The 16th-ranked Denver Nuggets' offense is still a work in progress according to anyone around the organization and meshing Paul Millsap in Denver's frontcourt alongside Nikola Jokic is taking more time than coach Michael Malone initially thought it would heading into the year.
At Media Day back in September, there were no concerns about Denver's offense and Malone laughed off any worry the Nuggets' scoring would be an issue of any sort. But through seven games, it's apparent that working in Millsap and Jokic alongside each other with two other brand new starters in Jamal Murray and Wilson Chandler was easier said than done.
"I thought it would be a fairly easy transition," Malone said at shootaround Wednesday morning. "And obviously, I realized maybe in the middle of preseason that it's not going to be as easy as I thought."
Sitting at 3-4 coming off a four-game East Coast road trip, Denver could be in a better spot especially after dropping winnable games in Utah on opening night, and against the Knicks on Monday, but the sky isn't falling either. Six games at home, albeit against tough competition like the Raptors, Heat, Warriors, Magic and Thunder could change the perception around this team.
"The only positive is we just didn't roll over," Malone said of his team's 116-110 loss in New York where the Nuggets trailed by 22 points at halftime. "We fought back, we competed, we gave ourselves a chance."
The Nuggets now get a chance for some much-needed practice time — something they haven't had a lot of this year — and they hope to iron out roles and responsibilities between their two big men over the next week-and-a-half at the friendly confines of Pepsi Center. Malone believes Millsap is more comfortable now than he was at the start of the year and he and Jokic are taking steps towards becoming an efficient tandem.
After opening the season in the negatives, the Nuggets have outscored opponents by 22 points in the 153 minutes Millsap and Jokic have spent on the court together through seven games and over their last three matchups, they've produced one of Denver's best differentials out of all of the their two-man combinations who have logged significant minutes.
"I think their biggest challenge is from a spatial standpoint," Malone said of his two big men. "How do (they) play off one another and the reason that's such an issue is both of those guys are used to being the same guy and its gotten better. Our spacing has gotten better in the last four games or so but early on it was, they're both coming up the floor at the same time, they're both on top of each other, they both want the ball in the same spot and now suddenly we have nobody at the rim we have nobody putting pressure on the rim and it wasn't good for anybody. But I think that's the greatest challenge for those two, how do they space the floor off of each other read each other and sacrifice for each other because if one guy is up the floor, one guy has to sacrifice and stay low and vice versa and I think we're seeing them get a little more comfortable with that."
More movement will help the Nuggets' offense and their two bigs as well.
"I think that ball movement, that body movement is what we have to get back to more consistently," Malone continued. "Because last year I thought we were at our best when the ball was flying around, guys were cutting, guys were moving instead of standing and watching. I think we're inching in the right direction towards that."
After comparing Millsap and Jokic to a couple kindling a new relationship and adding that they're playing like they were on their "second or third date" prior to Denver's regular-season opener, the two are now through their first extended bit of travel together — a crucial event for any fresh couple.
And while they're still "going on dates" and "talking about worldly matters" per Malone, Denver's coach thinks that improved defense from not only the pair but from everyone up and down the Nuggets' roster will also lead to an uptick on the offensive end of the floor.
"It may sound like a strange answer, our defense," Malone said in response to a question asking how to get everyone going at once on offense. "And the reason I say that is you go back, our last two third quarters, I can't imagine anybody having back-to-back better third quarters than we've had. In Brooklyn we outscore them 40-21 I think and then 38 to something against the Knicks and when you're defending like that, and you're attacking and everybody's involved and everybody feels a part of it."
"When we defend, that's when we're at our best. Because now we're getting out, we're running, we're attacking before they get set and the ball is moving," Malone continued. "That ball movement that body movement is what we have to get back to more consistently because Last year I thought we were at our best when the ball was flying around guys were cutting guys were moving instead of standing and watching I think we're inching in the right direction towards that as well."
Spotlight on Raptors
Toronto, who comes to Pepsi Center in the midst of a six-game Western Conference road trip that has already taken them through San Antonio, Golden State, Los Angeles, and Portland, is absolutely rolling at the league's eighth-best offense, the third-best defense and are top-5 in steals.
The Raptors are coming off a 99-85 win in Portland where the held the Trail Blazers to just six second-quarter points.
"I hope we can score tonight," Malone said with a laugh.
Denver has struggled with turnovers to an extent this year and Toronto knows how to capitalize off opponents' mistakes. The Raptors are turning opponents over 18 turnovers per game — the third-best mark in the league, are second in deflections, play a long, active, athletic, and physical ten-man rotation at times and are a team that switches a lot on defense. They also average 20-points a night off forced turnovers.
"Just understand, we hit them all shootaround so after the game tonight if we've committed 22 turnovers for 30 points, trust me when I tell you we hit them in the film we hit them in shootaround about understanding who we're playing, how they guard and how to beat them," Malone said. "And the turnovers are a big part of that so hopefully the message has gotten through and we have to look to make the easy play, the early pass, and the easy pass tonight to try and take advantage of their defense.