Denver Nuggets: PJ Dozier showing near-term starter qualities

(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

Nothing causes Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone to turn beet-red under his mask and call his trademark angry timeout as quickly as a defensive blunder.

During a season in which aging veterans, undersized defenders and fickle role players have been somewhat of a theme, PJ Dozier is the lone Nugget consistently impressing on the stopping end…while also demonstrating a much-improved offensive pallet. He may eventually steal a starting spot.

The trade deadline is approaching, and Gary Harris and Will Barton have spent recent weeks circling the drain in trade rumors. If one or both departs, depending on return, Denver may suddenly need another starter.

Moreover, Michael Porter Jr. has found recent success in power forward minutes, opening a further need for bigger wings. Dozier is suddenly a strong choice at a razor-thin position and could provide a critical lift in the starting lineup.

Let’s examine Dozier’s starter-caliber attributes and break down his game.

The Denver Nuggets look their best with PJ Dozier spearheading the defense:

The Nuggets have played remarkably with Dozier on the floor, as he’s posting a team-best 10.3 net rating. Denver checks in at 7-1 since Dozier’s return from a hamstring injury and has been effective defensively in recent weeks.

A deeper look reveals these winning ways expand further, as the squad is 17-8 this season when Dozier is healthy, and just 7-8 without him. He has been somewhat of an unexpected catalyst.

A major contributor involves Dozier’s elite defense. His 100.9 defensive rating is best among Nuggets rotation players, and it isn’t close, as he sits a full 6.0 points allowed per 100 possessions above the next best mark (JaMychael Green, 106.9 defensive rating).

Dozier has the size (6’7”), quickness, and instinct to take assignments previously filled by last year’s departed wing stoppers Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig, whose absences have otherwise left gaping holes in Denver’s defense.

Meanwhile, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris, (players who were previously known as defensive anchors), have struggled at times this season, posting 114.3 and 111.2 defensive ratings respectively. Millsap’s mark is worst among rotation players, while Harris’ is fourth-worst (although Harris regularly covers the league’s top guards).

Factoring the departures of last year’s stoppers, Millsap’s age-induced decline, Harris’ health/matchup struggles, and the overall lack of size, Dozier’s efforts on the stopping end have saved the Nuggets from a complete defensive crumbling.

On a related note, Michael Porter Jr.’s increased minutes at power forward has also boosted the team, as he’s averaging 23.2 points in the past five games. However, this shift causes legitimate concerns on defense, as the lineups are less defensively savvy.

A starting group with stoppers Dozier and Harris alongside Denver’s scorers would be helpful in plugging these leaks. This balanced lineup keeps Malone confident in the defense while allowing Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Porter to thrive in what’s proven to be the best offensive situation.

Dozier’s offense is improving, and in the spots the Denver Nuggets need

Dozier is averaging a career-high 7.6 points per game off the bench, proving himself a capable bucket-getter when needed. However, his most valuable offensive contributions have come in the form of his deep ball shooting and ball-handling.

When addressing Denver’s needs over this past offseason, many hoped for a 3-and-D wing, a tenacious defender who could space the floor around Jokic and bury the deep ball.

Turns out this piece may have come internally, as Dozier has developed into a strong 3-point shooter to complement his solid defense. Dozier is converting a solid 40.6 percent from deep, a mark few could have predicted after an unimpressive shooting year in 2019-20.

The next step is maintaining consistency, as this year isn’t a large enough sample size for most to consider Dozier a knock-down marksman. He’ll develop a reputation if he shoots well to finish the season and carries this into next year.

Dozier’s ball-handling is also helpful, as he’s shown himself a proficient dribbler who can play point guard when needed. This is especially important when paired with Murray, as Denver’s scoring guard plays his best alongside another ball-handler.

Having this second facilitator frees Murray to focus on scoring, as he worries less about bringing up the ball and starting the offense.

If Dozier handles the ball, enters into the offense, and then spaces the floor as a consistent 3-point shooter, he’ll be a strong complementary player to Denver’s offense. Factor in his team-leading defense, and there’s every reason for Dozier to start alongside the Denver Nuggets’ core.

Next. Trade Deadline: 10 trades to shake up the season. dark