By most measurements, the Denver Nuggets are off to a slow start.
Having not shot the ball well from the field, Nikola Jokic slumping into the season, losing to the 0-5 New Orleans Pelicans in blowout fashion. These are just a few of the things that would lead spectators to believe that this team needs to pick up the pace, and right the ship.
However, despite these factors, they are 7-2 and tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the best record in the Western Conference, thanks to back-to-back game-winners by Nikola Jokic against the 76ers and the Timberwolves.
There are team stats that would also indicate they aren’t a great team, they are scoring 103.3 PPG which is 27th in the league, they are allowing 100.3 PPG which is 27th in the league, and rebounds and assists per game are 15th and 13th respectively compared to the rest of the NBA. None of those numbers scream dominance or even reflect a team that should have a winning record.
But you’re as good as your record says you are, and that’s 7-2 with one of the best records in the NBA.
So what exactly is propelling them to victories when their superstars aren’t shining extraordinarily bright, their offense and defense both seem to be middling or bad, and the teams wild card Michael Porter Jr. is playing 9.8 minutes-per-game with little-to-no impact thus far?
They have been playing complimentary basketball, where their defense picks up and plays lockdown when the offense isn’t clicking, and the offense moves at an incredible efficiency when the defense cannot seemingly get a stop. The Nuggets have the best third quarter point-differential in the NBA, meaning that Mike Malone and his coaching staff have been the best in the league at making halftime adjustments, getting the team ready to play after the break, and stealing games in the biggest swing quarter in basketball.
Over the Golden State Warriors dynasty the last five seasons, they dominated the third quarter differential stat, and the Nuggets have piggybacked on that philosophy.
The Nuggets also have one of the deepest rosters in the NBA with multiple role players and bench guys that could potentially be starters on other NBA rosters. As it stands right now, one-ninth of the season complete, five Nuggets players are shooting the three-ball at over 40 percent efficiency, and Will Barton is connecting on 52 percent which is unreasonable to expect for a full season.
Nikola Jokic now has a trend where he limps into the season seemingly out of shape and playing a brand of basketball that doesn’t seem to fit the expectation based on how he finished the previous season. As it sits, his average stat line is 16.7/9.3/6.0, which for almost any other player is exceptional, but not for Jokic. Fans now have an All-NBA expectation for the Serbian big man who averaged 20.1-10.8-7.3 a season ago shooting with great efficiency.
Nikola’s biggest problem this season is that he’s shooting all-around the lowest percentages of his career, with his field goal, three-point, and free-throw percentages all down significantly. Starting the season on a slump is one thing, but he’s also shooting more threes than ever (4.6 per-game compared to his career average of 2.6), at a bad percentage, which when it comes to the eye test, feels like he’s regressing.
Jokic is a phenomenal player, and he’s confidently picking his shots, so personally, I’m not worried that his percentages won’t settle back to the mean, but for others who are just now tuning in to see what all the hype is about, it can be a bit underwhelming. He’s still recorded two triple-doubles, two game-winners, five 20+ point games, and he has his team streaking with four straight victories, three of which were over playoff-hopeful teams.
As for Jamal Murray, he is up in almost every statistical category from a year ago, he’s scored 20+ in four games this season, he’s passing the ball better than ever, and it’s been reported repeatedly that he’s developing into the floor general and undoubted emotional leader on the court. His slow start is credited to an unspectacular field goal percentage as well, but his month of November has been improved.
This team has shown an insanely competitive nature, an ability to hit clutch shots, the repeated ability to lock down on defense, and swagger that lets the rest of the NBA know that they are a championship contender. Once Nikola Jokic starts hitting his shots, the rest of the NBA better lookout.