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Denver Nuggets must improve off-ball movement to maximise Nikola Jokic's elite passing

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Mark Deeks, Sky Sports NBA analyst

Thursday 13 February 2020 05:00, UK

Nikola Jokic looks to pass against the Orlando Magic
Image: Nikola Jokic looks to pass against the Orlando Magic

The Denver Nuggets, in particular perimeter players Gary Harris and Will Barton, need to improve their off-ball movement to maximise Nikola Jokic's elite passing skills, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.

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One of the criticisms of the modern NBA is how too many teams play so similarly. With the onset of the analytics movement and the resultant greater understanding of shot value, teams now play in a much more homogeneous way - the expanded community knowledge base leads to groupthink, which leads to orthodoxy, which runs counter to individuality.

When compared to the college game, which features some very distinct styles of play (proprietary zone defenses, post-up based systems, some relentlessly fast-paced teams, some unconscionably slow, et cetera), the NBA does look quite samey.

Nikola Jokic finishes at the rim against Utah 1:57
Nikola Jokic posted a 30-point, 10-assist, 21-rebound triple-double to lead the Denver Nuggets to a 98-95 win over the Utah Jazz

The universal embracing of the greater value of the three-pointer, the superior floor spacing it offers/requires and the value of shooting earlier in the shot clock has led to a league-wide scoring explosion over the past few years built around four- or five-out line-ups and high pick-and-rolls, combined with new orthodox defensive standards (length and athleticism at all positions, switching if possible) that have moved the NBA in a new direction, but not an especially diverse one.

Of course, there are some exceptions. The Houston Rockets have bought in more than anyone else with the volume three-point shooting, attempting by far the most of any team in NBA history, but the way they do it is distinctly different. James Harden's ball dominance and the team's reliance on isolation possessions for both him and Russell Westbrook, combined with now deliberately starting a 6ft 6in guy at center, are not mirrored anywhere else.

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To a lesser degree, the San Antonio Spurs are also different in how they are still playing a post-based office with a heavy diet of mid-rangers that runs counter to the new way, and some defensive variety can still be found around the league as well. The Miami Heat have run plenty of zone this year, albeit not especially effectively, and teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks (who do not have athletic centers and who thus cannot play the multi-positional defensive line-ups of many of their peers) prioritise rim protection, funnelling opponents to specific areas rather than meeting them at the line.

Another one of the exceptions to the orthodoxy are the Denver Nuggets. Built around the unique talents of Nikola Jokic, they are not a pace-and-space team, playing at the second-slowest pace of any team in the league and also ranking distinctly middle of the back (16th) in three-point percentage as a team, on the fifth-fewest total attempts.

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San Antonio at Denver 1:23
Highlights of the San Antonio Spurs' clash with the Denver Nuggets in Week 17 of the NBA

Of course, defying the orthodoxy has not cost them. With a 38-16 record, they rank second in the Western Conference behind only the Los Angeles Lakers, and have the fourth-highest win total of any team in the NBA. They have survived myriad injuries and yet another poor November by Jokic himself to become a legitimate title contender, just as good as the Lakers in an extremely different way.

Because teams have only five players on the court at any one time, basketball is different to sports such as football in how much any individual player can affect a team's style. This is particularly true of Jokic, a fantastically skilled and unique player who is by any measure 'lumbering'. Built like a gasworks, Jokic is one of the slowest and least athletic stars in recent memory. It is therefore nigh-on possible to play at any kind of pace with a team built around him.

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That said, while 'pace' may be hard, 'space' should still be doable. The fact that Jokic is an elite passer is potentially something the team is still not fully exploiting. Specifically, should a team with such a tremendous scoring and passing hub in the middle of the court not shoot better than this from outside, and also create more efficient looks at the basket through off-ball movement?

The two-man pick-and-roll game between Jokic and starting point guard Jamal Murray is at the core of everything the Nuggets do offensively, and it is proven to be effective even though Murray has not hit from three-point range particularly well this season (35.3 per cent).

Gary Harris has become vital on the defensive end for the Nuggets
Image: Gary Harris has become vital on the defensive end for the Nuggets

Gary Harris, who continues a worryingly-long slump on his way to a .496 effective shooting percentage, the seventh-lowest of the 171 players to have averaged at least 25 minutes per game this season. With sweet-shooting reserve shooting guard Malik Beasley traded away at last week's deadline, much of the spacing now comes from the frontcourt positions.

It surely helps the offense if the off-ball players - that is to say, everyone not in the Murray/Jokic two-man game - were to move more off the ball, screen for each other, work through the shooting and cutting angles the multi-option play creates in the seams of a constantly adjusting defense. As it is currently, while the Nuggets can offer some level of shooting at every position and from every player in their rotation except for Mason Plumlee, the shooters do tend to float around the perimeter, rather than go on sharp cuts to the rim.

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Particularly guilty of this are Harris and starting small forward Will Barton. After struggles with both injury and efficiency last season, Barton is shooting better overall this year, but he often does so by just raising up, particularly in transition. He is unrelentingly confident (to the point that it is sometimes a detriment in clutch situations) and one of the better on-ball drivers on the team, yet he would surely improve his own otherwise versatile game if he were to try to get to the rim without the ball more regularly.

Barton expends good energy, covering the most ground of any player on the team, but not expending it optimally, and the fact that he ranks in the 98th percentile in possessions as a cutter and only the 57th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, while doing the latter six times more often, speaks to the issue highlighted here.

Will Barton attacks the basket against the Mavericks
Image: Will Barton attacks the basket against the Mavericks

You can find a few highlight plays per game for the Nuggets in which Jokic hits a cutter for an easy lay-up. It feels like it should be more than just a few, though.

Per NBA.com's tracking data, the Nuggets throw the seventh-most passes at 302.0 per game, but not all passes are created equal. As a simple measure of that, with the likely exception of the Memphis Grizzlies, every team that throws more than that will miss the playoffs this season. The two teams with by far and away the fewest passes, the aforementioned Harden-led Houston Rockets and the Damian Lillard-led Portland Trail Blazers (both of whom throw nearly 100 less per game than the league-leading Golden State Warriors) have prodigious individual isolation backcourt scorers.

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In not having that, the Nuggets need to move the ball around more than their peers. And with a passer like Jokic, they do attempt this. Jokic averages 6.9 assists per game, a normal total for him yet unheard of for any other five-man in the game today. As a direct result of this, Denver rank third in the league in assists per game at 26.4, and ninth in the league in assists points created at 65.8.

However, not all assists are created equal, either. And a pass to a perimeter player who spots up and hits the three counts as an assist, no matter how un-incisive the pass was.

preview image 1:37
Highlights of the Denver Nuggets' visit to the Phoenix Suns in Week 16 of the NBA season

There is a stagnancy to the perimeter movement of these Nuggets at times that limits their offensive potential. Eighth in the league in offensive rating despite great depth and a unique superstar, you would think that a team with a player that hits cutters as well as Jokic does would create more of them. But while the ball does move around the perimeter, the backcourt and wing players do not cut baseline or work around Jokic as much as they could.

The Nuggets do attempt quite a few efficient looks, yet a lot of that comes down to the offensive rebounding. They grab the second-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the league, with Jokic, Plumlee, Paul Millsap and Michael Porter Jr all excelling in this area. A diet of these put-backs, outside jumpers and Jokic's ability to score in the post should make for an efficient overall unit.

preview image 2:04
Jamal Murray dominated in the Nuggets 117-108 win over the Suns with 36 points, five assists and five rebounds

The stagnant movement around the Jokic/Murray pick-and-roll, however, means a lack of shooters getting open on the perimeter, hence the low volume of outside attempts. By and large, they want to cut and they want to shoot. But a line-up that should be incredibly well-spaced is not so, because the movement and passes are not optimised.

Denver are good. Very good, even. With a crop of players this good, it would be hard not to be. Considering that they have had injuries to most of their rotation players at some point this season, they are impressive.

But a little bit more movement from Harris and a little less 'heroball' from Barton could see them move up to become the favourite to come out of the West. As it is, they have not fully reached their potential yet.

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