The Denver Nuggets are still searching for the right balance

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After an up-and-down start to the 2019-20 campaign, the Denver Nuggets have found consistent success throughout the month of December, most notably over the past two weeks in which they have gone 7-1.

To begin the season, all the talk was about Denver’s top-ranked defense, which was fueling nearly all of the team’s success as the offense ranked in the low teens as the ball and player movement wasn’t at the levels of previous seasons.

However, that has all changed over the past two weeks, which saw Denver go on a seven-game winning streak up until Christmas. The main reason for that success? The Nuggets’ offense has found a rhythm.

Since Dec. 12, Denver’s offensive rating of 116.3 ranks second in the league and is a vast improvement from the team’s 107.2 offensive rating from the first 22 games of the season. There have been several factors behind the offensive surge, most notably a dominance on the offensive glass and hot 3-point shooting.

Over the past eight games, Denver has an offensive rebound percentage of 34.1 percent, which ranks first in the league. Compare that to the team’s first 22 games of the season in which they posted a 28.6 offensive rebound percentage, good for seventh in the league.

While the Nuggets are by no means a team that relies on 3-point shooting to fuel their offense, knocking down 38.7 percent of their shots from beyond the arc over the past two weeks certainly doesn’t hurt. Given the team’s impressive percentage, attempting more than 30.4 threes per game would go a long way in further boosting up the offense throughout the remainder of the season.

Once again, this is a marked improvement over the team’s 3-point shooting to begin the campaign. On a very similar number of attempts (30.7 per game), Denver connected on 35.7 percent of their 3-pointers in its 15-8 start.

“Obviously during this stretch, Nikola has been playing at an MVP level,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said before Wednesday’s matchup with the Pelicans. “Our offense is now playing at a top-three level and that’s not just Nikola. For the most part, our assists have been high, the turnovers have been low for the most part and we’re getting more production from our bench.”

However, with this drastic improvement on the offensive end, Denver’s defense has slipped in recent weeks. While the Nuggets still own a top-three defense (third in the league with a 103.9 defensive rating to be exact), their performance on that end of the floor hasn’t kept up as the offense broke out.

Over the past two weeks, Denver’s defensive rating of 108.4 ranks 14th in the league. Compare that to the team’s defensive rating of 102.5 up until Dec. 12 and one can see the reason behind the team’s urgency to be better on both ends of the floor simultaneously.

A big reason for this defensive decline is the team’s struggles on the defensive glass. During this 7-1 stretch, the Nuggets rank 28th in opponent offensive rebound percentage, as teams have grabbed 28.6 percent of their misses against Denver. However, the Nuggets are above average in the three of the four factors on defense (opponent effective field goal percentage, turnover rate and free throw rate).

“I don’t know,” Will Barton III said when asked why it’s been hard for Denver to maintain elite play on both ends. “We’re trying to figure out. We have to stay at it and get on the same page to have the offense and defense clicking at the same time. We can do it, but we just have to find the way to do it.”

Through 30 games, the Nuggets are still in a very good position. They currently sit second in the Western Conference and have tied the best start in the team’s NBA history at 21-9. The offense looks to be performing at previous levels from prior seasons, but now the focus shifts to maintaining an elite defense at the same time.

“It’s tough to pinpoint (the defensive issues),” Barton III said. “We have to fix it. I think we’re having lapses where we’re all not sprinting back, getting back in transition. You know, sometimes when shots are falling (on offense) you take your foot off the gas on the other end. We’ve got to get back to playing a complete game on both sides of the ball.”

Last season, Denver finished with the seventh-ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense on its way to 54 wins. This season, there is reason to believe that both of those rankings can be reached, or even improved on given the team’s continuity and personnel updates from last season. The Nuggets’ ability to be elite on both ends of the floor will decide the team’s ceiling and playoff fate come the Spring.