Injuries affecting Nuggets way more than you think during this skid

Mar 15, 2023, 4:58 PM | Updated: 5:06 pm
Jamal Murray...
Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets have never lost five games in a row where Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic each started, the west’s best risk that impressive mark on Thursday when they take on the NBA’s worst Detroit Pistons.

The Nuggets were thought to have locked up their conference with a win against Memphis to eventually stretch their lead to seven games with the tiebreaker over the second-place team. Since Denver has looked like the worst version of itself, including back-to-back home losses and defeat to the west’s worst Spurs.

Head coach Michael Malone is facing some heat, Jokic is doing his version of slumping and the rest of the squad is either not up to it effort-wise or has just been straight-up bad. The latest in these showings was a butt-kicking by the Raptors on Tuesday where Denver let up 49 points in the first quarter and never could fight all the way back.

While it is fair to let off the gas a bit after such a monumental win that has capped a pretty great season. Where the Nuggets have fallen to is becoming scary but if you wanted to, you could write some of this off on injuries.

The book on defending Jokic may have been published by the Raptors this week, with film that will be studied by future playoff opponents.

Murray looks like a mess and has been on and off the injury report with issues concerning both knees over the past two months.

Aaron Gordon, who has been the Nuggets second-best player all season, has struggled since coming back from a rib injury after the All-Star Break.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets bench continues to disintegrate further, now impacting the Nuggets in stagger lineups, and that all began when Zeke Nnaji went down.

Look injuries happen, it’s part of the 82-game season, but a 10-game stretch played without MPJ earlier this season was easy to write off and say “a max contract guy wasn’t playing, hard to criticize a loss.” It’s a lot harder to do that when the players are gaming through injuries. And it’s clear the Nuggets are battling through an injury bug and it shows in the date.

Murray’s final three games before his All-Star Break began were some of his best as a pro, going for more than 30 points in three-straight contests. But Murray ended up sitting six games before the rest of the league went to Utah on All-Star Break. When the season restarted so did Murray, and his pre-break absence was written off as a precaution. A dive into the numbers shows that in the 10 games since returning Murray is shooting 38.8% from the field, in his entire 45-game season before that Murray was shooting better from deep, at a 39.6% clip. Further his last 10 games, he’s been down to 18 a night, whereas in the prior 10 he was up to 25. Clearly, something is off with the Blue Arrow and it appears a bit of his explosiveness has taken a ding lately.

Gordon had been making a three a game in what was trending toward his best season as a pro. He’s stepped up in every way, becoming Jokic’s perfect front-court mate. Nearly every metric names AG as the second-best player donning rainbows this season. But that shot-a-night marksmanship has diminished to just four makes over his last eight games. Worse, he’s down a rebound and a half a night over the last octet of the slate. Why eight? It’s when Gordon returned from a rib injury that kept him out of games on both sides of the break.

Meanwhile the last time the Nuggets bench looked even somewhat competent Bones Hyland was still on the team. But it’s not Bones’ departure that has sapped the bench. Quietly on Feb. 5 Zeke Nnaji went down with a shoulder injury and he hasn’t played since and there’s still no timeline for the big man’s return. The former Nuggets first-round pick had finally solidified himself as Jokic’s backup. And perhaps the team knew something about the severity of the injury and that’s why they went out to get Thomas Bryant at the trade deadline.

Nnaji’s absence has been subtle, hidden by the Hyland drama and the thus far failed integration of Bryant and Reggie Jackson into the rotation. But the fact is, Denver has looked like a different team when Nnaji, Vlatko Cancar and Christian Braun have been in the rotation. The Nuggets are 9-6 (60% winning percentage ) since Nnaji went down and Malone had to shuffle the bench. They’re 29-15 this season when Nnaji plays (60% winning percentage.) Similarly, the Nuggets are 2-4 since Cancar suffered an injury that kept him out a handful of games and then since was replaced by Jeff Green off the bench. Denver is 33-15 in games Cancar played before the wrist started bugging him.

Nnaji and Cancar are marginal things, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s deep shot dipping from 45% pre-break to 34% since. None of those things are the big issues, like Murray’s slower step, a lack of effort from everyone on defense including Bruce Brown, and the legit questions around Malone. But when every single game in the NBA seemingly comes down to a few possessions these things matter.

The league defines clutch time as games where the scoring margin is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in a game. The Nuggets have played the fourth-fewest of these such games this season and they still account for 45% of the games they’ve played. The Nuggets are 20-11 in their 31 close games, making up a big chunk of the 46 wins they have in 69 games this season.

These injuries or at least theorized injuries aren’t the main reason the Nuggets are losing, but they are a factor. Every team has to go through it and Memphis has gained three games in short order all without Ja Morant, all the while the Lakers are closing in on a playoff spot without LeBron James available. Part of the NBA season and part of great coaching is figuring out solutions to work around an injured and/or fatigued roster.

The Nuggets still have a death grip on the west and are likely going to be okay in finishing out the regular season. They’ve proved all year to this point they can flip a switch in the fourth quarter, going from one of the league’s worst defenses for the game’s first 40 minutes to one of the best for the final eight. Now Malone needs to get the Nuggets to flip that switch back on again. They had their hard reset, they cycled the power out and now it’s time to gear up for the playoffs.

While it is annoying they’re going through this in the spring, both the Avs and Warriors had similar issues before steamrolling to titles. And no doubt, getting all this bad film of Jokic where teams have found ways to bother the Nuggets offense via throwing bodies at him and multiple wing defenders isn’t going to help Denver down the line.

At the end of the day, basketball is all about execution. Good offense beats good defense almost every time. It doesn’t matter if Malone risks tipping his hand or risks showing something he’s been saving for the playoffs. The Nuggets have to power it back up right now, keep building the incredible chemistry that has afforded them this lull, and get back to nailing all the details before it’s too late. The Nuggets have a baker’s dozen games to figure it out, and it will require more creativity from Malone and company than they’ve shown thus far, as well as more exertion from Jokic and his cast.



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Injuries affecting Nuggets way more than you think during this skid