility. I’ll try to point out his different faces, at least the scoring ones
Joker as conductor - main distributor
Jokic is the player who has the most touches and passes in the entire league. 75.6 passes per game, which is 0.5 more than Sabonis (at the time of writing); Sabonis is also a player who plays like a Point Center, although his passes are not yet fully at the level of Jokić.
Basically, I’ll write more about his passing when I touch on individual players and how Jokić dishes to them, and for now here is a graph showing the heatmap of assists within the Nuggets team.
In this chart you can see how the Nuggets are centralized around Jokic. The main backbone of their game (was) the Murray-Jokić duet, I’ll talk more about how Murray played with him later, and how they could adjust without Murray.
Joker as a shooter
Let’s get back to scoring now because we can see so many cool things here.
I will start with one unexpected segment of Jokić’s game, and those are Catch & Shoot actions for Jokić. Such actions are not usually ran for big men, but rather for pure shooters like Duncan Robinson, Joe Harris, or Ray Allen a while ago. Most of these actions (maybe all) don’t end on with three-pointer but rather he takes shots around the mid-range area.
Nuggets very often run this simple action in which one of the guards runs to set a screen to Jokić who runs to the elbow, receives the ball from other guard and shoots. In basketball vocabulary, this action is called curl and most often is ran in the “opposite direction”, ie Jokić would be the one who sets the screen.
Purely informative, curl action usually assumes there is a cut towards the basket, but Jokić stops and takes a shot here. There may be a more appropriate name for this play, but I am not familiar with it.
Stagger screens are consecutive screens in the same direction for a player who does not have the ball, the Nuggets are running this play as well for Jokić as you can see in the previous video.
This is perhaps even more unusual than the curl actions I showed earlier because it requires quite more of running which some “traditional” centers may not be used to. The Nuggets use this mainly against such centers (Zubac, Adams) in order to use Jokić’s shooting abilities and off-ball movements.
Flare Screen is a block in which a player sets a screen for a teammate running towards the sideline, and the player with the ball is on the top of the arc. The Nuggets also play this through mid-range against bigger and slower centers, which often opens one side of the floor for Jokić to shot, or develop attack from there.
Pick and pop
This has become a common weapon for all of today’s NBA attacks as virtually every team has at least one tall player capable of taking a long-range shot. However, Jokić is not like most of these players because taking a shot is the last option on his mind, he always looks to see if he can drive or if he can hit one of the cutters and only then (or if the defensive player plays in a deep drop) decides to shoot.
In the previous video, I singled out three such actions, and the last of those three actions is very specific because they ran Pick and Pop from handoff, a type of attack in which the Nuggets are at the top of the league. It is also specific because it took place on the mid-range, not behind three-point line as teams mostly do. From that distance, Jokić is one of the most efficient and best players in the entire league, so it is definitely not “anti-analytical” as you may hear in broadcasts.
Jokic as a cutter
In addition to previous actions aimed at opening space for Jokić to shoot at mid-range, the Nuggets are running some actions that we can otherwise see being ran for forwads/guards.
And that action usually looks like the on in the previous video, Jokić is on one side of the floor, and the ball on the other in a 5-out formation (note: opposing center is close to Jokić) followed by Jokic’s face cut helped by a screen from guard. Since the paint is empty, Jokić usually has an open path to the basket or dumping a pass if help comes from the weak side.
Along with these types of cuts, Jokić also cuts after pick and roll actions, but mostly he doesn’t go all the way to the hoop but stops somewhere inside the paint and shoots a floater.
Jokić on post ups
But here is where Jokić “operates” the most and where he is the most dangerous, both because of his scoring and playmaking.
If we look only at scoring, he is one of the most efficient players in the entire league in both post up and pick and roll actions as you can see in the previous graph.
Perhaps the most dangerous weapon in the post up attack is his hook, it’s not even close to sky like Kareem’s, but it is dangerous because Jokić uses his body well and secures enough space with it for his shot. He pretty much always shoots it with his right hand… In total, he shoots 80/121 on hooks (at the time of writing) this season, which equates to 66%.
Jokić as a putback machine
Yes, you’ve read that correctly, Jokic is also very good at picking up and scorring missed shots. This year he has 2.8 offensive rebounds per game, and from the putbacks he scores 2.8 points per game.
It is interesting that out of Jokić’s 148 offensive rebounds, 49 of them came from his own misses. Like in the action you can see in the previous video. That is why his efficiency is even more impressive because we can practically “remove” 50 of his misses since he picks them up himself.
Finally, let us put the efficiency into the story. Jokić’s percentages are 56.5%/41.8%/85.4%, which are truly unreal percentages. What’s interesting to me, but on the one hand and a little disappointing, is that he only has 4.7 free throws per game. His numbers equate to a TS% of 64.2% making him one of the most efficient players.
If we discard free throws and observe only the EFG%, that figure is 60.4%, which is enough for 4th place out of all players over 15 points per game (you can see the graph below, in the section on MPJ).
Jamal Murray - second violin
Jamal Murray is the perfect second player on this team. A player who can play phenomenally as a creator from pick and roll, and maybe even better as a scorer from handoffs with Jokić. He is also a very intelligent player who plays very well without the ball, which you could see in several actions related to Jokić when he set up great screens for him.
Murray is also very good at clutch time. This year he has 67.95 TS% in clutch time on 81 shots from the game + 15 free throws, moreover, this season he even took more shots than Jokic in those situations. This is a very important item because having two attacking options at key moments indicates a greater danger for opposing defenses, which is something Utah might have a problem with, because when it comes to the decision time, the balls almost always go to Mitchell, who isn’t very efficient in crunch time as well.
I wrote these previous two excerpts (and following video parts as well) before the injury that happened on Sunday. When I look at all those plays and current Nuggets’ roster, it’s hard for me to find someone to step in for him.
Murray + Jokic + Handoff = <3
I also wrote this subtitle before the injury and it made me even sadder after the injury and after re-reading this :(
Murray is the player who participates the most in the already mentioned handoff actions. He has the most such possessions in the entire league, so it is not at all strange that he and Jokić are the most common assist combination, because sometimes Murray returns the pass after Jokić hands it to him.
Handoff -> jump shot
I will start of with handoffs which end up with a jump shot.
Murray is very good at handoffs because he reacts smartly and quickly to the opponent’s situation and reads the position/movements of the defensive player and chooses the weapon with which to attack the opponent’s basket. If he notices that the situation is suitable for a shot after delivery, he will fire it without hesitation.
Of course, it should be emphasized once again how much influence Jokić actually has on this play, because he sets great screens. He is 5th in the entire league in the so-called screen assists.
Handoff -> drive
When it comes to drives, the story is a bit different, of course Jokic’s screen has a big impact because the defensive player has to think about him, but here Murray’s incredible first step is what allows him to drive, along with a great read of defender’s position. If he notices that defender is “on the wrong foot”, he immediately attacks the hoop.
Rejecting handoff + cut
This situation usually occurs when Murray notices that the opposing player is between him (playing on top of Murray) and Jokić when he runs towards him, or manages to sell him a fake and cut towards into the empty paint. Once again you can see how smart he plays without the ball.
Pick and Roll
In addition to all these previous plays and sets, Murray is also excellent from the “classical” pick and roll, although most of these handoffs by Jokić and Murray are of course a form of pick and roll.
All in all, Murray is one great player who has somewhat discarded “part of himself” and taken on a “second fiddle” role. He would no doubt be the main creator in most other teams, but the question is would such a role suit him better? In theory, they may never need to find out, because he and Jokić click very well, and they can continue to build a team around such a backbone.
Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon - probably some crazy drummers in the orchestra
With the arrival of Aaron Gordon in the Nuggets in the recent trade deadline, the Nuggets completed the last hole in their starting five, and that is the second forward position, a role which Millsap filled before Gordon.
In Gordon, they actually got a very similar player to Millsap, only he is younger, more athletic, he better without the ball, and he is more versatile and agile in defense. So a huge boost over Millsap. Aaron Gordon and his great cohesion with Jokić was actually my inspiration and motivation for writing this analysis.
For starters here is one action for Gordon that they performed literally back-to-back against the Magic. This is the Horns set, in which Jokic and Murray are on the elbow and Gordon has the ball on top of the three. After the pass to Jokić, Murray’s screen on Gordon follows, and Gordo cuts, while Murray rolls to the top of the three. Most often there will be an open player here, either Gordon as in this case or Murray on a three-pointer. This action was also run couple of times earlier in the season when Barton or someone third instead of Gordon would participate.
By the way, since Gordon came to the Nuggets, he scored as many as 41 points from cut actions (there were some free throws after and-1 plays), some of those cut plays were drawn just for him, and in some he reads the situation very well and ran, as in the next clip.
Adaptation to the Nuggets
Gordon is not the same player he was in Magic. Namely, he created shots there a lot more, 47% of his shots were unassisted. In the Nuggets, that figure is at just 17%. I’ve seen a lot of stories that Gordon was wrongly used in Orlando, but I think they simply expected more from what he currently plays like in the Nuggets, that is, they thought he could lead the team and be that (almost) primary playmaker, but maybe that role didn’t suit him best.
The profile of his shots has changed significantly, from jump shots (and a lot of pullup jumpers) to a lot of layups and dunking along with a lot less jumpers, and almost none pullup jumpers, he took only 2 such shots so far. With Magic, he took only 36% of the shots <10 feet from the hoop, and now that number is at 55%. Huge jump.
Interestingly, he played pick and roll, in both roles, as a roller and ball handler, with Jokić. He’s another versatile player that will fit in great into the Nuggets attack. On the defensive side he is also an improvement over Millsap as he can defend players from 1 through 4.
Michael Porter Jr.
The first thing we need to say about Michael Porter Jr. is that he is one of the most efficient scorers who have 15 points or more. For now.
In the previous graph you have all such players and their EFG%. Basically, the players who are close to him are the beasts from the paint/RA, Capela and Zion, the alien Steph Curry and Nikola Jokić. Good company.
Of course, the fact is that he was only the 3rd option on the Nuggets so far, his role was just scoring, he didn’t have to think about creation, both his own and his teammate’s shots. As much as 79.6% of his shots were assisted! So him and Gordon have a similar profile in that regard, but MPJ takes a lot more threes and is much better at it.
Many of his threes come from corners, roughly a third of them. He is an example of a player who uses that position of the corner very efficiently, because he shoots 46.7% on those shots! And there are other situations that start off from corner that we will talk about a little later. Some of these threes come from Jokić’s assists when they double him from the weak side, or when other teammates try to cut and Jokić throws the pass across the floor to MPJ.
MPJ is good on the fast breaks, but very often he takes threes instead of driving to the basket, a player of his physical and athletic predispositions should attack the hoop more in these situations.
Yet his main weapon comes from restricted area, he’s great at cuts, maybe even better than Gordon. He improvises a lot and reacts to Jokić’s double teams and runs hard toward the hoop for easy dunk/layup. You have examples of such actions in the following video.
And there are some actions that seem to have been drawn, I don’t know the names this time, I’ll just show them you so you can enjoy in them.
In general, this whole team plays very smartly without the ball, you can say that they are dancing around Jokić. My recommendation for full enjoyment of their matches (even without Murray) is that as long as the ball is in Jokić’s hands, watch how other players move. Enjoy in how they read the game, react to double teams, setup great screens, from the smallest Campazzo, to the tallest Millsap (I guess?).
Barton + The rest of the team - backing vocals
These four players are the “core” of the whole team, but the rest of them should definitely be mentioned. Firstly there is another starter, Will Barton. In the past couple of games, in which Jamal Murray was absent, Barton took on a bigger playmaker role that suited him well. Other than that, his role is actually most similar to MPJ and Gordon. Another forward/guard who can switch on all players relatively well.
The bench consists of Monte Morris, Paul Millsap, who moved there with the arrival of Gordon, Facundo Campazzo and PJ Dozier - one of them will now have to start, most likely Morris or Campazzo. McGee jumps in for a couple of minutes as Jokic rests (and maybe not even then). The bench players are often criticized. The fact is that the Nuggets’ offense revolves around Jokić, and practically all players (both starters and bench players) like to play with and around Jokić.
Maybe bench will receive a boost by Campazzo/Morris Pick and Roll with McGee, or Gordon/Barton will find a bigger playmaking role, maybe something else, it’s up to coach Malone to find that out, there is still a lot of time until the end of the season and I hope he succeeds in that.
I hope I’ve brought the Nuggets even closer to you through these few clips, if you weren’t familiar with their way of playing. Because even if you’re not their fan, it’s worth watching their games because they’re an extremely fun team to watch, probably among the top 3 teams in the entire league.
And I can only conclude at this point with regret for Murray’s injury, he played a great year, in a way confirmed the jump in Bubble. He is a very important piece for the whole ecosystem of the Nuggets, either through creating shots for others, or through solving matches in clutch time or maybe most importantly through great plays without the ball.
The Nuggets were probably on everyone’s list of serious contenders for the title before this injury, but everything falls into the water now. If nothing else, if they continue to play at a relatively good level and have a good score at the end of the season, Jokić should win MVP title. But I doubt Nuggets’ fans, coaches and players and most of all, Jokić himself, will be satisfied with that.