Denver Nuggets Friday Film Study: Early season observations

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

Early-season results in the NBA can be tricky to evaluate and believe in. While there are certainly some teams performing at the level expected of them prior to the start of the regular season, there are always teams playing above or below their heads during the opening weeks.

For the Denver Nuggets, a 5-2 start hasn’t come without some eye-opening trends. Similar to the start of the 2018-19 season, Denver has relied more on its defense to win early games as the offense continues to find its footing. Several players are thriving to begin the year, while others are looking for their shooting touch or identifying the best time for cuts toward the basket.

Of course, a seven-game sample size must be taken with a grain of salt. Players and teams will stabilize and performances will even out across the board as the true playoff contenders distance themselves from younger, rebuilding teams. With that being said, let’s take a look at some early season developments for the Nuggets.

The Thrill has returned

Will Barton III regained his spot in the starting lineup and hasn’t disappointed so far this season. Despite missing two games with a toe injury, Barton III has provided additional playmaking, scoring and even rebounding.

The 28-year-old forward has averaged 14.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game on 55 percent true shooting. The rebounding has been a big boost for Denver, especially on the offensive glass, where Barton III is averaging two boards a contest. The early returns on Barton III’s impact have been extremely impressive, as the Nuggets have been +30.2 points per 100 possessions when the veteran has been on the floor. This is mainly a result of Barton III’s impact on the defense, which is 22.5 points per 100 possessions better when he has been on the court.

While Barton III likely won’t shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc for the entire season, his shooting inside the arc should rebound to previous levels. In his first five games, Barton III has connected on only 36.8 percent of his two-point attempts, well below his career average of 47.6 percent. Despite these struggles inside the arc, Barton III showcased his ability and desire to attack the basket and put pressure on the defense, as he completed several and-ones around the rim in Denver’s win over the Miami Heat.

“I think Will, when he’s locked in and focused like he’s playing right now, he gives you a lot of positives on both ends of the floor,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said, following the win over the Heat.

If the Nuggets are getting Will “the Thrill” Barton III for the 2019-20 season, their offense will be even more dynamic, while the defense will benefit from his length and energy.

Murray has thrived inside the arc

As mentioned earlier, Barton III has struggled to knockdown his shots inside the 3-point line. However, point guard Jamal Murray has had no such issues, which has fueled his strong start to the season.

Despite 35.5 percent 3-point shooting, Murray’s 55.9 true-shooting percentage to begin the season would be the second highest of his career. This is mainly a result of Murray’s strong two-point shooting and his increase in free-throw attempts. As a career 87.7 percent free-throw shooter, Murray’s ability to get to the foul line can be extremely valuable for Denver’s offense, and the fourth-year guard has looked to do just that in the first seven games.

The 22-year-old’s .308 free throw rate (number of FT attempts per FG attempt) would be a career-high by a wide margin and his 49.6 percent shooting on two-pointers would rank a close second to his 50.2 percent in the 2017-18 season. Much of this impressive two-point shooting has come around the rim, where Murray is posting career-highs in field-goal percentage from within three feet of the rim (63.2 percent) and from within three and 10 feet of the rim (46.7 percent).

Murray has always had impressive balance and strength when getting off contested shots around the rim, and this season has been no different.

As a career 36.2 percent 3-point shooter, Murray will likely have more success from beyond the arc as the season develops. If that improvement is coupled with a more aggressive approach when driving to the rim, Murray is poised for the best scoring season of his career.

Defense has led the way so far

Although the Nuggets are known more for their elite offense, it has been the team’s defense that has led the charge early in the season for the second year in a row. Denver ranks 11th on that end of the floor (excluding garbage time), which has been a result of a balanced approach on that end of the floor.

Denver ranks 16th or higher in each of the defensive four factors: eighth in opponent effective field goal percentage, 13th in opponent turnover percentage, 16th in opponent offensive rebound percentage and 15th in opponent free throw rate.

Against the Heat Tuesday, Denver put together a defensive clinic, especially in the second and third quarters as the game was effectively decided. The Nuggets were aggressive in challenging shots around the rim and were active in the passing lanes, which led to just 21 Miami points in the third frame.

“They played well defensively-this is a good defensive team as well. They’re well-schooled and well-drilled,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said following the game.

Denver’s starting lineup has thrived on the defensive end to start the year. In the 98 minutes that unit has shared the floor together, it has posted a defensive rating of just 91.1, which ranks second in the league among lineups that have played at least 50 minutes this season. As Jerami Grant continues to adjust to Denver’s defensive scheme, his athleticism and shot blocking will be another boost to that end of the floor throughout the grind of the regular season.

While many expected to see the offense sprint out of the gates given the roster continuity, it has been the other end of the floor that has impressed and led to the 5-2 start for the Nuggets.

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