Although the Denver Nuggets are 7-3 through their first 10 games, the path hasn’t exactly been smooth or assuring for Mile High fans.
The Denver Nuggets are off to a 7-3 start to their 2019-20 campaign, at times resembling a contending squad while at others appearing far from it. This season has featured inspiring wins against tough opponents and flat losses in what should’ve been blowouts of lesser teams.
Mary Chapin Carpenter would tell Nuggets fans: “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.” Through 10 games, these words have never rang truer.
Immediately after their jaw-dropping fourth quarter comeback against the dynamic Philadelphia 76ers — in which the Nuggets overcame a 21-point deficit in 11 minutes — Denver lackadaisically squandered a 16-point cushion to the Timberwolves and needed an overtime buzzer beater from Nikola Jokic to leave victorious.
There are highs and lows throughout the roller coaster of a physically and emotionally-draining 82-game regular season. Yet it’s already feeling like a grueling February stretch for these Nuggets, who have seemingly misplaced their mojo and happy-go-lucky spirit.
Let’s break down some trends, both good and bad, throughout the first 10 games of the 2019-20 campaign:
On the offensive …
An early notable involves the Nuggets’ uncharacteristically bad offense. Through 10 games, Denver’s 105.4 offensive rating ranks 21st in the league, a far cry from the strong offensive numbers of past seasons. They’ve scored over 110 points just once … in Tuesday’s 125-121 loss to Atlanta.
Gone is the traditional cutting and movement, limiting Jokic’s playmaking abilities (6.1 assists per game vs. 7.3 in 2018-19). It appears the Nuggets are stagnating in effort to create spacing on the floor, which may not be the worst idea in theory. However …
This clearly isn’t working, as Denver has shot just 43 percent, a mark that ranks 28th across the league. Their 10.2 3-point makes per game checks in at 23rd, a putrid mark for a team emphasizing floor spacing.
Jokic appears bummed by this offense, as his energy level checks in and out at different points. He’s at his best when the ball is moving, as he’s a rare superstar who would legitimately rather dime teammates than score himself. Time to get the movement going again, Denver.
Driving defensively …
As bad as the offense has been, Denver’s been just as stellar on the defensive side of things. Through 10 games, the squad boasts a stingy 103.4 defensive rating, good for 10th-best in the league. Keep in mind this statistic would be better if excluding Tuesday’s horrendous defensive showing against Atlanta.
The starting five has been outstanding on the stopping end, led by Will Barton (94.7 defensive rating) and Paul Millsap (96.5). Even Jokic (100.8) and Jamal Murray (100.3), traditionally the group’s worst defenders, have stepped up and transformed Denver’s starters into one of the league’s most dynamic stopping units.
Although this is stellar news, Denver’s strength last season was two-fold, as they finished top-10 in both defensive and offensive rating. This isn’t Utah … you don’t pay Jokic and Murray max contracts to become a defense-only squad. Consider Denver’s stopping efforts a great sign, as long as the offense rises to complete the necessary second half of the equation.
“Thrill” and “Millslap” …
Two of the team’s most electric contributors thus far have been Will Barton and Paul Millsap. Through 10 games, Barton’s averaging 15.6 points (third-best on the team) and 7.9 rebounds per game (second-best).
Millsap, meanwhile, is hitting a career-high 1.3 3-pointers per game, while also shooting a career-best 50 percent from distance in an effort to spread the floor for Jokic and company.
As previously mentioned, the duo has led Denver on defense, each stabilizing the stopping end in his own regard. Barton boasts a team-leading net rating of plus-9.3, while Millsap checks in second at plus-7.4.
This is special, because both Barton and Millsap were counted down-and-out leading up to the season. The summer narrative around Barton involved his poor fit and incongruent style of play. Meanwhile, Millsap was labeled washed up and identified as a candidate to be overtaken by Jerami Grant. So far, each has turned the tables back onto the critics.
The horrible, horrible bench kick-off …
The eye test and numbers confirm the same story: The bench has been awful thus far. The starters average a net rating of approximately plus-6.7, leading to the conclusion this group has primarily done its job. Meanwhile, the bench members average a net rating of approximately minus-3.8, often appearing outmanned by opposing second units.
Monte Morris has proven disappointing so far, averaging just 6.8 points and 3.4 assists per game. Jerami Grant has also underwhelmed with a team-worst minus-5.7 net rating.
The inconsistent heartbeat …
To date, the Nuggets have failed to find any type of consistent energy and momentum. After starting with a series of ugly wins and uglier losses, many thought the squad’s best self was activated in it’s comeback win against the Philadelphia 76ers.
However, the Nuggets proceeded to play this season’s most hideous, lackadaisical basketball in the next two contests against the Timberwolves and Hawks.
Jokic often appears disengaged these days, while simultaneously giving off a bored and sulky persona. As always, the rest of the team follows his lead and the result has been an ugly combination of pulsing effort and a February-like tiredness.
Many see signs of a Golden State Warriors-like fluctuation, as the earlier dynasty often punted regular season games, simply because they didn’t feel like lacing them up that night.
Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post puts it best: “What has Denver ever done to be too cool to care?”