Denver Nuggets Midseason Review: What we’ve learned

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

Forty-one games in, it is clear the Nuggets are still managing the challenges of higher expectations. Last season, the team was a surprise success, securing 54 wins and a trip to the Western Conference semifinals. This campaign, Denver isn’t sneaking up on anyone and the team is realizing it has to bring out its best on a nightly basis in a highly-competitive Western Conference. 

READ MORE: Will Barton III weighs in on the first half of the season

Michael Malone’s team has lived up to expectations for the most part. The Nuggets have a better winning percentage than they did last season, winning 70.7 percent of their games this season as opposed to 67.4 in the 2018-19 campaign. More impressively, the team has a 56.3 percent win rate against opponents with a .500 record or better, that’s fourth in the NBA behind the Bucks, Heat and Lakers. The key for this group will be avoiding costly defeats to non-playoff teams as the Nuggets have seven defeats to sub .500 teams. 

Here’s what we’ve learned from the first half of the season: 

Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokić 

Jokić has been playing at an NBA MVP-level since Dec. 1, averaging 21.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists on 54.7 percent shooting in 23 games. The 24-year-old’s dramatic improvement in three-point shooting proved pivotal, going from 23.2 percent in the first two months of the season to 41.8 percent in December and January. 

Jokić has also been an unheralded defender this season, posting the best defensive rating of his career at 103.1.  His efforts on that end have helped the Nuggets keep several All-Star centers at bay, including Joel Embiid (40 percent shooting) and Karl-Anthony Towns (34.8 percent). 

Top Performance: Jokić vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, Dec. 14. 

The Thunder couldn’t contain Jokić, who went off for 28 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists in a 110-102 win for the Nuggets. It was a significant turning point for Jokić, who struggled to find consistency on offense earlier in the season. Against Oklahoma City, Jokić played with the same assertiveness that saw him dominate during the playoffs last season. 

“For Nikola getting past those struggles that everybody goes through, it’s just handling adversity,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game. “[It is] staying with it and finding a way to stay aggressive, knowing that’s the only way you’re going to right that ship.”  

He’s been on a torrid stretch ever since. 

Surprise Development: Michael Porter Jr.’s efficient offense 

Similar to Jokić, Porter Jr. got going in December and showed glimpses of the vast offensive potential that led to him that had many speculating he would be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Concerns about injuries would see him slip to No. 14, where the Nuggets were fortunate to have a chance to select Porter Jr.

At the start of the season, there were questions about Porter Jr.’s ability to mesh in the Nuggets’ offense. The rookie, who was the No. 1-ranked high school player in 2017 according to Rivals, previously played on teams that allowed him to dominate the ball. In Denver, Porter Jr. would need to find a niche on a team that won 54 games last season. One way he’s been able to do that is by taking high-percentage shots within the flow on the offense. 

In Porter Jr.’s breakout performance against the Pacers, he was 11 of 12 and nine of those field goals were directly inside the paint as shown in the shot chart below. 

When Porter Jr. plays 20 minutes or more, he has an incredible true shooting percentage of 77.9 percent. For reference, Mitchell Robinson currently leads the NBA in the stat at 70.9 percent. 

Area for improvement: Defense

The Nuggets are fighting to get back to where they were in the first two months of the season when they had the No. 1-rated defense (101.9). 

Since Dec. 1, the Nuggets have slipped to 19th in defensive rating (110.5) and are allowing opponents to shoot 47.3 percent against them ( 25th). 

If there is any silver lining, the team’s offense has rebounded from a slow start, rising up to seventh in offensive rating (111.0). Hopefully, the defense can follow suit. 

Best Win: Nuggets 107, Mavericks 106

In a nationally-televised contest between two of the NBA’s biggest European stars, it was Jokić who would edge Luka Dončić in a thriller on Jan. 8.

Jokić hit four threes en route to a 33-point, seven-assist night. The Nuggets center wasn’t the only player who stood out in the win. Jerami Grant played effective defense all night, making three critical blocks to go along with his 15 points and Mason Plumlee was impactful off the bench, adding 10 points, five boards and four dimes. 

Toughest Defeat: Nuggets 114, Wizards 128

The Nuggets allowed the Wizards’ bench to score 92 points, the second-highest output in NBA history. Only the 1977 Warriors have topped the feat, scoring 94 bench points against the Pacers in a 150-91 victory. It was a listless performance against an undermanned Washington team and Malone didn’t mince words after the Jan. 4 loss. 

“The reality is that this is the NBA. I don't care who plays, they're all professionals playing for something,” Malone said. 

Quote: 

“Honestly, I just have to let the game come to me, really just have fun out there. I play my best when I’m playing free and just playing the game and not really fearing the consequences of anything.”

- Porter Jr. on his recent improvement

 

 

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