The New and Improved Denver Nuggets

With the addition of Paul Millsap, a full year of Nikola Jokic and the improvement of Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, Denver has a strong chance to be this year’s breakout NBA team.

Paul Millsap drives on Nikola Jokic. (Denver Post)

Seemingly every year in the NBA an unexpected team comes out of the woodworks and grabs a 5th or 6th seed in their respective conference. Whether by overachieving or capitalizing on a weak schedule, these teams have a chip on their shoulder; they’re out to prove that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Last year, this team was the Utah Jazz. Third year head coach Quinn Snyder had created a culture everyone bought into, point guard George Hill was acquired via trade, Rudy Gobert and Gordon Hayward came to fruition, and the Jazz won 50 plus games in the West.

General consensus says that it takes three or more years for coaches to build a winning talent. Of course, this is byproduct of player’s enveloping their potential and front offices adding players to a core group of talent; however, this should not deny coaches of their ability to build a culture.

We’ve seen it in Miami. Eric Spoelstra nearly won this past years’ coach of the year award partially because of the healing home Miami provides. Golden State has built a fantasy team based on the same ideals — an unselfish environment. A winning environment.

The best coaches are those who can be both great schemers and demand respect from their players. It is a part of why coaches like Fred Hoiberg and David Blatt don’t (and won’t) survive for long. The NBA is a melting pot of personalties making millions and millions of dollars. To build a team that doesn’t self implode and plays well towards a common goal is extremely hard — especially when each and every franchise has the same amount of money to work with. And yet outside factors like market size and team success makes every free agent decision a buffet line; which is why in some scenarios picking and plugging a player’s coach (I.E. Tyronn Lue, Luke Walton) is a safe option.

But this isn’t an option for small market teams. The threshold of risk/reward is low, and most small market teams don’t have a legitimate top 10 budding superstar (Except of course, for the Milwaukee Bucks, and they will be needing to fire Jason Kidd if he doesn’t let Giannis Antetokounmpo run free in the PnR sometime soon) therefore making a coaching hire like so quite pointless.

This makes it nearly impossible for small market teams to just be consistent playoff contenders. Tanking has been a last resort option until as of late — it causes a fanbase to test it’s patience and an ownership to watch ticket and jersey sales pour down the drain.

Finding a middle ground between mediocrity and building a winning culture without the ability to draw in big time free agents is the ultimate chess game, particularly when its an individual’s job and legacy on the line. Many general managers and executives end up making moves to keep their job, instead of building a winning team for two years from now. Even with a regulated cap, small market teams are destined for failure.

Theo Epstein, a name every baseball fan knows, faced the same predicament in 2010 as the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. Once a franchise starts winning, they’re expected to stay in contention for a playoff run every single year. Epstein, under pressure of ownership, went into free agency and unnecessarily paid Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzales a combined 14 years, 296 million dollars just to have them both be injured an non-factors as stars out of their prime. Making decisions outside of building a team’s success to come is shortsighted. Yet many still do out of fear of losing their job.

But sometimes a perfect storm of fortune, good player evaluation, with a coach who can both build a culture and run an efficient system, something magical happens. For a few years, teams like the Utah Jazz can enjoy success. Until, their all-star homegrown son leaves for a bigger market for the money and a better chance of winning a championship. (Yes, you, Gordon Hayward.)

This is the small market cycle.

In a world where loyalty is fickle, building a playoff contender while young stars are still under contract is vital. Can it be done?

The Denver Nuggets are in their third year of head coach Mike Malone. For 10 years Malone was an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State. He had the head coaching job with the Sacramento Kings for a year and 24 games, and has since held the job in Denver for two years.

Malone is respected in the media and the coaching community as a supporter of the pro-analytics movement, though his willingness to tinker with unorthodox lineups and pairings has been tested the past two years as he has had a rigid roster to work with. Malone has also been labeled by some as a “defensive specialist”, which is quite ironic, seeing last year’s Denver Nuggets were one of the worst defensive teams in the association.

Of course, this was more of a personnel issue than it is a reason to blame Malone’s lack of knowledge or ability the change the way the Nuggets play. Last year the Nuggets were slammed with the injury bug, and didn’t have a consistent lineup until after they traded away Jusuf Nurkic in the early winter. Not to mention having Nikola Jokic and Kenneth Faried as your front court isn’t doing anyone favors defensively.

So what did Malone do? He adjusted. He let Jokic grow into a larger role by running the entire offense through the center, created an offense where six players each attempted at least 10 field goals a game but less than 14. It was balanced, and it worked beautifully.

Jokic, in fact, has proven to be the bread and butter for the Denver Nuggets. His ability to do so many things offensively gives him this gravity that opens up shots everywhere for himself and his teammates. None of his scoring is overpowering a defender, but rather finding the open place on the floor and making the simple play that’s there for him. It’s turned Jokic into the most efficient scoring big men in the NBA.

For example, his face up and post up game. Here, Jokic effectively faces up his defender to the left of the key, scans the floor, puts the ball on the floor, fakes a spin off his left pivot foot, and lands an easy hook.

That very same drop step spin he used in the previous clip he uses here against the Knicks to get by a center on the perimeter to drive to the basket for an easy lay-in.

Again Jokic holds the ball up top and finds Gary Harris off a simple PnR for a cut to the basket.

Then, if one leaves him uncontested from three, Jokic can and will hit from deep.

Jokic’s ability to create and score from any play type makes him a deadly weapon. Per Synergy Sports, Jokic scored 1.116 points per possession in post ups, ranking in the 95th percentile, making him simply a scary scoring presence in the post. In the PnR, cutting action, offensive rebounds/putbacks, and spot ups, Jokic ranks at least in the 75th percentile.

What does this all mean? The dude can get and give buckets with the best of them.

Gary Harris and Jamal Murray both took steps forward last season, and all indications show that they will both continue to improve.

Harris, playing only 31.3 minutes per game on an very low 18.4 percent usage, averaged nearly 15 points per game, shooting 42 percent from deep and 50 percent from the field. He’s an athletic two-guard, very capable of cutting to the basket and finishing well.

Harris has the opportunity to be a very efficient scoring threat from deep as he continues to gain chemistry with Jokic while taking on a larger offensive role with the departure of Danilo Gallinari. Bumping up his production to 36 minutes, Harris would’ve averaged 17.2 points per game, which would’ve been second most on Denver last year. Per Synergy Sports, Harris ranked in the 92nd percentile in both spot up and transition scoring 1.292 points per possession. He’s a perfect target for Denver’s point center in Jokic.

Murray also has a chance to take another leap in production in his second year. Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas recently told Denver’s local sports radio station Altitude AM 950 “You have a 20 year old point guard, a 22 year old 2-guard, and a 22 year old center…” suggesting perhaps that Murray will have the opportunity to start for the Nuggets this year.

Murray is an above average ball-handler in the PnR and only has room to improve. Per Synergy Sports, Murray ranked in the 59th percentile in the PnR, it being nearly 40 percent of his scoring production in which he scored .932 points per possession. Murray as a ball handler in a roll with either of Denver’s starting bigs is a very efficient playtype; expect it to be a staple in Malone’s offense.

For example, this action right here will be employed often by Malone. A high pick (here for Nelson, but the same action is ran with Murray) with Jokic brings a help defender and leaves Harris wide open in the corner for a three, which he hits with ease.

The roster does have depth with Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Trey Lyles, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jameer Nelson, and Will Barton coming off the bench. No, none of that gets anyone excited. But they do have depth 9, 10 deep.

It is also a crowded backcourt. Malik Beaskey, drafted 18th overall last year, has potential as a prospect but is behind Barton, Harris, Murray, Mudiay in the backcourt. This is what made it difficult last year for Malone to find minutes and create lineups that worked well.

Yes, they could use another wing. Using Nick Sciria’s spacing rating, the Nuggets would only be in the 50th percentile using their optimal starting lineup. However, this won’t make or break the Nuggets until come the playoffs. A move can always be made before the deadline in February. Denver is not the high pace, transition offense that modern basketball minds have demanded to be embraced. In fact, they’re moving against the flow, much like Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.

And yes, Denver did lose their main scoring threat on the wing with Danillo Gallinari. But not all is lost. They replaced him with something better.

All-Star power forward Paul Millsap.

Millsap is the player Mike Malone probably dreams up as he sleeps at night — a team player who would fit into nearly every system in the NBA, while playing some of the best defense at power forward in the league, even at age 32.

Last year Millsap averaged 18.1 points per game, 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists with the Atlanta Hawks. His ability to play both the four and five, be an effective rim protector, will give Malone the option to potentially stagger Jokic and Millsap during the regular season. Malone could put Millsap at the five and have him post up offensively with a hodgepodge of three guards, playing small ball while Jokic is resting, as Millsap is an adept distributor. Denver could also run dual high posts with both Jokic and Millsap and then use a dribble hand-off threat, leaving back door cuts wide open. The possibilities are endless.

Per Synergy Sports Millsap averaged 1.004 points per possession in the post up play type, ranking him in the 83rd percentile. He also is ranked in the 71st percentile in isolation scoring, as well as ranking 76th in cutting. Instead of Mason Plumlee and Kenneth Faried cutting to the basket, Millsap will be there to finish possessions consistently.

Even though he only averaged .898 points per possession spotting up, considered average among all players, (partially because Dennis Schroeder isn’t the most adept playing in the PnR), Millsap joins Jokic as a two-headed PnR and PnP monster that will be extremely hard to defend, especially when sharpshooter Gary Harris is on the floor. The movement created, cuts, rotations causing a collective efficient shot selection is an offense designed to not only be aesthetically pleasing but extremely effective as well.

When Denver just needs a bucket, Millsap can and will do that. Here, you can see him just work on 7’3” Kristaps Porzingis, hitting an easy fall away jumper, one of his signature scoring moves.

For a Denver team that isn’t made to run opponents off the court, Millsap, not fleet of foot, is one of the best halfcourt players in the league joining what could be the best halfcourt offense in the league. While making last year’s league worse defense much improved.

Millsap could very well take on the role of the defensive anchor for the Denver Nuggets, something Malone has desperately needed. His track record of durability is also a huge plus, seeing that Denver was riddled with them last year.

As the Atlanta Hawks primary rim protector in 2015–16 (after they lost Al Horford to free agency), Millsap collected 1.7 blocks per game. At 6’8” and 250 pounds, he is a fierce presence in the post. If Denver jumped at least a handful of spots in the ranks defensively (which is no promise), along with their top 5 offense, they’re a guaranteed 50 plus win team-much like Millsap’s Hawks of the 2014 season.

Following his signing with the Nuggets, Millsap discussed with writer Chris Dempsey on how Denver compared to the best team he had ever played on — the 2014–15 Hawks.

“Especially with the younger guys that we have now in Denver, the growth is unbelievable,” said a wide eyed Milssap. “The sky is the limit. I think this team can be a lot better than that team. That was a 60 win team, so you know. I’m coming in this thing with high hopes, knowing and understanding what the situation is and knowing that we can be that team.”

Millsap’s expectations are high for the Denver Nuggets, but not at all unrealistic. This is a special group of players, a group that does rival the talents Millsap had in Atlanta only a few years ago.

This is the third year of Mike Malone’s tenure in Denver. Now is the time for him to prove he can take a team through the West and make it past the first round of the playoffs. This is the perfect storm small market franchises dream of, and the time to capitalize is now.

This is not to forget that Denver has a core of young players, including Jokic, Murray, Harris, Juancho Hernanogomez and Malik Beasley. The Nuggets did not expend their future to go after contention now with their acquisition of Millsap. This is a must for any small market team looking to stay successful, to stay the course, not deplete their assets in young players and draft picks.

While the NBA is collectively moving to a fast paced, stretch the floor, transition offense, Denver is zagging while everyone else zigs.

A dominant offense with two of the best post players in the association? It just might work.