The Denver Nuggets are borderline monomaniacal in their pursuit of shots at the rim. For the fourth time in George Karl’s eight seasons as head coach, the Nuggets led the league in field goal attempts in the restricted area. The gap between Denver (3316 attempts, or 40.43 per game) and the team with the next most attempts (Detroit) was 544 – just about the same as the gap between Detroit and the 17th-ranked Phoenix Suns, per NBA.com.
One of the worst outside shooting teams (25th in 3PT%) in the league, Denver compensates by living inside the lane and at the free throw line. Their .308 free throw rate tied them for fifth in the league with the Houston Rockets. Though Denver is a poor free throw shooting team, the sheer volume of attempts puts them sixth in the league in points per game earned from the charity stripe. The absence of Danilo Gallinari, one of their best foul-drawers, knocked that number down a bit over the past two weeks, but the return of Ty Lawson means the Nuggets shouldn’t see much of a drop-off in that department, especially in their first round series against the foul-happy Warriors, who ranked 21st in opponent’s free throw rate this season.
Of course, the Denver offense is fueled by their overpowering transition attack, which in turn is fueled by turnovers. Denver forced turnovers at the league’s 6th-highest rate and paced the field in points off turnovers per game, per NBA.com. According to mySynergySports, 19.1% of Denver’s possessions come in transition, far and away the highest number in the league. The Nuggets again ranked tops in the league in fast break points, the third time in Karl’s eight seasons they’ve done so.
Ty Lawson is the engine that powers Denver’s transition attack. He shoots 62 percent from the field in transition and averages 1.15 transition assists per game, placing him firmly inside the top 10 in the league. Between Lawson’s speed, ability to get to the rim and court vision, Andre Miller’s hit-ahead passes, Corey Brewer’s leakouts, Andre Iguodala’s versatility, and the finishing ability of Denver’s bigs, there’s just too much for a defense to deal with when the Nuggets get out on the break.
Denver will run at any opportunity: off steals, blocks, missed shots, or made shots. It doesn’t matter. They are absolutely relentless in their pace-pushing (the 97.76 possessions per game they average ranked second behind only the Rockets, and they played even faster in the mile-high air at The Pepsi Center) and their pursuit of early shot clock opportunities. According to 82games, 43 percent of Denver’s shots came in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, a mark matched only by the Rockets. They were the only two teams above 40 percent.
If a fast break opportunity doesn’t materialize into a basket, Denver transitions (pun very much intended) into a pick-and-roll heavy half-court attack. High pick-and-rolls for Lawson or Miller, side pick-and-rolls for Iguodala, Brewer, Evan Fournier or Chandler. Oftentimes these pick-and-rolls will flow into one another. A Lawson-Chandler high pick-and-roll becomes an Iguodala-Chandler side pick-and-roll becomes a layup.
They’ll run snug pick-and-rolls out of the post for Iguodala or Miller. The high post horns pick-and-rolls they ran occasionally for Gallinari can work just as well with Iguodala or Chandler as the ball-handler. They’ve taken to bringing Lawson back-to-back screeners in delayed transition and letting him choose when to attack and on which side.
This is especially dangerous because of Lawson’s speed and the attention that Koufos or McGee can draw rolling down the middle of the lane combined with the outside shooting ability of Chandler. Chandler’s excellent play after returning from myriad injuries last year has been a huge find for the Nuggets. His presence as a small ball power forward allows them to stretch the floor and experiment with quick-hitting pick-and-pop plays the Nuggets used to use pretty exclusively with Lawson and Gallinari. Now, they can get Chandler in on the action.
For his part, Chandler has become adept at knowing when to pop and when to roll, when to set a hard screen and when to slip. He’s probably most dangerous when he slips the screen to an open side, like above. That gives him enough space to catch-and-shoot, or to attack of the bounce by wrong-footing the recovering defender. He’s versatile enough to do any or all of the above. While this only recently became a big weapon, Chandler does rank 40th in the league in points per play as a roll man, per Synergy.
The pick-and-pop threat of Chandler is a potent one, but the Nuggets may be at their best in the half court when they get the high screen game going for Lawson. Lawson’s quickness allows him to navigate tight spaces to get into the lane and draw multiple defenders, and his vision and instincts usually lead to him making the right shoot/pass decision. After struggling through the early part of the season with his decision making and shooting in pick-and-rolls, Lawson rebounded to shoot 45 percent from the field on the way to ranking 30th in points per play as a pick-and-roll ball handler.
Denver also likes to start a lot of their half court plays with Koufos, Faried or McGee setting an off ball screen for Iguodala, Chandler, Fournier or one of the other Denver wings (and sometimes that player flashes open right away), then coming up to set a high screen for Lawson. The initial off ball action gets the defense moving around, and often subsequently leads to an easy bucket. Sometimes that initial screen will set up another pick-and-roll for the wing flashing to the top of the key. And when the defense overplays that initial screen…
Denver will also occasionally bust out the three man weave. Someone brings the ball up the floor and executes a hand off at the elbow to a wing coming across the court. He dribbles across the court and makes yet another hand-off, at which point he gets a side pick-and-roll where he can attack, dish, or keep going across the court to kick off the hand-off/pick-and-roll sequence yet again. It gets the defense moving side to side, and with all the on and off ball screening action, can lead to small breakdowns that create just enough of an opening for a shot.
All of this action, again, is designed with the purpose of poking enough holes in the defense to get someone, anyone into the lane. If there’s an open enough outside shot, they’ll take it, but they’d prefer to just get to the rim and dunk it or lay it up. All those rim attacks help the Nuggets in another area: offensive rebounding.
As we know, close shots are the most likely shots to be offensive rebounded. Being that Denver led the league in close shots by a mile, it should not surprise that they led the league in offensive rebounding rate as well. Faried, Koufos and McGee are monster offensive rebounders. Each of them ranked in the top 25 in offensive rebound rate this season, with Faried and Koufos ranking 10th and 11th. Denver finished 57 percent of their shots taken immediately off offensive rebounds, garnering 1.14 points per play on such shots, good for 4th best in the league, per Synergy. For a team that averaged just 0.90 points per play in the half court, that’s extremely valuable.
Without even a semblance of a post presence, the Nuggets crafted the best interior offensive game in the league this season. They did it with design, execution and a relentless commitment to getting into the lane. Their quickness, versatility and endless pursuit of the closest possible shot make them nearly impossible to stop on a consistent basis. Even without Gallinari, the Nuggets are a force to be reckoned with.