The Denver Nuggets Have a Severe Passing Problem

Nov 10, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) dribbles the ball against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) in the third quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Warriors defeated the Nuggets 125-101. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets’ 3-7 start in not surprising for a team that has the third-fewest assists and the most turnovers per game in the NBA.

The Denver Nuggets began last season 5-5 through 10 games, but a few last-second shots, poor interior shooting, and a league-high number of turnovers have regressed the team to a 3-7 record to start this year — the same record they had through 10 games in 2014-15. Throw in a few early-season injuries to Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Wilson Chandler, and you have the recipe for a woeful start.

The Nuggets inability to distribute the ball early on is disconcerting. The team currently ranks 28th in assists per game at 18.7, only ahead of the Utah Jazz and the Toronto Raptors. For those two teams, though, the low assist count makes sense.

Utah is playing at the slowest pace in the NBA, whereas the Nuggets are playing the sixth-fastest tempo.

The Raptors rely heavily on DeMar DeRozan who is a master at creating his own shot and is leading the league in scoring. The Nuggets don’t have that type of individual talent.

By the way, Jazz are 7-4, and the Raptors are 7-2.

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The part of the equation that makes it worse for Denver is that they are also leading the league in turnovers per game. The Nuggets are committing 18.1 turnovers per contest, which makes their assist to turnover ratio 1.03.

Woof!

There are certainly a number of players under-performing in this area, but Emmanuel Mudiay is carrying the troublesome torch.

Mar 4, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at the Pepsi Center. The Nets defeated the Nuggets 121-120 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Mar 4, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at the Pepsi Center. The Nets defeated the Nuggets 121-120 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Emmanuel Mudiay Has a Turnover Problem

Mudiay’s point guard production is the antithesis of what you want from that position.

I went to the Pistons at Nuggets game on Saturday night, and one thing was clear from Section 302 at the Pepsi Center: I didn’t want the ball in Mudiay’s hands.

Aside from Danilo Gallinari’s reverse dunk on Aron Baynes, there are really only two plays that stand out to me. Both were Mudiay mishaps.

The first was a failed lob attempt to Faried. I don’t know exactly what happened, but Mudiay’s pass from beyond the 3-point line didn’t even make it to the paint. A pinpoint pass and alley-oop finish could have brought the crowd to its feet.

The second play I remember happened just after another of his turnovers. Mudiay was streaking down the lane and was delivered a perfect pass. Sadly, he couldn’t handle the ball and it led to yet another Nugget turnover.

Those two plays seem to be a microcosm of his first 10 games. Mudiay is averaging only 3.2 assists per game, which is second behind backup point guard Jameer Nelson (3.6). To compound his inability to distribute, Mudiay is turning the ball over 4.6 times per game. For every one turnover he has only 0.7 assists!

In other words, Mudiay’s point guard production is the antithesis of what you want from that position.

Nov 8, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) shoots the ball over Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) during the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 8, 2016; Memphis, TN, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) shoots the ball over Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph (50) during the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Despite TOs, Mudiay Still Has a High Usage Percentage

Michael Malone has given Mudiay a long leash to start the year. Despite his poor production, Mudiay’s usage rate ranks ninth among starting point guards.

Take a look at the chart below, and you’ll see where Mudiay is ranking in a few other categories, as well, in relation to point guards who are in the Top 10 of usage. Hint: it’s not good!

A few takeaways from the chart:

  1. The other nine guys who are being used as much are either MVPs, All-Stars, or project to be All-Stars some day.
  2. The only two point guards on the list with more turnovers per game are Russell Westbrook and James Harden. I’m confident the Thunder and Rockets will take their production, though. Each of them is scoring nearly double what Mudiay is scoring, and both have more than tripled his assist production.
  3. Mudiay has both the lowest assist percentage and the highest turnover percentage.

To wrap this up and put a nice bow of perspective on his production, consider this. Mudiay is averaging 5.0 assists per 100 possessions. He’s tied for 127th in the league with Frank Kaminsky!

Perhaps Mudiay and the Nuggets could overcome this if he had some help. Several teams have capable big men who can direct the offense and pass from in and around the lane. Unfortunately, the Nuggets aren’t one of them.

Oct 29, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) dribbles the ball between Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) and guard C.J. McCollum (3) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 29, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) dribbles the ball between Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) and guard C.J. McCollum (3) in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Is There Anyone to Help Mudiay on the Denver Nuggets?

The answer for the Denver Nuggets is a melancholy, “Probably not.”

Nelson has played fine as a backup point guard, but at 34-years old, how much more can you expect? He’s averaging 8.1 points and 3.6 assists per game, but Nelson certainly isn’t the long-term answer.

A play-making big man would be nice. Andrew Bogut’s passing ability over the last two years helped Golden State find open looks. Blake Griffin has been doing more in the pick-and-roll and is a great passer. Heck, even Portland’s Mason Plumlee is averaging 7.8 assists per 100 possessions!

We’ll see how the season shakes out, but so far the cupboard is bare in this department. Nikola Jokic has been the best passing big man at 4.2 assists per 100 possessions. Jusuf Nurkic (2.5 ast/100) and Kenneth Faried (2.0 ast/100) aren’t providing much in this regard. The Denver Nuggets trio of big men combine for 8.7 assists per 100 possessions, which is less than one assist better than Plumlee by himself.

If Nelson isn’t a long-term answer, and if the Nuggets are getting much from inside, is there a solution?

Oct 31, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Denver Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson (1) shoots for a basket past Toronto Raptors center Jakob Poeltl (42) in the first half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 31, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Denver Nuggets guard Jameer Nelson (1) shoots for a basket past Toronto Raptors center Jakob Poeltl (42) in the first half at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

What Should the Denver Nuggets Do?

With the roster as constructed, the answer really does lie in the hands of Emmanuel Mudiay. That’s a scary notion for the Nuggets faithful, although he is only 20 years old. There is time to develop still, but how long are the Nuggets and their fans willing to wait?

The good news is that he’s already shown that he can be better. He wasn’t a good NBA point guard last season by any means, but he did average 9.0 assists per 100 possessions and have a 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio last year. Again, that’s not good, but it would be a marked improvement from how he’s started this season.

If Mudiay continues to lag in development and maintaining possession, what else is there to do?

One thought is to play Mudiay and Nelson a bit more together. This would allow Nelson to run the offense and Mudiay to play off the ball. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from deep, so a few more open treys might not be a bad thing.

The problem with this solution, though, is that the duo hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire when playing together. According to Basketball Reference, when Mudiay and Nelson are on the court together, the Denver Nuggets are -24. Of the team’s 81 two-man lineups, that ranks 71st. This solution isn’t exactly ideal.

Taking a closer look at this idea of two-man lineups, Mudiay still doesn’t rate well. Of those same aforementioned lineups, only three with Mudiay involved rank in the top half for Denver. That means the other eight lineups including Mudiay are in the bottom half and five of those are in the bottom 11.

Long-term, Mudiay might be the answer. He’s 20 years old with a career of development in front of him. There’s no telling what he might turn into.

In the short term, though, the numbers suggest he should see more time on the bench.

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