Life is particularly dandy right now if you’re the Denver Nuggets.
To have a 24-13 record — tops in a chaotic Western Conference where multiple variations of wins and losses shuffle the seedings around like a deck of cards — is to most likely secure prime playoff position come April.
The Nuggets are lording over the West by being one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league. They are scoring 118.2 points per 100 possessions, 4.3 points above league average and second behind only the Boston Celtics in offensive rating with garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves removed from the equation, per Cleaning the Glass.
They trail only the Brooklyn Nets in terms of overall shooting efficiency, all while refusing to rely on a heavy dose of three pointers (fifth-lowest three-point attempt rate). However, they are making the most out of the threes they do take — their 40.6% mark on threes is the best in the entire league.
They are dismantling opponents in the half court; they score 101.3 points per 100 half-court possessions, 4.3 points above league average and fourth in the NBA. Pushing the pace in transition isn’t really their philosophy, but whenever they do get the chance to run in the break, they do so while putting up the second-highest efficient mark (135.4 points per 100 transition possessions).
If there is a noticeable chink in their proverbial armor, it’s been on the defensive end. Their 116.0 points allowed per 100 possessions is 26th in the league; opponents score 99.7 points per 100 half-court possessions against them, also 26th in the league.
Despite upgrading their roster in terms of on-ball/point-of-attack defenders, the Nuggets choosing to play aggressive pick-and-roll coverages — screen-level meetups, hedges, and traps — have put a strain on their backline defense and overall ability to rotate, scramble, and close gaps. It remains to be seen whether they can improve in that aspect, and whether a team that is on track to finish as a non-top-10 defense can make the NBA Finals, a precedent fulfilled by only two teams in history.
If they are to make a deep playoff run, it may very well be on the back of their offense — captained by arguably the best offensive player in the league.
Nikola Jokić is putting up ridiculous numbers in a campaign where he could very well win his third-straight MVP award: 25.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 9.5 assists on 66/35/81 shooting splits (2P/3P/FT), all while having the most efficient scoring season (68.7 TS%) of his career.
His 9.5 assists average is on track to become a career-high mark, while he’s dishing out a higher share of assists (45.8% assist rate) than at any point of his career.
He’s a darling of every kind of numerical metric, whether it’s the raw counting numbers or the advanced statistics. Estimated plus-minus has him as the second-most impactful player in the league, with only Luka Dončić above him.
Jokić is the fulcrum of the Nuggets offense. There is virtually no answer for him defensively; opponents have tried all sorts of coverages against him, but Jokić possesses every method of dismantling each one.
He is helped by having a supporting cast that plays well to his strengths as a scorer, decision-maker, and distributor. His chemistry with the likes of Jamal Murray (rounding into form post-injury) and Michael Porter Jr. — a matchup nightmare both as a three and a four (although he has significantly spent more time this season as the former) — has helped punish teams who gravitate toward him.
However, arguably no other Jokić partner-in-crime has popped out this season more than Aaron Gordon.
Gordon is having a career statistical year. He’s putting up the second-highest points average of his career (17.1). His shooting efficiency (62.6 eFG%) has never been higher, buoyed by a two-point percentage (64.6%) and three-point percentage (37.3%) that are both on track to become career-high marks.
In nearly two-and-a-half seasons as a Nugget, Gordon is putting up his most efficient scoring season of his career (64.4 TS%). It’s no coincidence that the more he has spent time within Michael Malone’s scheme and the more time he has spent playing alongside Jokić, the more he has developed a keen sense of how to best operate as an auxiliary offensive threat.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is how Gordon knows how to be in position to punish opponents who commit extra defenders toward Jokić:
No matter what kind of advantage Jokić creates — whether it’s overt (drives or mismatches drawing help away) or subtle (defenders showing early help such as sending an extra man toward Jokić’s side) — Gordon is almost always there to complete them, whether on cuts or pre-positioning himself in high-value real estate such as the dunker spot.
Now more than ever, Gordon has complete trust in Jokić finding him on all sorts of off-ball action. Whether it’s to set downscreens for shooters or himself being the recipient of screens from shooters (such as Murray), Gordon readily makes himself available on slips or cuts off of backscreens.
As Jokić is wont to do, he makes sure to find Gordon with expertly placed dimes:
But this particular duo has popped the most when they’re directly involved with each other during ball-screen action. While Gordon rarely commands reps as a ball handler, the potency of a four and five running pick-and-roll action is derived from how difficult a decision the involved defenders have to make in terms of how to stop it.
Consider that one or both of those frontcourt defenders — the ones guarding Gordon and Jokić — aren’t used to defending ball handlers. Screen navigation is often a foreign concept to them. If a smaller wing or guard is involved in the action, the prospect of being overpowered by two very large human beings should give them pause. In the same vein, Gordon often has the speed and athleticism advantage over centers switched onto him.
Which is why defenders find themselves having to pick their poison. Switch, and they get overwhelmed. Double, and one of either Jokić or Gordon is left open.
Jokić has shown he can find Gordon when defenders throw extra bodies his way, but Gordon himself is no slouch in terms of interior passing and hitting Jokić on the roll:
The inverse — which happens way more often — offers the same conundrum.
The Nuggets are fond of having Gordon set screens for Jokić in 5-4 inverted ball-screen configurations. Again, two frontcourt players are often at a loss as to how to defend a pick-and-roll; a smaller defender is reluctant to switch for obvious reasons.
As such, the only coverage left for them is doubling Jokić around screens. Combined with his passing acumen and Gordon’s athleticism and timing on slips/rolls, Jokić dissects these doubles with surgical precision:
Among 141 two-man combinations that have played a minimum of 650 minutes, the Jokić-Gordon pairing is third in net rating, outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions. Amazingly enough, the two duos that rank higher above them in that list are:
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Murray (12.8)
- Jokić and Murray (12.7)
That speaks to how any combination of players excel as long as Jokić is there to weave it all together. He’s absolutely paramount to the success of the Nuggets offense; with him on the floor, the Nuggets have the equivalent of the best offense in the league (122.7 offensive rating). Without him, that figure dips all the way down to the equivalent of the worst offense in the association (101.6 offensive rating).
Put anyone in there with Jokić and he will find ways to make it work. Murray has an extensive history of meshing perfectly with Jokić. Porter Jr.’s combination of size and finesse makes him a seamless fit.
But none of them can present the kind of matchup problems that the Jokić-Gordon pairing can present, nor can they dish out the same type of smash-mouth punishment that has victimized opponents throughout this season.