Heading into the 2021-22 season, questions surrounded the Denver Nuggets given the expected absence of Jamal Murray for most of the regular season as the Mile High squad attempted to navigate an always difficult Western Conference.
With Monday’s game against the Miami Heat being the 20th contest for the Nuggets this season, what better time to check in with the team than at the unofficial quarter-season mark?
Denver has dealt with plenty of adversity throughout the first 20 games, with injuries depleting the team’s rotation on a regular basis. Michael Porter Jr. has only appeared in nine games for Denver, while other key figures such as reigning MVP Nikola Jokić and Will Barton have missed a few games due to injury.
With that being said, Denver currently sits at 10-10, with the team owning the 16th-ranked offense and 19th-ranked defense, per Cleaning the Glass. Without further ado, let’s run through the first quarter of the season for the Nuggets in more detail.
Most Valuable Player: Nikola Jokić
Believe it or not, Jokić has responded to earning MVP for the 2020-21 season by reaching a new level of dominance.
The Serbian big man owns averages of 26.2 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game on 59.5/41.3/75.3 shooting splits. Jokić has pulled off a rare feat of increasing his usage (from 29.6 percent during his MVP campaign to 31.5 percent this season) while simultaneously increasing his true shooting percentage to a career-high 67.1 percent this season.
Look at almost any advanced metric and Jokić not only bests his performance from last season but actually leads the league in that respect. Denver has been 32 points per 100 possessions better with the 26-year-old on the floor, which ranks first in the league this season (and is slightly ahead of Aaron Gordon, who we’ll discuss shortly).
Although his assists are down this season, Jokić has become one of, if not the most dominant scorers in the league, a force on the glass, and a more than capable initiator, able to set up his teammates for easy buckets. Should Denver’s record bounce back into the upper tier of the league, Jokić is certainly making another compelling case for a second-consecutive MVP trophy.
Top performance: Nikola Jokić (vs. Spurs on 10/22)
It sounds strange to say, but through the first quarter of the season, there hasn’t been a truly awe-inspiring, dominant performance from a Nugget. Of course, Nuggets Nation has been spoiled in recent years by witnessing multiple 50-point performances from Murray and Jokić, with a slew of 30-point triple-doubles sprinkled in from the Serbian big man.
As a result, an early performance from Jokić gets the nod here at this point in the season. Following a big road win against the Suns (more on that later), Denver returned home to open the slate of games at Ball Arena against a young San Antonio Spurs squad.
The game was close throughout, with neither team gaining a significant advantage heading into crunch time. As he has done regularly throughout his career, Jokić took over when it mattered most, scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter (while also dishing out two assists) to help pull out the win.
In the end, Jokić finished with 32 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals on 14-of-19 shooting from the field.
X-Factor: Aaron Gordon
Outside of Jokić’s improved dominance and the slew of injuries hurting Denver’s rotation, perhaps no other development has been as crucial throughout the opening quarter of the season than Gordon’s stellar play on both ends of the floor in his first full season with the Nuggets.
Gordon currently owns averages of 13.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game on a 59.8 true shooting percentage (which would be career-high). The 26-year-old forward has focused on attacking the basket this season and has thrived inside the paint, shooting a career-high 78.9 percent around the rim this season. However, while Gordon is attempting fewer 3-pointers (2.8 per game), he has knocked down 35.7 percent of those attempts, which can help him thrive in an off-ball role within the offense.
The bigger story has come on the defensive end for Gordon, who has assumed the responsibility of being Denver’s primary defender against the opponents’ best player on a nightly basis. The Nuggets’ defense has been 9.7 points per 100 possessions better with Gordon on the floor this season, with the 6-foot-8 forward matching up regularly against the likes of Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Ja Morant, and Jimmy Butler.
This is the role Denver envisioned for Gordon when he arrived in Denver back in March, and the 26-year-old has embraced and thrived in it, which will be even more important once Murray returns and Denver gets closer to full strength.
Area for improvement: Offense
One thing that has become synonymous with the Nuggets throughout the majority of Michael Malone’s tenure as head coach has been a high-scoring offense that powers Denver’s success.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Nuggets have ranked in the top seven in offensive rating in each of the past five seasons dating back to the 2016-17 campaign, which is also the season Jokić established himself as the focal point on that end of the floor.
However, as of Tuesday morning, the Nuggets ranked 16th on the offensive end, held back by 3-point shooting struggles, a decrease in offensive rebounding, and early issues taking care of the ball.
After shooting 37.7 percent from beyond the arc last season (seventh-highest percentage in the league), Denver has only hit 33.5 percent from deep this season, good for 20th in the league. Meanwhile, an emphasis on getting back in transition to limit fast break opportunities for opponents has resulted in a decrease in attacking the offensive glass, an area the Nuggets have dominated in recent years.
In fact, the Nuggets have ranked in the top three of offensive rebound percentage in each of the last six seasons. This season Denver is down to 22nd in ORB%, a steep drop from last season. Finally, although the Nuggets have cut down their turnovers in recent weeks, struggles to value each possession held Denver’s offense back throughout the opening weeks of the season.
Once Denver gets more firepower back in the lineup and sees some shots fall from deep, the offense should bounce back closer to the top 10 of the league. It is important to note that offense as a whole is down across the league, as teams struggle to hit from deep and adjust to the new officiating points of emphasis.
Best win: Suns (10/20)
Although the first quarter of the season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Nuggets, there have still been some impressive victories within the first 20 games. From defeating the Indiana Pacers without Jokić and Porter Jr. to comfortable victories over the Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers within a five-game winning streak earlier this month, Denver has pulled out some notable wins.
However, none are more impressive than the season-opening victory over the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 20. Down by 16 at one point in the game, the Nuggets battled back and held Phoenix to just 40 points in the second half, ultimately leading to a 110-98 victory for the Mile High squad.
Led by Jokić’s 27 points, Denver had six players score in double-figures and used hot 3-point shooting (17-of-39) to help pull out the road win to open the season.
Toughest defeat: 76ers (11/18)
Nearly all of Denver’s losses during the team’s six-game losing streak could be explained by the shorthanded nature of the rotation and/or the impact of the schedule (i.e., the second night of a back-to-back).
However, Denver had Jokić in the lineup for its home game against a 76ers team without Joel Embiid, Danny Green, and Matisse Thybulle. Philadelphia had lost five in a row heading into the contest against the Nuggets, but Denver was unable to get anything going offensively, which resulted in a 103-89 loss.
Given that this was also the game in which Jokić suffered the wrist sprain that would keep him out of action for the ensuing four games, it was certainly a tough pill to swallow.
Quote: “We’re a team trying to win a championship and championship teams make plays like that.” – Will Barton following his game-saving block to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves on Oct. 30.