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Around the NBA: Denver’s back on top and the Sixers are surging

The two best centers are once again helping their teams reach contender status

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

New year, same old NBA.

After finishing 1-2 in MVP voting each of the last two seasons, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are once again leading their teams to new heights.

With that said, there are still plenty of warts on both rosters, and let’s start by analyzing Denver.

Watch out, the Joker actually has support! (Kind of)

For the past two seasons, much has been made about Denver's depth, or lack thereof. But with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. both back to full health (knock on wood), the Nuggets are now legitimate title contenders.

Denver is currently first in the West at 28-13 with a +4.4 net rating that ranks fifth league-wide. The Nuggets have actually passed Boston in offensive rating and now sit first, scoring a ridiculous 119.2 points per 100 possessions. Their defense, though, is still concerning, ranking 23rd in the league and allowing 114.9 points per 100.

Fortunately, they seem to be trending up. Since December 8th, the Nuggets have gone 14-3 with a net rating of +8.4 (4th), an offensive rating of 121.7 (2nd), and most importantly, a 113.3 defensive rating that ranks 8th over that span.

However, they are still somehow abysmal without Jokic on the floor. Denver is a staggering +12.4 with him on and a historically bad -12.5 without him. Jokic’s +24.9 on/off differential is first in the league among all players who have logged a mere 200 minutes this season, and the Nuggets actually had a better net rating without him last season when Murray and MPJ played a whopping 265 minutes combined.

It’s an absolutely confounding stat without one definitive answer, but given all their talent, there are likely some psychological factors at play. Perhaps there’s some anti-Ewing Theory involved here, where a team’s supporting cast actually performs worse when they subconsciously know that they can always rely on their best player to bail them out.

Case in point: before Steph’s injury, the Warriors had a net rating of roughly -13.0 (which would be by far the worst in the league) without him on the court, but that mark improved to -4.7 over the past month while he was out with a shoulder injury. Of course, that latter number still isn’t good, but it gives some credence to the idea that players tend to perform better when they know that there isn’t a safety net around anymore.

If we’re purely talking basketball, though, it seems like the main culprit of Denver’s struggles without Jokic is their inability to adapt and play a different style. Like Steph in Golden State (and most other superstars), Jokic is the system, so the team loses its identity when he’s off the court, regardless of how many other talented players they have.

Take a look at the two plays below. Both basically devolve into Murray isos with the bigs either standing in the corners or just running basic hand-off actions.

Without Jokic, Denver’s offense lacks creativity and ball movement, and if Murray or Bones Hyland isn’t feeling it, their chances of scoring are basically zero.

To make matters worse, the Nuggets’ defense without Jokic (120.3 rating, 7th percentile) is even more concerning than their offense (107.8, 10th percentile). Their biggest problem is a lack of rim protection: Denver is 12th in the percentage of shots (33.4%) opponents take around the rim, but they’re making them at a ludicrous 70.4% (28th league-wide).

Deandre Jordan is the only other player on the roster who is a pure center besides Jokic, but he’s been unplayable so Denver has been relying on the likes of Jeff Green and Bruce Brown to hold the fort. Unfortunately, those guys lack the adequate size to contest bigs, which was evident when Evan Mobley easily scored on back-to-back post-ups before Cedi Osman had a wide-open drive without any resistance.

With that in mind, the Nuggets will likely try and upgrade at backup center, and Jakob Poeltl seems like an ideal fit. Acquiring him would kill two birds with one stone as he’s a great rim-protector and also a very good passing big man, so Denver could run a more fluid offense even without Jokic on the floor.

Regardless, the Nuggets seem destined to finish as one of the top seeds in the West, and Jokic will have a legitimate shot of winning another MVP because of it. So, if anyone ever tells you that you can’t do something, just remind them that this guy is a two (and maybe soon to be three) time MVP.

Don’t forget about the Sixers!

With all the storylines surrounding Boston, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn, the Sixers seem to have gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Maybe that’s a good thing given all of their turmoil over the past few seasons, but they’re quietly on pace to win over 50 games and are only 1.5 games back of the Bucks for third place in the East.

Everything points to Philly being a legitimate contender: their +4.1 net rating is 7th leaguewide, and they’re one of just six teams with a top-ten offense and defense. More importantly, they aren’t as reliant on Embiid as they have been in years past — the Sixers’ net rating is only -2.7 without him, and they’re actually +2.3 with Harden on and the big man off.

With Harden in his first full season, it’s also been interesting to see the difference in Philly’s overall playstyle. Last year, the Sixers ran 8.3 isos per game (12th leaguewide), which has skyrocketed to 12.4 this season (2nd). They're also scoring an impressive 1.0 points on those possessions, the 7th highest mark in the league.

Harden and Embiid also scored at the highest rate among all pick-and-roll duos last season, and it isn’t surprising to see the latter lead the league this year in possessions per game as the roll man (6.8). In fact, the player in second, Anthony Davis, is all the way back at 4.6 such plays per game, and the difference between Embiid and Davis is larger than the difference between Davis and the 16th player on the list.

Surprisingly, though, Embiid has only scored 1.14 points per possession as the roll man, which lands him in the 44th percentile. For reference, he averaged 1.24 points last year, good for the 70th percentile. Even so, they’re a lethal duo and the P&R is still efficient compared to most other other plays, and their chemistry is a thing of beauty too.

Harden has also had a nice bounce-back season but his best days are undoubtedly behind him. Only 24% of his shots this year have come at the rim, which is almost a 10% drop off from last season. Alarmingly, he’s only converting those attempts at a 57% clip, which would be the second-lowest percentage since his rookie campaign.

Unsurprisingly, the only time he shot at a lower rate was last year, but that was supposedly due to hamstring issues. For him to be healthy now and still struggling around the rim shows that this is just the new norm, and we shouldn’t expect much from Harden’s drives anymore.

However, his efficient field goal percentage has bounced back to a respectable 52.1% (it was below 50% last season), but that’s due to him shooting an unsustainable 60% on long mid-rangers, which is almost 10% higher than his previous career high.

As a result, Harden’s scoring will likely take a dip, and I have major questions as to how efficient Philly’s offense will be come playoff time. The Sixers score 133.4 points per 100 possessions in transition (4th highest league-wide) but those only account for 14% of their plays (25th). As a result, they run a whopping 81.9% of their sets in the half-court (2nd highest), but they do score a robust 99.9 points per 100 (7th) on such plays.

Come playoff time, though, Philly could have a much tougher time scoring when opponents know that the ball will be in either Harden or Embiid’s hands without much movement. Refs also tend to make fewer calls in the postseason so they can’t rely as much on getting to the line, and history tells us that neither star wants to run much in transition even though it gives them an easier chance to score.

Considering everything, I still can’t put the Sixers on the same level as Boston or Milwaukee, and it’ll take everything to break right for them to come out of the East.

This week, please check out Jesus’ article on the importance of having veterans on rebuilding teams! It was featured on Best of SB Nation NBA, and all of his content is of that quality.

Thanks for reading and I hope you’re having a great start to 2023!

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass and NBA Stats.