Last season, the Denver Nuggets won 54 games and secured the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, earning their first playoff berth since 2013. They ended up falling short in the second round against the Portland Trail Blazers, but it seemed to signal the arrival of a new contender in the West.
Now, at the midway point of this season, they're cruising along in second place in the West, and on pace to win 58 games. Checking in at No. 7 in the league in offensive rating, and No. 11 in defensive rating, they're just a hair away from being top-10 in both categories, which is usually the sign of an elite team. Let the numbers tell it, they're one of the best teams in the league.
And yet, something has felt a bit off about the Nuggets this season. Their star big man, Nikola Jokic, might as well not have been playing the first month or so, their defense has been disastrous as of late and it feels like there's a move or two for them to make at the deadline given their vast wealth of really solid players.
Still, it's hard to argue with success, and the Nuggets are having plenty of it through the first few months. Let's take a closer look at how it's happening.
Jokic picking it up: A-
After the first playoff run of his career, and a summer spent overseas playing for Serbia, Nikola Jokic was a shell of himself coming out of the gates this season. Whether it was fatigue, disinterest, or who knows what -- he's always been an interesting character -- it was clear we weren't watching the same Jokic we all fell in love with last season.
He was barely shooting, couldn't make anything when he did and was turning the ball over more than usual. The Nuggets kept winning, however, and Jokic himself hit two game-winners in the first few weeks of the season, so it never really became that big of a story. And since the first month-plus, he's really kicked it into gear.
Just check out his month-by-month splits as the season has gone along, especially in terms of scoring and 3-point shooting.
Now, check out the month-by-month splits for the Nuggets' offense.
|Month||Games played||Nuggets' offensive rating|
No surprise there. When Jokic is aggressive and looking to score the ball, the Nuggets are better. He has such a versatile game, and when defenses have to key in to stop him from scoring, it just makes his incredible passing even more effective. When Jokic scores 20-plus points this season, the Nuggets are 17-5, and when he gets at least 25 points, they're 7-1. If Jokic doesn't reach the 20-point mark, the Nuggets are 12-7.
Jokic picking it up as he worked his way back into the NBA routine, and got in better shape is little surprise. Perhaps the best sign for the Nuggets, though, is his shooting. He's been shooting the lights out from 3-point range since December, and that not only makes him so much tougher to guard, but opens up much more space for Denver's cutters.
After shooting 39.6 percent from beyond the arc in 2017-18, Jokic dropped down to a career-low 30.7 percent last season. With his slow start this time around, it was looking like 2018 might have been an anomaly, but he's given us reason to hold that thought. Maybe last season was the anomaly, and he is more of a mid-30s shooter from 3. That would certainly be great news for the Nuggets.
Disappearing defense: C-
Ever since Nikola Jokic started to emerge as their leader, the Nuggets have never had trouble on the offensive end. In fact, they're often near the top of the charts in major offensive categories. The reason they never made the playoffs until last season is because their defense, on the other hand, was pitiful.
Their improvement on that side of the ball was quite impressive last season, and was a major reason they won 54 games and secured the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. This season, again, they started out as a dominant defensive team. From the beginning of the season through the end of November, they had the best defensive rating in the league, allowing just 101.9 points per 100 possessions as they got out to a 13-4 start.
Since then, they're 20th in the league, allowing 110.7 points per 100 possessions. Here's a look at how the Nuggets' defense has gotten worse on a month-by-month basis as the season has gone along.
|Month||Games played||Nuggets defensive rating|
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has not been shy about discussing the issue. "Our defense sucks," Malone said earlier this month. "Take ownership in it." The next question, of course, is why?
The main cause of concern in Denver is their lack of rim protection. They're allowing teams to shoot 66.1 percent in the restricted area, which is the third-worst mark in the entire league. Since the start of the new year, it's an even more shocking 72.3 percent.
Nikola Jokic has the size, but he's never been known as a strong defender and Paul Millsap is a bit undersized at the four. When that's your starting frontcourt, you're always going to have some trouble defending in the paint. It's little surprise they were in the bottom half of the league in defending the rim last season, allowing teams to shoot 63.4 percent. Unless they make a big move, they're going to have to work around that issue to some extent.
One area that the Nuggets can definitely improve on their own, however, is effort and hustle plays. Getting into whether or not players are trying hard enough is a bit of a fruitless endeavor, but if you look at a few key hustle stats, the Nuggets are contesting the third-fewest shots per game (56.4), are recovering the fifth-fewest loose balls (7.2) and are 14th in deflections (15.3).
Playing harder doesn't directly correlate with playing better, but it certainly wouldn't hurt.
Porter Jr. finally debuts, shows flashes of brilliance: B+
Coming out of high school, Michael Porter Jr. was such a heralded prospect that he was projected as a potential No. 1 overall pick. Unfortunately, his freshman season at Missouri was cut short due to back surgery, and he played just three games.
As a result of injury concerns, he fell to the Nuggets at No. 14 in the 2018 NBA Draft, which seemed like a perfect spot. They were already a solid team, and could take a risk on a player with top-pick talent. The concerns other teams had were made clear when Porter missed his entire first season after another back surgery and more rehab, but now the Nuggets' bet is starting to pay off.
Porter made his debut on Halloween, putting up 15 points and four rebounds in 21 minutes in a loss to the Pelicans. Since then, he's found it difficult to find consistent playing time in a crowded Nuggets frontcourt, but when he does get to play, the results are encouraging. In games when he's played at least 15 minutes, he's averaging 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds on 69 percent shooting, and the Nuggets are 7-1 in those seven games.
He's still a rookie with less than half a season under his belt, so there are nights where he doesn't have it, and his defense is definitely a work in progress. But the potential with his scoring is worth getting excited about.
He's shooting an absurd 85.2 percent in the restricted area, 40.7 percent from 3 and has shown off a wide array of moves. Just check out these back-to-back buckets he had against the Pacers the other night.
Ridiculous. If he keeps trending in the right direction, he could be a key secondary scorer behind Nikola Jokic, and possibly even more than that.
Overall grade: A-
The Nuggets are on pace to win 58 games, which would be their best mark since the franchise became an NBA team. (They won 60-plus a few times in the 1970s when they were still in the ABA.) They've got an MVP-level player in Jokic, who's starting to look more like himself, they have the capability to be elite on both sides of the ball and are one of the deepest teams in the league.
So while there are some valid concerns about their slipping defense, and whether or not they have enough top-level talent to compete deep into the playoffs, it's also hard to be too critical when they're having this much success.
The Nuggets will be an interesting team to watch in the second half of the season. Not only will they have a battle on their hands to hold off the likes of the Clippers, Rockets and Jazz for the No. 2 seed in the West, but they could be active in the trade market as well.