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Nuggets on the Nuggets

USA TODAY Sports

Break up the Nugs! With a win over Boston Monday night in Denver, the Nuggets moved to 9-1 over their first ten games, cementing themselves as the surprise elite team of the NBA’s opening stretch. [Some might argue for the Bucks, but I covered the reasons they could vault into contention back in preseason.] What has keyed their fast start, and will it continue? Let’s jump around and look at some story lines:

Associated Press

CANADIAN, BAKIN’: Jamal Murray torched Boston’s second-ranked defense on Monday for 48 points, yet received more attention for the last two points he DIDN’T score. [Tangent: I get why teams are miffed when someone shoots unnecessarily out of “victory formation,” but come on. Is there no room for nuance here? The guy had 48 points, and he just wanted to get fifty. Give him a break. Fifty is a big deal; if he’d have made the last shot, when negotiating for his next contract, you don’t think his agent would bring up the time he poured in fifty damn points? Against the Celtics? The circumstances are extenuating enough that we should be able to give Murray at least a partial pass for his unwritten rules violation. In any case, it seems like REALLY sour grapes for the Celtics to be giving him a hard time for it, after he just laid FORTY-EIGHT POINTS on them, including nineteen in the fourth quarter of a competitive game. If you don’t want him to be shooting for 50 in the closing seconds, perhaps do something about him scoring the first forty-eight, no?]

Anyway, Murray’s had a few duds early on, but overall, he’s posting career-highs in points (18.9), rebounds (4.5), assists (3.4), field goal percentage (46.7%), minutes (32.6), PER (17.4), and Win Shares per 48 minutes (.151), and he’s at 22.3 ppg (on 51.5% shooting) over his last six games. The leap many were expecting from him is happening; it’s just been taking place in small increments prior to Monday’s coming-out party. He looks like a much more complete offensive player this season, particularly off the dribble, even as his outside shot has faltered early on (31.4% from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game), so his numbers should improve further as he straightens things out from deep. His Usage Rate is up, his turnover rate is down, and he is grading out as a net-positive on defense for the first time in his young career. Still only 21 years old, the arrow is pointing way up.

YOUTH GONE WILD: In addition to Murray, backcourt mate Gary Harris has taken another step forward in his development as well. The 24-year-old Harris’ production has been nearly identical to Murray’s (seriously, it’s uncanny how similar their statistical profiles are this season), but both the metrics and the eye test paint him as the superior defender of the two. He has improved every season in the pros, and is in the first year of a 4-year/$84 million extension, which could end up looking like a bargain as he hits his prime on the back end of the deal.

The bench has also had some success relying on young contributors. The usual small sample size caveats notwithstanding, the five-man bench mob of Malik Beasley (22), Monte Morris (23), Juancho Hernangomez (23), Trey Lyles (23), and Mason Plumlee (the old head at 28) has a net rating of +5.8 points per 100 possessions in just over 42 minutes of court time thus far. Morris is the kind of guy who will have a completely unremarkable ten-year-plus career in the league because he just knows what he’s doing on a basketball court. Hernangomez has been legitimately useful on both ends of the floor in a 3-and-D role (46.2% from 3 and a 104 Defensive Rating). Trey Lyles has struggled a bit with shooting and turnovers, but — and you may begin to notice a trend here — has been quite competent defensively.

[Here is where it’s helpful to point out the Nuggets’ front office could have simply drafted OG Anunoby with the 13th pick in the 2017 draft, rather than outsmarting themselves by trading back for the 24th pick plus Lyles, then getting stuck with the seemingly useless Tyler Lydon when Anunoby got scooped up by Toronto one pick earlier. Lyles is a nice player, but OG would have been the snuggest of fits for this roster, and they missed out on him because they tried to get too cute. Anunoby, for his part, is now marooned behind Kawhi Leonard — AKA the much, much better version of OG Anunoby — and seemingly regressing in Toronto, when he could be thriving as the ideal low-usage, 3-and-D starting SF for Denver. The NBA Butterfly Effect is infuriating sometimes. But I digress.]

As a team, the Nugs have the fourth-youngest average age in the league, which is generally not a formula for the type of success they’ve enjoyed so far. Of course, we can’t talk about the youth movement in Denver without bringing up the 250-pound Serbian elephant in the room…

NIKOLA JOKIC IS A MONSTER: I may have greatly understated the Joker’s MVP chances in my preseason column, listing him as an honorable mention. [Vegas had him at 100-to-1, so it’s not like his MVP bandwagon was exactly full to the brim.] He has instead become the league’s strangest, most contradictory superstar. He remains a bit doughy, plodding, and unathletic, and his scoring is down a tick so far this year, but by virtually any standard you could want to apply — game tape, traditional stats, advanced metrics, etc. — Jokic rates as one of the most indispensable players in the game.

His counting stats are no doubt impressive: 17.0 ppg/ 10.0 rpg / 7.7 apg/ 1.1 spg/ 1.0 bpg on 52/38/83 shooting splits. The assists obviously stand out, and it is no longer a hot take to argue in good faith that Jokic might be the best passing big man in NBA history. His court vision, awareness, feel for the game, and ability to deliver on-time, on-target passes to shooters and cutters is sui generis for a man of his size, but the traditional stats alone don’t entirely capture how special this guy is.

When we start to dig into the advanced metrics and rate stats, the picture becomes clearer. First, it’s important to remember he is still playing only 29.3 minutes per game, good for 91st in the league. If he ever gets his body in peak condition, we could certainly see a guy who does all the things he already does well PLUS gobbles up more minutes and possessions, which could conceivably get him closer to the 25+ ppg range. Even with the low minutes load, he is still a stat nerd’s wet dream. The efficiency jumps off the page: he is just 108th in the league in Usage Rate (which is a touch misleading, but let’s not get off track) but 4th in PER and 7th in Assist Percentage (and the only non-guard on the list until LeBron at 22nd). The all-in-one value metrics are even kinder to him: he’s 6th in total Win Shares (6th on offense, 4th on defense), 1st in Win Shares per 48 minutes (.293), 1st in Box Plus/Minus (11.3; 6th in OBPM, 2nd in DBPM), 3rd in Defensive Rating (99.6), and 2nd in VORP, just a tick behind Steph Curry, who you may have noticed is also playing like an MVP again.

You get the idea: by virtually every measure of overall on-court value we have at our disposal, Jokic rates as one of the league’s very best players. This isn’t overly surprising from an offensive perspective. What’s shocking to some is how much progress he has made on the defensive end. Metrics have always painted Jokic as a somewhat better defender than what his reputation suggests, but the game tape often showed a guy who simply lacked the foot speed and athleticism to consistently get to the right spots, stick with guards on switches, and contest shots. While he is never going to be a Rudy Gobert-like presence in the paint, he has cleaned up a lot of the positioning mistakes and become much more vocal. The return of Paul Millsap to the lineup — he played only 38 games last season — has undoubtedly helped Jokic. Millsap no longer carries the offensive value he once did during his prime in Utah and Atlanta, but he remains every bit the defensive standout he’s always been. Having another defensive captain on the back line has simplified both the matchups and the responsibilities for Jokic, allowing him to mature into the best version of himself.

Speaking of Denver’s D…

WAIT, THEIR DEFENSE IS…GOOD? Despite the inevitable boost from Millsap’s return, Denver’s leap on the defensive end from “comically awful” to “elite, maybe?” has to rate as one of the biggest surprises of the early season. They are currently sitting at 4th in Scoring Defense and 3rd in Defensive Rating after ranking 22nd and 25th last season, respectively. Our mental image of the Nuggets is always of a team who plays fast-paced, high-scoring shootouts in order to take advantage of their opponents’ lack of preparedness for the elevation in Denver, but this simply doesn’t appear to be who they are now. They rank only 24th in pace and 13th in scoring, both of which seem unfathomable. During the preseason, I questioned the addition of Isaiah Thomas, suggesting the goose he would provide to an already-potent offense may not be worth the chance he would trigger a complete defensive meltdown. Thomas still hasn’t suited up, so I haven’t been proven wrong in the technical sense yet, but it looks as though I was badly misreading the baseline the team would be starting from upon his return. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone.

There’s no reason to suspect the uptick on the defensive end is fluky or likely to regress to the mean. Their strength of schedule has been middle-of-the road, and all of the ancillary metrics back up what we’re seeing. They are doing a relatively good job defending the three, cleaning the defensive glass, and keeping offenses off the free throw line, all indicators of a healthy defensive ecosystem. Even better, the team could continue to improve on both ends because…

HELP IS ON THE WAY: The Nuggets have a number of potentially important role players on the shelf at the moment, even if some of that was by design to extract maximum value. The front office upped its risk profile in both free agency and the draft for the chance to reap big dividends, nabbing former All-Star Isaiah Thomas and former #1 overall high school recruit Michael Porter, Jr.  Both players remain out indefinitely with injuries and will need to be integrated carefully upon their returns to avoid physical setbacks as well as not upset the chemistry the current rotation is enjoying. Regardless, the potential for big-time scoring punch off the bench is clearly there for IT and Porter, despite the very different career stages they inhabit.

Perhaps more crucial will be the return of Will Barton. “Will the Thrill” is currently recovering from surgery to repair hip and core muscles, and will likely be out until sometime in December. Barton, the 40th overall pick in 2012, has worked hard to become a legitimately useful player. He acts as an agent of pace and chaos in a rotation where both are often needed. His absence has meant bigger roles for Hernangomez — who, as mentioned earlier, has been sneaky productive — and second-year journeyman Torrey Craig. At 28, Craig is what he is: a low-usage 3-and-D wing, except the “3” part of the equation is purely hypothetical. He’s started all eight games since Barton’s injury, but is only 3-of-19 from deep in 18.3 minutes per night. Craig has been solid on defense and the boards, but getting Barton back will once again slot him into a reduced role, and he could see even less burn if they are eventually able to assimilate Porter in any meaningful way. Lastly, the team is still without 2018 second round pick Jarred Vanderbilt out of Kentucky, who remains out indefinitely with a foot injury. Vanderbilt is something of an unknown after playing only 14 games at UK last year, but there is a scenario where his defense, rebounding, and energy earn him a spot in the rotation upon his return.

Suffice it to say, the team’s scintillating start does not appear to be a fluke. If coach Mike Malone can keep the defense playing at a high level and manage to incorporate the reinforcements along the way, there is a path to 55+ wins, MVP consideration for Jokic, and homecourt advantage for at least one playoff round in the brutal West. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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