Why the Denver Nuggets Have Been Struggling

Only a couple of weeks ago I would be expecting the Denver Nuggets to blow out the Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder.  At this point I am just hoping for a victory.

Instead of a standard game preview I decided to address where exactly the Nuggets have been floundering and I will toss out a game thread later.  There has been a great deal written about the Nuggets crumbling season and the reasons behind it.  I think we can narrow the reasons for their collapse down to their play in three areas, offense, defense and the transition game.  There, that was easy.

I have broken down many of the Nuggets stats this season into games one through 54, at which point the Nuggets were 37-17, and games 55 through 65 during which the Nuggets are 3-8.  Some of the data supports some of the issues we have with the team (giving up too many open threes) and some of the data does not (taking more jump shots), but I think as a whole it paints a pretty clear picture.

Let’s start out with the transition game as it has the smallest amount of data, yet displays a clear discrepancy between the way the Nuggets started the season and the style they have been playing as of late.  The Nuggets’ pace factor through game 54 was 93.3.  Over the past eleven games they have a pace factor of 91.4 so clearly they are averaging almost two fewer possessions a game. 

The difference goes deeper than simply pace.  Their production from running has nearly flat lined.   Fast break points do not necessarily correlate to winning games, however, these numbers are quite telling.  Through the first 54 games of the season the Nuggets had an average of 17 fast break points a game to their opponents 11 which obviously converts to a six point advantage for the Nuggets in transition offense.  Over the last 11 games the Nuggets are only averaging nine fast break points a game, but their opponents, despite the games being played at a slower pace, have upped their average up to 12 fast break points per game.  The Nuggets have gone from being a plus six in fast break points to a minus three.  That is a nine point swing and it is a big reason why the Nuggets are struggling on offense.

That is not their only problem on offense.  There has been a lot of press about how their assist numbers have been dwindling.  I personally do not track team assists per game and I do not have time to plow through all that data this afternoon.  I believe it is safe to say that between the information from Benjamin Hochman  and others we can see that the Nuggets offense is getting more and more stationary and driven by isolations.

The primary problem is Denver is simply not making shots.  After shooting 47.2% through the first 54 games of the season the Nuggets have only made 43.3% of their shots over their 11 game slide.  Many of us have voiced the belief that Denver is getting jump shot happy.  That was certainly my sense from watching the games.  However, my research has shown that is not the case.

By looking at the team Hot Spot data available on NBA.com  I compared the last ten games to their season shooting stats.  (One thing to take note of is the Hot Spot data only allowed me to look at the previous ten games instead of the previous 11 games so unlike in the rest of this post this data breaks down the season into games one through 55 and 56 through 65.)  The Nuggets percentage of shots at the rim has remained exactly the same through the last ten games as it was during the first 55 games of the season.  They attempted 44.5% of their shots at the rim in games one through 55 and in games 56 through 65.  The Nuggets percentage of shots within 15 feet of the hoop has actually risen from 11.2% of all shots up through game 55 to 12.1% of their shots over the last ten games.  Shots taken between fifteen feet and the three point line have stayed almost exactly the same moving down slightly from 22.2% to 22.1%.  The percentage of shots that have come from behind the three point line actually fell from 22.2% in the first 55 games down to 21.4% in the previous ten contests.  The data shows that the Nuggets are taking slightly fewer shots from 15 feet and out and a few more from 15 feet and in during the last ten games.  One thing to take note of is the 15 feet and in range, the only zone that saw an increase in the percentage of shots taken, is by far the least efficient zone to shoot from so that is not necessarily a good thing.

Going from zone to zone the Nuggets shooting has fallen off the face of the earth.  Even though they are taking the same percentage of shots from in close they are making 4.5% fewer over the previous ten games than in the first 55 (59.3% to 54.8%).  Their shooting percentage on shots 15 feet and in has fallen by 1.8% (33.1% to 31.3%).  Their percentage on jumpers inside the three point line, but outside 15 feet has fallen 4.6% (40.4% to 35.8%) and their percentage on thee pointers has decreased by 4.4% (37.4% to 32.9%).

This team wide shooting slump has resulted in an offensive efficiency rating over the previous 11 games of 107.3.  That is down from their 110.4 rating they earned over the first 54 games.  Part of the reason for this is flat out poor shooting.  They are getting open looks and missing them.  I think there is another more frightening element involving the dropping assist totals.  Because the offense is becoming more stagnant and more isolation dependent the Nuggets are settling for tougher, better defended shots.  They are getting roughly the same shots playing one on one, but instead of using movement and crisp passing to ensure that shot is an open one, the shots are more heavily contested due to the forced offense that results from one on one play.

It is not only the offense, but the defense that is faltering.  After 54 games the Nuggets had a defensive efficiency of 106.0.  Over their 11 game slump that number has risen to 113.0!  They are giving up seven more points per 100 possessions than over the first 54 games of the season.  Denver’s field goal percentage allowed has only changed slightly from 43.9% to 44.6%.  That is not a huge increase.  In fact, it is a pretty minimal one.  That is actually a difference of less than one made shot a game.  So how is it that they are giving up so many more points per 100 possessions?

One reason is fouling.  Denver sent their opponents to the line 26.1 times per game over the first 54 games of the season.  That number has risen to 30.1 in the last 11 games.  Right there is an extra three points per game and a little more than three points per 100 possessions (due to the fact that the average game has fewer than 100 possessions).  The Nuggets shot an average of 4.4 more free throws a game than their opponents while they were winning, but that advantage has disappeared over the previous 11 games and it is entirely due to their opponents getting more trips to the line.  The Nuggets average free throw attempts per game has only dropped from 30.4 to 30.2.

The other area where the data shows the Nuggets’ are failing on defense is their three point shooting defense has gone from decent to atrocious.  Denver’s opponents made 35.6% of their three pointers in the first 54 games of the season.  That number ballooned to 39.3% in the last 11 games.  With the Nuggets’ opponents taking an average of 19.5 threes a night that difference results in an additional 0.8 threes a game which converts to 2.3 more points allowed a game.  Once again that number is accentuated even more in their defensive efficiency rating due to the fact that there are fewer than 100 possessions in their average game.  I believe the combination of what we have seen empirically and what the data is telling us is the Nuggets rotations have crumbled to the point where they are either poor or altogether nonexistent.  Strangely enough the Nuggets are actually holding their opponents to a lower shooting percentage on their two point shots allowing 46.6% in the first 54 games, but only 46.3% in the last 11.

What does all this tell us?  Well, pretty much what we already knew from watching the games.  Denver needs to get back to running on offense, working together to earn quality looks and get back to communicating and working together on defense.  The only area where we had been complaining that was proven wrong was the belief the Nuggets had been attempting more jump shots during the last 11 games than the first 54.  Even so, I think we would still like to see more layups and fewer jumpers.  

  • BeefySwats

    So, essentially, we’re missing more shots even though they’re closer to the basket than they’ve been all season?

    *facepalm*

    I’m not sure what else can explain that other than jesus christ Denver, make your layups. I do think that your point about the assist totals is valid though, it’s much much harder to make a shot from anywhere on the court if the defense is right in your face when you receive the ball.

  • Beece

    Everything points to the team not moving as much. Poor defensive rotations, less movement on offense, few assists, more shots under pressure, fouling more (not moving the feet and reaching instead) etc.

    Question is, why? Are they tired? Banged up? Getting lazier?

    And, of course, if we know why, be might be able to determien if it will get better?