With just about every top contender making at least one or two major additions this summer, the defending champion Denver Nuggets found themselves often on the periphery of offseason conversations around the NBA. It wasn’t a dismissal of the Nuggets chances to win back-to-back titles, but rather an understanding that they’d be there in the end and there wasn’t much new to discuss with them.
In the summer, it’s more fun to explore how new star combinations will work together and discuss whether a team has done enough to vault into that contender realm. However, now that the games have begun, it was nice of the Nuggets to remind everyone on ring night why they are still the team to unseat at the top of the NBA’s pecking order. Denver isn’t flawless by any means, and we saw in the opener that they still have work to do in getting their bench unit in order over these 82 games before they embark on another postseason run. That said, their advantage over every single contender in the NBA is their starting lineup’s continuity and, to steal a favorite line from front offices around the league, corporate knowledge.
Throughout the first 3 quarters and change, there are opportunities to go on runs against this Denver team if you can take advantage of bench lineups and pounce on the minutes Nikola Jokic rests. However, it is in the first five minutes and final five minutes of the game, when Denver has its full starting five on the floor, that they take control and rarely leave openings for their opponents. With Jokic and Jamal Murray running the show, with as collaborative and connected a two-man game as there is in the NBA, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope spacing the floor around them, and Aaron Gordon screening, lurking on the baseline, and making darting cuts, there just aren’t any weaknesses for defenses to steer them into.
While other contenders are going to spend this season trying to build chemistry, the Nuggets just have to keep their machine well-oiled. The newest member of that starting group is Caldwell-Pope, but the veteran guard has always been an easy fit into lineups and in Year 2 he seamlessly moves in orbit of the Nuggets’ stars. Those stars, Murray and Jokic, could pick apart defenses running pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs blindfolded now eight years into their partnership. Porter Jr. took some time to find his comfort level in a non-starring role, but is now happy to ply his trade around Denver’s star duo in his sixth season. Gordon was a snug fit when he arrived four years ago and might be the best example in the league of how embracing a role can elevate a player’s game.
On Tuesday night against the Lakers, that comfort with each other was on full display down the stretch as they closed out an L.A. team that does not have the same confidence and chemistry together. In the early fourth quarter, the Lakers took advantage of Jokic’s final rest of the night to pull within four. When Jokic checked in at the 8:49 mark, Denver’s lead had been trimmed to 94-90. Six minutes later, the Nuggets lead had been extended to 115-101.
Denver scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting with one turnover over that stretch, as Jokic orchestrated a near-perfect closing run to shut down any hopes L.A. had of a comeback, scoring or assisting on 8 of those made field goals — with a hockey assist on the other. The defining play of that stretch was a pick-and-roll between Murray and Jokic, where Murray hit Jokic on the short roll at the elbow, recognizing the defense was out of position, forcing Austin Reaves to help off of the corner and leave Michael Porter Jr. wide open for the dagger three off a quick skip pass from Jokic.
NIKOLA JOKIC TRIPLE-DOUBLE
— NBA (@NBA) October 25, 2023
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the Nuggets dismantled the Lakers defensively, almost entirely out of one look. As Gibson Pyper (@HalfCourtHoops) broke down in an excellent video on Twitter — with a more detailed breakdown of the play on his Substack — the Nuggets ran the same action over and over down the stretch to get Jokic the ball on the elbow and run Murray and KCP off various split actions to poke holes in the Lakers defense.
Breakdown: The Nuggets ran the same play over and over again to close out the Lakers, scoring 10 points on 4 straight possessions to put the game away. pic.twitter.com/6ZXBdstkPy
— Coach Gibson Pyper (@HalfCourtHoops) October 25, 2023
This is a hallmark of the Nuggets offense, where they will run the exact same starting action over and over, but with seemingly endless options for how to finish that leave defenses frustrated and confused with what to do — Adam Mares from DNVR has another great video breaking down a different action they spammed over and over in the playoffs last year. Because of their continuity and basketball IQ, the Nuggets will let the defense dictate what they’re going to do and, when it’s that starting five on the floor, they are almost always on the same page with where to go next. Jokic will patiently wait for the defense to show its hand and then flow into whatever action will best take advantage of the space provided. Against the Lakers, that saw both KCP and Murray work into a dribble-handoff, Murray slip a screen to the basket, KCP pop out to the wing, and, finally a rejection of the initial elbow touch for Jokic to go into the pick-and-roll that resulted in the Porter Jr. three.
It has to be demoralizing facing an offense that will show you exactly what they’re going to do, but has too many counters to stop and is so quick to recognize and attack your weakness. It was their advantage last year en route to the title and Tuesday was a reminder to the rest of the league what level they have to get to in terms of chemistry and execution to match them down the stretch. There are so many great groupings of offensive talent around the league this year, but very few figure to operate with the kind of fluidity and decision-making quickness that the Nuggets do. So often offenses get bogged down and slow up down the stretch of the fourth quarter, but Denver’s offense does the opposite. That is what made them the champs, and to unseat them (barring injury), someone is going to have to find that level to be able to go toe-to-toe late in games.