Don't Sleep on the Nuggets
Having missed the playoffs due to a crushing defeat in the final regular season game last year, the Denver Nuggets will be primed to bounce back in this year’s brutal West. There’s no doubt that clinching a spot in the West this year will be no easy task — what with 10+ teams legitimately in the running; but if they fail to do so for a consecutive year it will likely be more telling of the conference’s depth rather than the Nuggets themselves.
As a team they’ve consistently ranked in the top of the league in offensive rating, despite not having a single player average over 20 ppg, something that no other top 10 or even top 15 offense can claim.
Mike Malone runs some of the best offensive sets in the league, and he has the talent on the roster to demonstrate it. Jokic is widely regarded as one of the best passing big men of all time, and for good reason. Not to mention the wealth of shooting and scoring in Murray, Harris, Barton, and IT around him. But it’s one thing to put five talented players on the floor, and another to maximize them together. And that’s exactly what Malone does.
So how does he do it? Seeing as his best player is a big, especially one of Jokic’s passing caliber, it makes sense to put him in a situation where he can initiate the offense effectively. Historically, and still today, this has been the high post. And a great play set that works through the high post is Horns, the most common formation in the league; you get the ball handler up top, bigs at the elbows, and wings in the corners. Here’s Malone talking Horns when he was the Kings’ head coach in 2014:
Malone clearly has a wide variety of go-to Horns plays in his arsenal, especially with this particular team in mind. Time to break them down.
This first one is great because it plays off of their backcourt’s unique mix of athleticism and shooting. So named because it involves the 2 and the 4 on offense and uses a Rip screen which is another name for a back screen for a player to cut to the basket.
Harris cuts from one corner all the way across the court, dragging his man across screens from the two elbow bigs. At the same time, Jokic gets it at the high post.
Because Harris is a very good shooter, the defense must stick tight to him and go over the screen and not sag back in the paint. He uses this to his advantage and dives hard towards the basket while his man gets clipped on the down screen. As you can see, this often gets him an open layup and sometimes even an alley oop dunk.
In the last clip, while Harris doesn’t dive to the basket, he still clears his man out and opens up the paint for Chandler, which is shown to be effective.
Chicago is a play that simply calls for a player to cut upwards using a down-screen and a dribble-handoff. It should be noted that is not universal and can go by many names, Chicago is just the name I’ve heard and use.
The two elbow bigs set the screens with the DHO. From there, it’s just playing basketball. It’s the ball handler’s read to drive or shoot, and ideally you have one big roll and one pop to truly keep the defense guessing. The clips included should give a good idea on all of the options coming off the screen.
Murray, Harris, Barton, and IT are all capable of making reads in the PNR and this play does a great job of putting the ball handler in a position to succeed.
Pistol is an early-offense setup that shares many principles with Horns, as similar actions can be ran out of both sets. It plays off of overloading one side in transition to gain an advantage.
You have the ball handler and usually a wing (though with Jokic’s unique ability with the ball, we often see him in this spot) running down a side third of the court. We also see a rim runner (usually a big) cut down the middle of the floor to look for easy scoring opportunities and help with spacing.
In these examples we basically see it turn into a two man game with Murray and Jokic, as Murray throws it in to the post and immediately chases it for a dribble handoff. Naturally, after seeing the post entry, the on-ball defender will typically relax, and Murray sees the opportunity to cut hard and burn his man.
This play also contains a lot of other options after Murray cuts through, such as a weak side action to come to Jokic and the ball.
Though Jokic is the centerpiece, the amount of offensive balance on this roster is incredible. Expect to see all of their young trio of Jokic, Harris, and Murray to take yet another leap. Malone and the Nuggets have a lot up their sleeve and we should see it on display this season, and yes, postseason.