• Jeremy Freed

Denver Nuggets: 4 Thoughts, Week 5

USA Today

A man thinks the Nuggets are hitting their stride.

Denver just aced an early-season test! They went 4-0 on a nice little mid-November homestand against a decidedly rugged line-up of teams. Falling by the wayside, in order, were the Southwest-leading Rockets, the Atlantic-leading Celtics, the overachieving Suns, and the surprisingly high-powered Wizards. Moreover, they did it convincingly, with three of the four wins coming by double digits. Coming into this week, I thought the Nuggets were good. Now I know the Nuggets are good. Why?

1. Nikola Jokic is getting his legs. He was still god-awful from three this week, but the rest of his game is rounding (pun intended) into form. Shooting better than 50% from the field, Jokic dropped 15.3 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game on the opposition, snatching a steal a game and hitting every one of his free throws. None of those teams are particularly well-known for their potency in the post and Jokic asserted himself. Outside of a tough battle with Clint Capela, Jokic curb-stomped Daniel Theis, Frank Kaminsky, and Thomas Bryant -- just as he should have. Jokic is the engine of this team, and it goes as he goes. They’re not bad without him, but they’re great with him at his best.

2. Gary Harris is defending. I don’t have too much good to say about what Harris is doing on the offensive end of the court, but he’s making it happen on D. He has the best defensive rating of his career, and a positive Defensive Box Plus/Minus for the first time in his career -- and not by a little: he’s adding to the Nuggets expected point totals with his defense, no small feat. His highest defensive win share output in his first six seasons was 1.5, and he’s more than halfway there in under a quarter of a season! He has truly raised his game at the defensive end. Against the potent Wizards, Harris held star guard Bradley Beal to his lowest point total of the season, days after keeping high-scoring guards Devin Booker and James Harden ten or more points below their season averages. They’re talking All-Defense Team in Denver; that might be hyperbole, but Harris is definitely making his mark on defense.

3.Jerami Grant got a little run. One game is a small sample size; I get it. But in that same Wizards game, Paul Millsap played his second-fewest minutes of the season, and Jerami Grant played his third-most. Predictably, logging more time with the starters led to his most productive game of the season by a good margin -- he had the best net rating on the entire team in his 20-4-1 effort. Frankly this is the sort of thing I’ve been calling for throughout the season: seeing how good the Nuggets look with Grant in place of Millsap. It’s a simple reality that the 25-year-old Grant has more potential for greater long-term success with the 22-year-old Jamal Murray, the 24-year-old Jokic, the 25-year-old Harris, et al. than the 34-year-old Millsap. And I LOVE MILLSAP! I just think the Nuggets need to find out what they have, and for one night, they found something pretty good.

4. They take care of the ball. Some folks don’t like to consider rebounds when they think about a player’s defensive aptitude -- I’m not one of them. A defensive rebound on a missed shot concludes an offensive possession; putting your team back on offense is the goal of a defensive effort, so rebounding is key. Similarly, not turning the ball over and giving the opposition odd-man rushes and transition opportunities is key to a strong defensive effort. So good defense leads to offense and good offense leads to defense! The Nuggets are a top-6 team in both assists and turnovers, giving them the third-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league. This is a good thing.

A quiet week awaits with just two games upcoming: a roadie in Sacramento, followed by a return home for a match-up of Western Conference titans when the Lakers come to town. Next week’s thoughts will feature the fall-out of this early season battle between the West’s top two teams; I, for one, can’t wait!

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