How concerning is Denver Nuggets’ poor free-throw shooting?

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Beat writer Bennett Durando opens up the Nuggets Mailbag periodically during the season. Pose a Nuggets- or NBA- related question here.

When does the free throw percentage become a serious concern? Almost everyone is shooting bricks.

— Danny, Denver

The way it’s concerning is more so the way it’s impacting physicality and confidence about getting to the line. It’s a team-wide issue, but the topic really begins and ends with Aaron Gordon. Michael Malone has said recently he wants Gordon to seek trips to the line more aggressively. Even though he has attempted the second-most free throws on Denver’s roster so far, Gordon’s trips to the line are down significantly from last year, when he was building a strong All-Star campaign.

He has attempted 50 foul shots in his first 18 games of 2023-24, making 26 of them. In 2022-23, he reached 50 attempts during his 13th game and had attempted 80 through 18 games. Gordon is an effective bully-ball scorer when he’s inviting and playing through contact. In those 18 games, he was 61.3% at the line, still not great but a wide margin better than his current 52%. By the turn of the calendar, he was averaging more than 17 points through 30 games. He’s closer to his career average right now at 13.1 per game.

It speaks to the wider trend that is the Nuggets’ inability to get to the stripe: They’re averaging the third-fewest foul shots per game as a team (19.5) and the fewest per game on the road (17.1), amounting to an NBA-worst 70.8% mark (69.4% on the road).

“We’re leaving a lot of points on the foul line,” Malone said. “And you’re in a lot of close games. Very rarely will you just blow teams out. So when games are close, it’s a one- or two-possession game, you don’t want to keep the opposing team in the game because of all these missed free throws. The hard thing is the schedule hasn’t really helped us get in the gym and have any practice, but I do know guys are getting in the gym individually and getting their reps in. And I hope that sooner or later, we’ll find a rhythm.”

Michael Porter Jr. is 5% below his career average; Reggie Jackson is 20% below his; Nikola Jokic is worse than 80% for the first time in his career, even after getting back on track recently. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been steady, and Jamal Murray’s presence should correct course for the team somewhat. Still, it’s harder to find a rhythm when you’re not frequently getting to the line to begin with.

So should Reggie Jackson be named to the All-NBA team? Before you say no, how could Murray be named (All-NBA) with similar stats? 

— Edward, via email

Well, the whole point is Murray couldn’t be named All-NBA with those stats right now. You’re referring to the fact that Jackson averaged 16.3 points in his 13 starts while replacing Murray, the exact same scoring total Murray was averaging before his return from multiple injuries Wednesday night. Not only that, but Jackson achieved that average on better shooting (53.8% from the field).

The point of the stat is to illustrate the commendable job Jackson did filling a void that, before this season, was probably fair to question whether he could handle. Murray is one of the best guards in the NBA, and Jackson was someone who wasn’t cracking Denver’s rotation during the playoffs a few months ago. It’s hard to overstate how timely his offensive resurgence has been.

That doesn’t mean 16.3 points per game are All-NBA numbers. Now that Murray is seemingly healthy, he faces a steep uphill battle if he wants to reach that achievement, both in terms of usage and statistics. Even before his hamstring injury in early November, he was excelling most as a play-maker, averaging a career-high 7.1 assists. I’m curious to see if that trend continues, and if so, whether it’s at the expense of higher scoring numbers.

Do you think Jackson’s scoring will start to fade now that he’s back with the second unit and won’t have as many opportunities with Jokic?

— Roger, Denver

I definitely don’t expect him to keep averaging 16, because he’s just not going to keep averaging 30 minutes. But I think the bench does need him to be semi-consistently in double figures. That’s where his value is highest. At the other end, he has defended against 220 field goal attempts through 22 games, which is 39th-most among NBA guards as of Thursday. Opponents are making 52.7% of those shots. Out of the 38 guards who have defended against more attempts, only one has a worse DFG% (Kyle Lowry).

For a volume comparison within Jackson’s own roster, Caldwell-Pope has defended against 219 shots, coming in right behind Jackson at 40th-most among guards. Only two who have faced more attempts have a better DFG% than Caldwell-Pope’s 42.9%: Nickiel Alexander-Walker (38.9% on 226) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (40.8% on 277). KCP continues to share a shot-disrupting stratosphere with elite backcourt defenders such as Jrue Holiday (42.9% on 280 field goals defended), O.G. Anunoby (43.1% on 216) and Lu Dort (43.6% on 220).

When Jackson plays with Denver’s starters, he’s surrounded by a combination of exceptional defensive players (Caldwell-Pope, Gordon) and offensive players (Jokic, Porter). Everyone else on the floor helps maximize his strengths. When he spearheads the second unit — a collection of players whose primary job is to stave off opponents during Jokic’s rest minutes using hard-nosed defense — the scoring onus is on Jackson. He’s on the floor to provide points even if his defending isn’t on par with Christian Braun’s or Peyton Watson’s. There understandably isn’t as much of a flow to the bench unit’s half-court offense, either, so a point guard with Jackson’s particular gift of one-on-one shot creation can be essential.

What do you make of the Nnaji contract extension at the quarter-point of the season, now that he isn’t even part of the rotation?

— Lee, Golden 

Twenty-two games were never going to vindicate or condemn Nnaji’s contract, which was a preseason box to check among other things. The deal was agreed upon some 48 hours before the deadline for 2020 first-round picks entering the last year of their rookie scale deals to sign extensions.

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