Following the Denver Nuggets’ last game of the season prior to the All-Star break — a 112-99 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday — Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was asked how he’d sum up his team’s year so far.
“The pre-All-Star portion of the season has been somewhat of a roller coaster,” he said. “But the date I use is Dec. 15. Since that date we are 16-15, which is above .500 ball for one of the youngest teams in the NBA and for a team that’s had a ton of injuries. I’m very, very happy with that. I’m by no means satisfied. We have a lot of work in front of us.”
Dec. 15 was a significant date for the Nuggets. It was the first time this season Nikola Jokic started a game at center. The team had tried a big-ball experiment with him and Jusuf Nurkic early in the year, then abandoned that and sent Jokic to the bench.
Everything changed for the Nuggets once Jokic became the starting center in mid-December. The Nuggets’ offense transformed from average into otherworldly. In the 25 games before the lineup change, they ranked 18th in points per possession. In the the 31 games since Jokic became the starter, they rank second in that category.
Here’s a visual way of looking at it.
Denver’s assist numbers have gone through the roof.
The chart above illustrates Denver’s raw assist totals on a game-by-game basis. The Nuggets rejiggered their offense around Jokic in game No. 26 of the season. It’s easy to see how from then on, those assist numbers just kept climbing.
The Nuggets rank second in assist ratio — defined as the percentage of total buckets that are assisted — since the lineup change at 64.4 percent. His willingness to share the ball has become contagious.
Denver is shooting lights out on above-the-break 3s.
Only three NBA teams have shot better from 3-point land on the wings and at the top of the key than the Nuggets since Dec. 15. Those teams are the San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors.
Denver is knocking down 39.6 percent of its above-the-break attempts post-lineup change. The second chart represents those attempts. The Nuggets are the basketball equivalent of the fire emoji at the top of the key since Jokic got the keys to the team.
Denver is thriving off dribble hand-offs that put defenses in difficult situations. And when Jokic gets the ball inside, few players are better at pinging passes to shooters spotting up.
“Our center is Nikola,” Juancho Hernangomez said after Denver tied the regular-season record for 3s in a game earlier this week with 24. “Thanks to him, he gives us space for shots. Today he gave us room for shots.”
Denver has improved its shooting around the rim considerably, too.
The Nuggets were a below-average team on shots within 5 feet of the rim before Dec. 15. They were making 54 percent of their attempts in that zone at the time. Featuring Jokic more prominently has morphed the Nuggets into a slightly above-average team from 5 feet or less. They’re shooting 60.3 percent there since Dec. 15.
Perhaps no Nugget has been a bigger beneficiary of Jokic’s passing abilities than Gary Harris. He and Jokic seem to link up two or three times every game on a back-door play. Harris understands when to cut and can finish inside.
“If you just move,” Harris told me earlier this year, “he knows where to find you.”
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