It’s Not Just About Nikola Jokic: Denver Nuggets Need More from Backcourt to Make Playoffs

The Denver Nuggets have been widely discussed this offseason, mainly due to one player: Nikola Jokic. The polarizing big man has divided a large portion of “NBA Twitter” as fans and analysts continue to debate his true value.

The second reason Denver so often gets shine is Paul Millsap. The fact that the Nuggets were able to attract a player of his caliber is significant because, in the past, they lacked the capability to attract big-name free agents. That all changed this summer with the four-time All-Star joining the squad.

In this piece, though, we will be taking a closer look at another crucial component of the Nuggets’ roster—their backcourt. After all, most people are expecting Denver to take a jump into that “solid playoff team” tier as a result of its awesome frontcourt duo and mix of guards. On the other hand, questions surround this team. Will the Nuggets’ relatively young backcourt hold up for the entire season? How will they respond to the pressures of being an expected playoff team? Can they get enough value from the point guard position?

The Nuggets’ backcourt has a lot to prove this season. Let’s take a closer look at how their key guards will figure into those answers.

Point guard

Emmanuel Mudiay

Emmanuel Mudiay is entering what many consider to be a make-or-break season. While it will only be his third in the league, his lackluster contributions to winning basketball have painted him as a net negative. Let’s quickly parse the data: For his career, the 21-year-old owns a 10.3 player efficiency rating, minus-4.1 box plus-minus, 45.5 true shooting percentage and minus-1.9 win-share total. Yikes.

Numbers never tell the whole story. But analysts agree that Mudiay has been a disappointment for Denver so far. Shaun Powell of NBA.com pointed out that Mudiay “has been inconsistent since being drafted a few years ago with an often-disappearing jumper and raw point guard skills in terms of playmaking and setting up teammates.”

“Often-disappearing jumper” is putting it nicely. In his first two seasons, the 6’5″ guard has shot 36.9 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from beyond the arc. He also shot just 45.6 percent at the rim last season, which is well below the league average of 57 percent on such looks. Yikes, again.

The truly frustrating aspect of Mudiay’s play is that, at times, he has shown flashes of being a capable scorer. Take his game against the Boston Celtics last November. The man put up 24 points in the first quarter! Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

He used a variety of drives to the rim, mid-range jumpers and timely putbacks to carry Denver’s offense in the quarter, highlighting the talent he has to display. Games like this are why you want convince yourself he will put it together, even if that only means becoming an average starting point guard. But the overall signs don’t point to it happening—not when these moments are more lightning-in-a-bottle than semi-regular staples.

If Mudiay isn’t able to take another step, it will put tremendous pressure on the rest of the guards, especially the following player.

Jamal Murray

Jamal Murray would be thrust into a primary role at point guard if Mudiay continues to disappoint, which in turn has some concerned about the position for Denver.

It’s not that Murray doesn’t have experience handling the ball or playing point; he logged 41 percent of his minutes at the position last season. Many simply question whether or not he possesses enough playmaking abilities and the right mindset to create and set up others. To wit: In the same piece discussed above, Powell revealed “most scouts are skeptical” that Murray can handle the point-guard duties.

Last season, the 20-year-old averaged just 3.5 assists per 36 minutes. While that’s a very low number—particularly for a potential point guard—it was just his rookie season, and Denver was giving Mudiay his second shot at running the show along with Jameer Nelson. Plus, the now-second-year guard did show flashes of being an above-average passer and creator:

You can tell just from the first play in the video above that he does have a knack for operating pick-and-rolls and finding the perfect time and place to feed his big man. Be sure to check out the sequence at the 41-second marker, as Murray navigates a tough Utah Jazz defense and then patiently waits for the perfect opportunity to give Jokic a clear look at the rim. These kinds of plays make you excited for more Murray-Jokic pick-and-rolls/pops this coming season.

In fact, Murray posted a relatively low turnover percentage of 17 percent as the pick-and-roll ball-handler when considering the other options in the backcourt. Will Barton was the only other member who produced a lower percentage (16.1 percent). Garry Harris and Mudiay checked in at or near 19 percent, while Jameer Nelson was up at 23.5 percent. It may not end up being a bad thing for Denver if Mudiay is thrust into a more prominent role.

Finally, Murray’s shooting was hit-or-miss during his rookie campaign. Overall, he shot 33.4 percent on threes and 40.4 percent from the field.—nothing to get excited about. In college, however, he did shoot over 40 percent on treys—proof he is capable of becoming a knockdown sniper. He also put down 37.8 percent of his triples through the 34 games in which he played between 20 and 29 minutes. With Millsap alongside Jokic, the 6’4″ guard should be able to get quality looks from beyond the arc on a normal basis.

So while Murray hasn’t consistently shown elite playmaking abilities or efficient range, he must continue to grow his game, something that an expanded role should bring out this season. Whether he can ever transition to being a full-time point guard is still up for debate, but the promise is there, and it’s something Nuggets fans should be ecstatic about.

Shooting guards

Gary Harris

Harris is arguably Denver’s most important guard for the upcoming season. He is extension-eligible, so Denver must decide whether it wants to lock him up before Oct. 31. Harris has flashed serious three-and-D potential, though there are numbers that say otherwise. Let’s start by digging into his offensive game.

The three-year veteran shot a career-high 42 percent on three-pointers and 50.2 percent from the field last season on his way to averaging 14.9 points per game. Harris did an excellent job cutting out mid-range shots; around 78.3 percent of his field-goal attempts came from within three feet of the rim or beyond the arc. Somewhere Daryl Morey is licking his lips in eager approval.

The former Michigan State guard also posted a 61.1 true shooting percentage, 3.1 offensive box plus/minus and 2.88 offensive real plus/minus, good for sixth in the league among shooting guards. Of course, any discussion of Harris’ offensive contributions must include the telepathic communication he has built up with Jokic, as the two have wrecked havoc with deadly passes on cuts:

I mean, come on. There’s a five-minute video devoted to Jokic assisting on a wide variety of Harris’ buckets. And this highlight hodgepodge illustrates yet another key aspect of his offensive capabilities: Harris can handle the ball and create for others (he averaged 3.3 assists per 36 minutes last season), cut to the rim for an overhead pass from Jokic (and now possibly Millsap) or run around screens to knock down open jumpers. He doesn’t just provide tremendous offensive value; he’s a perfect fit for Denver’s system.

Things get murky when moving to the defensive side. As Kevin O’Conner wrote for The Ringer: “Still, there’s room for improvement, especially on the defensive end. Harris flashes moments of brilliance on defense, but there were far too many instances in which he got beat backdoor after losing focus off the ball.”

Young guards can be prone to defensive mistakes, especially when guarding off the ball. But Harris must focus on dramatic improvement if he wants to morph into a true three-and-D weapon.

With that said, though Harris did have defensive slips, the Nuggets were 29th as a team in points allowed per 100 possessions. Their turnstile stylings were by no means all on him. Jokic can struggle to defend, while Murray, the since-departed Danilo Gallinari and Co. weren’t exactly locking anyone down.

Of all the guards on this Denver roster, Harris has the most potential and is already the most valuable. Elite three-and-D wings don’t come along often, so the Nuggets should focus on brokering an extension and hope he continues to develop like clockwork each and every year.

Will Barton

Compared to the other guards in the rotation, Barton seems like an outcast as a seasoned 26-year-old veteran. But, in reality, he has played in just 314 games, having only recently entered the scene in Denver, mainly as a super-sub off the bench.

Last season, the second-round pick posted career highs in three-point shooting (37 percent) and assists per game (3.4). His ability to create for others is crucial to Denver’s backcourt dynamic, since the “point guards” lack proven playmaking. But the 6’6″ guard also provides offensive value in other ways, as NBA Math’s Play-Type Profile shows:

Barton finished above or at the 65th percentile in several play types, including isolation, spot-up, pick-and-roll ball handler, roll man and on cuts. That diverse value is incredibly important to a Nuggets system that promotes spacing and freedom. The fact that both Harris and Barton can provide such varied production and help the offense in so many ways makes them a perfect duo at shooting guard.

However, Barton’s playmaking and passing shouldn’t be overlooked. He averaged 4.3 assists per 36 minutes last season, and in a January game against the Los Angeles Lakers, he displayed the ability to find shooters on the perimeter either in transition or after navigating a pick-and-roll:

Again: The free-flowing nature of the Nuggets offense, combined with the beautiful passing they get from their bigs, allows their guards to roam and pick points of attack. It really is incredible to watch (and a big reason that Denver finished with the fifth-best offense in the league).

The Nuggets added Millsap to build a super-duo in their frontcourt. And yet, it may end up being the backcourt rotation that decides their fate this season. They have a mix of young players that excel in different areas, but it’s on them—specifically Barton, Harris, Mudiay and Murray—to take another leap.

If they don’t, Denver could still be digging for playoff success come April.

Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSpyrosNBA.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Just About Nikola Jokic: Denver Nuggets Need More from Backcourt to Make Playoffs”

  1. Jefford Herndon says:

    Great article! One thing I would say is that I think too much emphasis is placed on the Nuggets lack of a “true” point guard (outside of backup Jameer Nelson and long shot Torrey Craig).

    I think that this season will show that the Nuggets have assembled the perfect backcourt to pair with Nikola Jokic. It was no accident that the Nuggets had the best offense in the league after inserting Jokic in the starting lineup. The team runs their offense through him as a “point” center and it makes no sense to surround him with ball dominant point guards. The perfect compliment for his style of play are skilled scoring guards like Harris, Murray, and Barton. Instead of the traditional point guard/shooting guard backcourt, Denver’s backcourt is comprised mostly of shoot-first two guards. On the outside looking in, the casual NBA observer would look at the roster and see that the Nuggets don’t have a traditional point guard. But remember, the roster is almost identical from last year (where they became arguably the most dangerous offensive team in the league). They really don’t need a “true” point guard.

    The only significant change to the Nuggets roster is the loss of Gallinari and the addition of Millsap. Millsap is another big who has a knack for passing the ball. If Mason Plumlee re-signs this offseason the Nuggets have three of the better passing bigs in the league and possibly the best passing front court in the NBA. I read a Fanrag article last year about the best passing front court players in the league. I tried to find it again but it looks like it has been removed. I can’t remember if it was the top five or the top ten but Nikola Jokic, Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap all made the list.

    I did manage to find this article – https://nbamath.com/the-nbas-best-passing-big-men-from-2017-free-agency/

    It doesn’t rate the best passing bigs in the entire league but focuses on the best passing centers available in 2017 free agency. Again, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee both made the list. I’d be curious to see a statistical analysis to rate the best passing centers in the entire league. Unfortunately my mathematical skills are limited to basic arithmetic so I’ll leave that to someone more capable. Regardless, if you just do a quick google search of “best passing bigs in the NBA” you will see Jokic, Millsap, and Plumlee’s names everywhere. This all leads to my point.

    Denver has created an offense that will run primarily through the front court. It makes sense that the backcourt would be comprised of players who excel at cutting, spotting up and off the ball in the pick-and-roll. Hey, after Jokic became a starter the Nuggets became the most dangerous offense in the league. Now they need to hope that their backcourt (and pretty much every player on the roster outside of Millsap) worked on defense in the offseason. If so maybe they will finally start to gain some national attention.

    Again, great article! Really can’t wait till the season starts…

    1. Jefford Herndon says:

      Ha! This just came out – http://www.nba.com/article/2017/09/06/nikola-jokic-paul-millsap-new-frontcourt-duo-denver-nuggets

      It doesn’t mention Plumlee but basically says the same thing I said in my comment but better. Plumlee seems a bit polarizing in Denver. To me he still seems raw but his skill set does seem to mesh with the Nuggets style of play. Hopefully he comes in next season with a chip on his shoulder after the Nuggets didn’t offer him an extension in the offseason.
      If so, the Nuggets look deep and dangerous.

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