The Nuggets are 3-1, good for 3rd in the Western Conference a week into the season. On paper, it’s been a good start. So why do I feel like I need to take a shower after every game right now? There is a lot of icky-ness to talk about, which has soured me a bit on what should be a perfectly decent start to the season.
Of course, it hasn’t been all bad. So let’s start with something positive!
Gary “Gary Harris” Harris for Defensive Player of the Year
So Gary looks ready for the playoffs. Here’s what he’s done against some of the West’s young offensive talent:
Gary Harris’ assignments are having a really hard time on offense:
Game 1: CJ McCOllum, 12 points – 3 assists – 5 turnovers – 5/18 from the field, 0 free throw attempts
Game 2: Devin Booker, 18 points – 7 assists – 3 turnovers – 6/21 from the field, 6 free throw attempts
— Tim (@ChuckShots) October 30, 2019
According to NBA.com, his defensive rating is 101.5, which is good, but the proof is really in the results. He is consistently shutting down skilled perimeter competition, and he looks faster, and more agile, than at almost any point last season. This is the Gary Harris that Coach Malone has often referred to as “one of the better two-way guards in the NBA.”
In addition to strong performances against CJ McCollum in the season opener and Devin Booker in the home opener, Harris held Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield to a 2/13 shooting performance and Dallas Mavericks point-wing Luka Doncic to 3/12 himself. The Nuggets have had some other problems defensively, but Harris has done wonders on his individual assignments thus far.
Altitude still hasn’t made a deal
How often has a top 5 team in a major sports league in the modern era been blacked out on television screens? How about two teams at once?
I mean, it has been fascinating scouring the deep web for hacked streams, trying to figure out which one will download the fewest viruses onto my computer. I have also enjoyed watching the in-game entertainment feed instead of the same three commercials on loop. But as someone who covers the Nuggets for the public, a recording of the game would be nice. A clearer conscience, perhaps? Or consistent HD at least?
Apparently, these things—which I used to take for granted—are too much to ask for. The billionaires need to fight it out over the equivalent of twenty bucks to you and me. In the meantime, if anyone needs to mine bitcoin, you can probably use my computer right now to do it without me even knowing. Happy crunching!
Jokic’s slow start
OK, so this isn’t all that surprising. The Big Guy has had some bad starts before. And to be fair, he turned around his bad start in Portland by dominating in the fourth quarter, and he had a big game against the Suns, who are more competitive than most people expected. Through four games, he’s averaging 15.5/12.5/6.5 on 43% from the field. His advanced metrics still look pretty good overall, too, but these aren’t quite the numbers we’ve gotten used to.
More importantly, though, he looks so lethargic. That is what is surprising to me. As someone who could stand to lose a few dozens of pounds, I can spot a fellow Cheesecake Factory lover when I see one. I don’t know what weight Jokic came in to the season at, but he looks a bit bigger—and definitely slower—than the leaner version we saw play in a four overtime game in the playoffs last year. Maybe it’s just how slow he’s moving generally, and not weight gain, that’s negatively effecting his game. But if that’s the case, what is causing his decreased energy level?
Whatever it is, he doesn’t look quite right. His passes aren’t as sharp. He isn’t asserting himself early enough in games or possessions. And he has been a step slow too often on defense. He’s still good, just not great. If the Nuggets are going to make a deep run through the gauntlet in the West, he has to be great.
No MPJ, like, at all
Speaking of looking a step slow on defense, MPJ has been MIA to start the season. Look, I know I waxed tongue-in-cheek last week about how we were going to have to get used to seeing Michael Porter Jr. on the bench. But I didn’t mean it this literally. After four games, the tall, talented, floor-spacing small forward hasn’t played a single minute.
Here’s a list of possible reasons for keeping MPJ out of the lineup:
- The bench has played flawlessly. Nope. They were outscored 61-22 in the loss to the Mavs last night and were practically daring Malone to bring in someone who could create his own shot. Beasley has been streaky, Morris has been mostly bad, and the unit has seemed out of sync since the Portland game.
- He can’t play defense. OK, sure, I guess. But do we know that? In preseason, he looked like a capable defender and rebounder at times. And even if he isn’t yet, he wouldn’t be the first talented young player to get minutes while still improving as a defender. Andrew Wiggins is still starting in this league, right? If the bench was a well-oiled defensive stopper right now, I could understand this argument. But they aren’t, so I don’t.
- Malone just doesn’t like MPJ. Unlikely, but starting to seem possible. In an interview this morning, Malone admitted he needed to get MPJ some minutes:
“I have to find minutes for Michael Porter Jr.” – Nuggets head coach Michael Malone on @AltitudeSR this morning.
He said he knows he hasn’t done that yet but his time will come. This rotation has led the Nuggets to a 3-1 start, but he said rotations will vary based on game feel
— Katy Winge (@katywinge) October 30, 2019
But this does beg the question: Who gets to decide if MPJ gets minutes, Coach? It seems like Malone is waiting for game circumstances to dictate whether it’s safe enough to put MPJ in—presumably when the Nugget are not within 40 or more points of their opponent. But is that really the best way to develop a talent like MPJ? Is that really the best way to teach him how to play defense—in blowouts when everyone is just trying to get theirs?
- He’s just too good. Perhaps the basketball gods simply will not allow this. Malone has no choice here. Cosmic forces are at play. If so, get comfortable, Junior; the league simply can’t handle you yet.
The Nuggets 3-1 record
Let’s be honest: this team should not be 3-1. They are winning on pure talent and timely plays in crunch time, which is a dangerous habit to get into, especially for a young team. Sure, a few good teams wait to turn it on in the fourth during early regular season games. But the Nuggets haven’t earned that right yet. Until they win a championship, they need to play hungry every night.
Their effort and sloppy execution burned them against Dallas and nearly cost them the Suns game. If they don’t start moving the ball, making threes, and hustling, the Sixers game on November 8 is going to be a gut punch for a young team that thinks it can get by on talent alone.
For more predictions, hot takes, deep dives, bad jokes, and confusing analogies, check out The Dig: A Denver Stiffs Podcast where my co-host Jeremy Poley and I explore one Nuggets-related theme each week. The show has been described as “unique,” “fun,” and “meh” by Nuggets’ media members and fans around the world. Check it out for yourself wherever you get your podcasts!
You can also follow me on Twitter: @NickHertzogSBN.