Entering the 2016-17 season, Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone said he hoped to see his team improve in two specific areas of the game: Defending the 3-point shot and making the 3-point shot. The Nuggets were bad at both in 2015-16, which, in a league that’s only becoming more and more reliant on long-range shots, is a recipe for failure.
So far this season, Malone’s team has again struggled to limit its opponents from making 3-point shots. Yet in the other aspect of the game Malone emphasized he wanted to see strides in, Denver has improved by leaps and bounds.
The Nuggets have gone from being one of the NBA’s bottom-five 3-point shooting teams last year to a top-10 3-point shooting team this year. And not only are they making more, they are also taking more. Denver is launching 28 3s a game in 2016-17 — a 12 percent increase in how many it was hoisting up last year.
The Nuggets have been especially dangerous from deep since the middle of December, which is not so coincidentally when second-year big man Nikola Jokic became the focal point of the offense. Malone made Jokic the starting center Dec. 15 against the Portland Trail Blazers. In the nearly two-month span since then, the Nuggets have the best offense in the NBA — yes, better than the Warriors — and are knocking down 3s at a 37.8 percent clip, which is the eighth-best mark in the league.
Here’s a visual look at how the Nuggets fared from long range before the lineup change (left) and after (right).
The Nuggets have lit it up from the top of the key and from the wings since Jokic was given the keys to the offense. They’re shooting 39.5 percent on above-the-break 3-pointers since Dec. 15, which is the fourth-best rate in the NBA.
Denver gets a lot of good looks by simply involving Jokic in dribble handoffs. Teams worry about the threat of him rolling to the rim and hesitate just enough to let whoever’s receiving the handoff get a clean look.
Jokic is comfortable holding the ball at the top of the key and finding cutters darting off screens as well as rolling toward the basket and whipping cross-court passes to shooters.
And it also helps that Jokic, who’s making 38.3 percent of his 3s since becoming the starting center, can shoot the ball as well.
The Nuggets’ key rotation players are mostly the same as they were last year. To see so many of those guys make a leap from one year to the next in 3-point shooting percentage is striking.
Denver is connecting on 37.5 percent of 3s with Jokic on the court, compared to 35.7 percent of 3s with him sitting, according to NBAwowy.com. Still, chalking up all of this improvement to one player isn’t accurate.
Darrell Arthur, who’s shooting a ridiculous 50.7 percent, has played the majority of his minutes with Jokic sitting on the bench. Gary Harris and Will Barton are both young guards who’ve worked hard to improve their games. None of this is to say that those guys haven’t become better outside shooters on their own. What can’t be denied, though, is that everything is easier when the offense runs through Jokic.
The Nuggets are playing a beautiful — and modern — brand of offense right now. If they ever figure out how to play some defense, look out.
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