82 games can come and go with rapid speed throughout an NBA regular season. Believe it or not, the Denver Nuggets have just about reached the midway point of the 2021-22 campaign, with Saturday’s matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers representing game 41 on the schedule following two postponements last month.
The Mile High squad currently sits at 21-19, good for sixth in the Western Conference. Denver ranks 19th on the offensive end of the floor and 13th on defense, per Cleaning the Glass. In our quarter-season review in late November, the main talking points around the Nuggets were the increased number of absences in the rotation and the dominance of reigning MVP Nikola Jokić.
Well… not much has changed over the past 20 games or so, as the Serbian big man has continued to put up eye-popping numbers while Denver has been forced to adjust its rotation on a nightly basis due to player availability.
With that being said, let’s take a closer look at the past month or so of action and dive into the Nuggets’ second quarter of the 2021-22 season.
Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokić
Although it hasn’t resulted in a higher win percentage over the second quarter of the season, the Serbian big man continued to make his case for a repeat MVP trophy.
In December, Jokić averaged 25.2 points, 14.4 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game in 33.1 minutes per contest. Although the scoring average reflects a slight decrease (from 27.7 per game in November) as a result of lower efficiency (52.2 percent from the field and 28.3 percent from beyond the arc), Jokić increased his assists per game and rebounding from the previous month.
That play has carried over into the new year, as Jokić currently owns averages of 24.7 points, 13.9 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game in January.
The advanced metrics also continue to make a compelling case for the three-time All-Star, as Jokić leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating (32.1), Box Plus-Minus (+13.4), and Value Over Replacement Player (4.5). A string of wins would certainly help Jokić rise up the MVP leaderboard in the third quarter of the season.
Top performance: Nikola Jokić’s triple-double against the Pelicans (12/8)
It’s always a difficult exercise to select just one top performance from Jokić’s game log. After all, the reigning MVP dropped three 20/20 games since we last checked in at the quarter mark of the season. Of course, there are also the high-assist games and the contests in which Jokić shoots well over 60 percent from the field.
Well, there was one performance that incorporated a little bit of everything, and it took place in New Orleans back on Dec. 8. In an overtime victory against the Pelicans, Jokić willed Denver to the finish line with 11 points in the overtime period alone.
Those 11 points contributed to a monster stat line, as the Serbian big man finished with 39 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists, all on 73.9 percent shooting from the field. Talk about doing it all.
X-Factor: Monte Morris
After a relatively slow start to the season, Monte Morris has assumed the role of steady playmaker and off-ball player in Denver’s starting lineup with plenty of success. Unsurprisingly, this is reflected in the numbers, as Morris averaged 14.7 points and 4.2 assists per game in December, on 50.7 percent from the field and 45 percent from deep.
In January, Morris has continued to produce with averages of 12.2 points and 3.6 assists per game on 48.9 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from downtown. Both the eye test and numbers reflect Morris’ impact for the Nuggets, with the Iowa State product owning a +15.9 net rating this season. The Mile High squad has been better on both ends of the floor when Morris has been on the court this season, highlighting his importance for the Nuggets down the stretch of the regular season.
Area for improvement: Offensive rebounding
It’s no secret that things haven’t gone according to plan for the Nuggets this season. The team continues to huddle around .500 as a result of key absences and inconsistent play on both ends of the floor.
One interesting component of Denver’s struggles on the offensive end of the floor is the team’s lack of success on the offensive glass, an area the Nuggets have thrived in during the Michael Malone era. In each of the past six seasons, Denver has finished in the top three in the league in offensive rebound percentage. However, that number has dropped to 26th this season as the team has relied on smaller frontcourt combinations and focused on tightening its transition defense.
Heading into the season, the Nuggets (and Malone) put an emphasis on transition defense, which certainly impacts offensive rebounding directly. Denver’s other rankings in the offensive four factors (effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, and free-throw rate) are similar to last season, making the dip in offensive rebound percentage the noticeable difference.
Best win: Road win against the Warriors (12/28)
The second quarter of the season has nearly mirrored the first quarter, with the Nuggets trading wins and losses each week. However, a tough, grind-it-out defensive battle in San Francisco on Dec. 28 certainly represented Denver’s most impressive win since our last check-in.
Both teams were dramatically shorthanded and certainly struggled to make shots (Denver finished the game at 41 percent from the field, while Golden State shot 41.7 percent), but the Nuggets capitalized on the Warriors’ mistakes and built enough of an advantage on the glass to secure the win, which included a key block from Jokić in the final seconds.
A runner-up for this category would be Denver’s best offensive performance of the season, which came in a 133-115 victory over the Atlanta Hawks back on Dec. 17.
Toughest defeat: Road loss to the Thunder (12/22)
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, there have been a few candidates for this category over the past month-and-a-half of hoops.
Denver has lost a few games over the past month or so in which the team held a double-digit lead, including recent defeats to the LA Clippers and Charlotte Hornets.
However, perhaps the toughest of the losses in the second quarter of the season came on Dec. 22 in Oklahoma City. Following their dominant victory in Atlanta, Denver was supposed to take the road trip to Brooklyn for a key matchup against the Nets. Unfortunately, that game was postponed and the Nuggets found themselves with four days off before taking on the Thunder.
That extended break seemed to have caused some rust, as Denver came out sluggish from the opening tip and fell behind by double-digits in the first quarter. Oklahoma City dominated on the glass (60-39 advantage in rebounds) on its way to a 108-94 victory which halted all of Denver’s momentum that was built in the win over Atlanta.
Quote: "Going forward, I think we have yet to show our best basketball through all four quarters. I think we’ve showed glimpses but haven’t showed it in the whole four quarters. That’s a good thing because I know it’s coming. There’s a lot of games left on our schedule.” - Monte Morris following Denver’s win over the Wizards (12/13)