The Denver Nuggets defense has taken a significant hit as of late; we explore what has gone wrong for the Western Conference contender
The Denver Nuggets were always supposed to be an offensive-heavy team. It did not matter that Nikola Jokic was a human turnstile, that the Jamal Murray/Gary Harris backcourt was questionable defensively, or that Will Barton was a shooting guard masquerading as a starting three.
They were just going to outscore their opponents and run teams off the floor at home (as they have for pretty much their entire history as a franchise).
And sizzle offensively they did. In the 2016-17 season, the Nuggets were the second-best offense in the league after Nikola Jokic replaced a disgruntled Jusuf Nurkic in the starting lineup on December 15.
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That’s nearly four months of keeping pace (a measly 0.3 points per 100 possessions behind the Warriors) with arguably the greatest team of all time. Despite signing Paul Millsap that next offseason to anchor the defense, the 2017-18 Nuggets still ranked in the bottom-10 defensively, which was the biggest factor in them missing the playoffs by one game.
Last season was when it all changed. Aided in large part by poor opponent 3-point shooting (last in the league at 33.9%), Denver finished 11th defensively in the NBA. This breakthrough drastically raised the Nuggets’ ceiling, and as a result, they ended up one win away from the Western Conference Finals.
Somehow, for the first two months of 2019-20, Denver took another step forward on the defensive end. Even though the offense sputtered with Jokic coming in out of shape, they somehow started off the season 19-8 through 27 games. The defense was carrying the team (2nd in the league at 103.9 points allowed per 100 possessions), which seemed preposterous even just two years ago.
Since then, however, Denver’s defense has nosedived. Since December 21, they have given up 117.5 points per 100 possessions in 12 games – good for dead-last in the league during that span. And they haven’t exactly faced a murderers’ row in this stretch. The only healthy team with an above-average offense that they played against was Houston on New Year’s Eve. So what exactly is going on with the Denver Nuggets?
The simple answer is that their opponents are finally starting to hit shots. The Nuggets’ aggressive defensive scheme concedes a lot of rushed catch-and-shoot 3’s from shaky shooters. When opposing teams are ice-cold (league-worst again at 30.3% during the first two months of the season), this strategy looks great. But when the other teams heat up, allowing tons of corner-threes becomes a problem. While the NBA can oftentimes be boiled down to “a make or miss league” (Mark Jackson voice), the Nuggets still have some structural issues with their defense that they need to address.
With Paul Millsap (Denver’s best all-around defender) missing games recently due to knee trouble, Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. have filled in for many of his minutes. These two have struggled mightily in Millsap’s place. Denver traded for Grant this offseason to be a defensive force who could guard multiple positions and infuse some desperately needed athleticism into the team.
However, Grant has disappointed thus far. He is often indecisive in his off-ball rotations and is getting beat up on the defensive glass (a major reason why Denver has been hemorrhaging points with him on the floor). Even his ballyhooed one-one defense has not lived up to expectations.
Porter has been a big negative defensively as well, which is not a surprise given his experience level and pre-draft reputation. Despite having elite size he can get overwhelmed physically, and he makes typical rookie mistakes, like fouling too much and getting lost in help-side defense. The Nuggets will have to live with some of these given the promise he has shown scoring the ball.
These off-ball breakdowns have extended to the more tenured members of the Nuggets too, as of late. Their blitzing and trapping style of play lends itself to giving up more advantages, but they have always made up for it by scrambling and helping/recovering on a string. The level of connectedness has appeared to wane. When they do decide to switch, players are not always on the same page.
It’s a long season, so it is unrealistic to expect teams to go full throttle for every game in the calendar. But this stretch has seen the Nuggets go through a prolonged decline in effort level. It is not just Jokic, either. Guys are getting beat one-one and traffic-coned by players you would not expect. The intensity has been embarrassing at times, frankly. They have been getting bludgeoned on the defensive glass (28.0% OREB rate ranks 26th since December 21). The mental focus appears to wax and wane.
Not everything is grim in Denver, however. The offense has picked it up as the defense has faltered. There are reasons to believe this struggle on the defensive end is more of an aberration. Based on their expected eFG% allowed from Cleaning the Glass (accounts for areas of floor opponents take shots from), the difference between the first 27 games and these most recent 12 games is negligible. They just came off a five-game road trip and have also recently played in three different back-to-backs, both of which likely play a role in the level of effort.
Opponents have been shooting over 70 percent at the rim, which is bound to go down. Westbrook was unusually efficient against them. Indiana shot unsustainably well on jump shots. Ish Smith had an out-of-body experience. Grant had an encouraging performance guarding Kawhi Leonard in their most recent game against the LA Clippers.
That being said, I would be concerned if I were a fan of the Nuggets. They did not have a single 12-game stretch that was this porous defensively last season. Maybe they were playing with fire this entire time by allowing so many shots from beyond the arc. Not everyone can be the Milwaukee Bucks.
Late in the third quarter against Cleveland, they had to resort to playing a zone defense. If Millsap is that important to the defense, then what does their long-term outlook without him look like? There are peaks and valleys to every NBA season, it will be interesting to see how the Denver Nuggets respond to their latest downturn.