The Denver Nuggets have had a perplexing start to this season. By record alone, they appear right on track but after that initial reassurance, they've had some fascinating struggles given expectations and the talent on the roster.
They're 17-8 and tied for third place in the Western Conference, but those wins haven't come in the way you'd expect from a team led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
Jokic has struggled to maintain his incredible output from a year ago and Murray hasn't taken the step forward you'd hope from a player in his fourth season coming off of a max contract signing this offseason. Murray is the Nuggets' catalyst and his inconsistency has seen the whole offense stagnate.
Almost all of Denver's success has come on the defensive end. They have the league's fourth-best defense through 25 games, a pretty shocking development considering they have largely the same roster as the team that finished just 0.9 points per 100 possessions better than average a year ago.
As impressive as that leap has been, continuing that level of dominance over the next 60+ games may be unsustainable. If the defense does regress, even just from dominant to merely very good, Denver will tumble down the standings if they can't find their offensive footing.
Denver's offense has crashed all the way to 18th to start the year, down from seventh last season. Their 107.9 offensive rating is bad, full stop. Only six teams finished with an offensive rating of 107.2 or lower last season, and they with a combined record of 149-343.
There isn't one clear cause for the offensive drop but there are many signs of its dysfunction. The Nuggets are taking fewer threes and far more mid-rangers than they did last season. They're also taking more contested shots and hitting fewer of them, a clear sign the offense is struggling to find any sort of consistent rhythm.
There isn't one clear solution to these problems either. Jokic is still clearly rounding into shape - both literally and metaphorically - and his return to an All-NBA-caliber player will help dramatically, but Murray is the crucial piece to getting the offense back on track.
He's still just 22-years-old, but this is the time you'd hope to see Murray take a step forward. Instead, he's essentially the exact same player he was a year ago to an almost eerie extent.
It can be a confusing experience watching Murray game-to-game. One night you may barely notice he's out there as he's putting up four points against the Nets, and the next he'll look like a superstar and explode for 39 against the Grizzlies.
The divide between his good and bad games is massive. As is how quickly you can tell which sort of game he's going to have. In the first quarter of Denver's 15 wins, Murray is averaging 6.1 points and shooting 53.3 percent (16-of-30) from three. In their eight losses - 3.0 points and 14.3 percent (1-of-7) from three.
This is indicative of a much larger trend for both Murray and the Nuggets. When Murray shoots threes, he is a dynamic offensive player and the Nuggets usually have a good scoring night. When he doesn't, they don't.
It almost doesn't matter if the shots go in or not, his aggressiveness has been the key to unlocking Denver's offensive potential.
Murray's three-point attempt rate is down to a career-low 33.2 percent, but the Nuggets need him to take those shots. Denver is 11-2 when Murray attempts five threes. When he takes four or fewer, they're 6-6. It's a simple stat and one that doesn't even rely on him making those shots. Murray simply looking for and attempting threes consistently seems to energize a Nugget offense that often gets stuck in neutral.
The lack of aggressiveness is a pattern for this team. They play at the league's slowest pace and take the third-fewest free throws. 9.8 percent of their shots come with under four seconds on the shot clocks (sixth-most in the league) and they make just 33.8 percent of them (11th-worst). There's a lack of urgency on many possessions and Murray is one of the only shot-creators on the team capable of getting them out of those ruts.
He clearly recognizes this can be an issue which is a positive sign. When Jokic is struggling - an all too common occurrence early in the season - more often than not Murray takes it upon himself to be more aggressive.
Jokic has scored single-digit points seven times already this season after having just seven such games all of last year. Shockingly, Denver is 6-1 in those games largely because Murray turns into the offensive focus. In those seven games, Murray is averaging 20.7 points and shooting 38.0 percent from three on 6.0 attempts per game, all better than his overall averages.
Undoubtedly, there are positive signs in Murray's start to the season. His flashes are just as bright as ever and his dips seem to be becoming less and less common and yet, many nights he still gives off the feeling of a player just scratching the surface of his potential.
The book on Murray is still clearly being written and there's plenty of time to change this narrative. Murray has scored more and been more efficient in the second half of each season he's been in the NBA, and there's a good shot his 2020 looks significantly better than his 2019. If he can take that step forward, it won't be long before the Nuggets start looking a lot like the offence and team we expect them to be.
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