The Denver Nuggets’ Weird 2-1 Start

As the Denver Nuggets get ready to face the Utah Jazz (as this goes to press it’s about two hours from tipoff), they are going to have to overcome a weird and disturbing three-game start to the season.

Sure, they’re two up and one down after losing 99-87 to Cleveland Monday night, but one 87-point game generally doesn’t drag a team too badly even in the first three.

The Nuggets are 26th in the league in Offensive Rating at a pathetic 100.1. Combine that with their 99.6 pace (eighth-slowest in the rapid-fire NBA of 2021) and they’re not even cracking 100 points a game—although they did top that mark in each of their first two contests.

This is a team that is fourth in the league in field goal percentage. They’re hitting 59.5 percent—tops in the NBA—of their two-pointers. But it doesn’t take more than about a minute of looking at the stats—or about half an hour’s worth of watching the replay of the Cleveland game on League Pass—to know what’s wrong, and it speaks volumes about what Denver needs to work on as this season develops.

Horrific Free-Throw Shooting

Denver is shooting an absolutely hideous 62.1 percent from the free throw line, easily the worst in the league. What’s more, their FTR of .114 is downright disgusting. They’re not drawing contact, and when they do get to the line, they’re missing (18-of-29 total.)

Sure, the NBA is actually serious about not calling ticky-tack fouls this year. “Let them play” seems to be the order of the day. A combination of the James Harden Rule and a shorter window for continuation calls has held league-wide FTR to a lowest-of-all-time .218.

But even by that standard, Denver is awful. There’s a difference between “ref didn’t call it” and “player is avoiding contact.” And nothing excuses 62.1 percent. Even the BAA of 1947 shot better than that (64.5 percent) overall. I know it’s retro-nostalgia year for basketball, but this is too literal.

Give It Away, Give It Away Now

Seriously, who drew up the Nuggets’ offense, the Red Hot Chili Peppers? Per 100 possessions, Denver has 18.8 turnovers. Coughing up the ball on one of every five possessions is no way to win a basketball game.

Indeed, Denver might well be 1-2 or even 0-3 if not for the fact that their defense is sixth in the league thanks largely to having the fifth-best opponents’ turnover rate.

Nikola Jokic already has 15 turnovers in three games. Aaron Gordon has coughed it up nine times. JaMychal Green has eight in just 38 minutes so far. Only Will Barton (two turnovers in 97 minutes) and PJ Dozier (one TO in 52 minutes) are averaging less than one a game outside of garbage time guys.

Denver needs to take better care of the ball.

Three Is More Than Two. Two Is More Than Zero.

As mentioned, Denver is hitting 59.5 percent from two-point range. Jokic is leading this charge; he is 32-of-44 (72.7 percent) on his 2-pointers.

Where things get ugly is beyond the arc. Denver is hitting just 32.7 percent from 3-point range, 20th in the league. They’re 11th in 3PAR at .420 even as they’re shooting them like they’re stoned out there.

This ultimately speaks to just how valuable the low post is. Jokic is getting 33.9 percent of his shots from three feet and in. He’s nailing 84.2 percent of them.

Gordon has an even better low-post presence. He’s getting 46.2 percent of his shots from close and scoring 83.3 percent of the time.

Overall, Denver is getting 23.5 percent of their shots from three feet and in. Their .817 FG% on such shots is the best in the league.

So What Have We Learned?

Well, for one thing, there’s no way Denver is shooting 32.7 percent from long range for the whole season. No team is that bad. Denver is no more likely to sustain 32.7 percent than the league-worst Pistons are to shoot 22.5 percent for a whole season. That all comes back to small sample sizes (which make the best stats!)

Denver’s 59.5 percent on twos probably isn’t sustainable either. The last three leaders in 2PT% as a team were Milwaukee in 2019 and ’20 and Brooklyn last year. Their marks were 56.5, 56.7, and 56.5 respectively. And even that’s a giant leap forward thanks to the death of the midrange jump shot. The 73-9 Warriors led the NBA in 2-point percentage in 2016 at 52.8 percent. League-wide 3PAR was .285 and Golden State was second in 3PAR at .362. That would’ve ranked 23rd in 2021.

And, come to think of it, shooting less than ten free throws a game and making just six of them is pretty obviously not happening for 82 games.

So we’ve learned that Denver’s first three games are a collection of flukes. Tonight’s matchup against the Jazz will tell us a whole lot more, namely how the Nuggets bounce back from a loss in the first half of a back-to-back against a contender.

But man, what a weird, weird three-game start statistically.