The Denver Nuggets may not be a top 10 or even a top 15 defense in the league for the coming 2015-16 season, they simply don't have the players to do so, but it won't be because of first-year head coach Michael Malone's lack of trying.
Malone earned his stripes in the league as a defensive whiz. From 2005-2010, as an assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he helped guide them to top 15 defensive rankings in each of those five seasons. In New Orleans, Malone helped improve the Hornets defense by 8.7 points per game during his lone season in the Bayou, the largest improvement in the league that year. In his last stop before ascending to the head coach's position with the Sacramento Kings, Malone laid the defensive foundation in Golden State that eventually ledÂ them to the No. 1 defensive rating and an NBA championship this past season.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who covers the Warriors for ESPN.com, has witnessed Stephen Curry and Company go from a middling Western Conference program to the league's newest juggernaut. He knows Malone is largely responsible for their rapid rise.
In Sacramento, Malone did his best with a roster that wasn't exactly "defensively minded." In the 44-year-old's first season in Sacramento, he improved the Kings' defense by 2.3 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. In the 24 games he coached this past season, before getting handed the pink slip by owner Vivek Ranadive, that number improved by another 2.1 points. It was a solid, steady improvement and possibly the best Malone could have hoped for with the roster he was handed.
The reasons Malone couldn't get his defensive philosophies to fully stick in Sacramento may be the same obstacles he initially will run into in Denver with the Nuggets. While he can hold his own on the defensive end of the court, Danilo Gallinari isn't capable of harassing the league's top wings on a nightly basis. The same goes for Wilson Chandler. Kenneth Faried and his defensive struggles are well known and it's going to be an interesting storyline this year if the forward, who's seemingly entering a make-or-break season in Denver, buys into what Malone is selling.
This season the Nuggets simply don't have the individual defenders that you can build a defense around.
But that's not saying Denver won't in the near future.
Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay's 6-foot-5 frame and instinctive skill-set give him the potential to be a John Wall-type defender at the NBA level. Second-year big man Jusuf Nurkic, who oddly enough has been compared to Malone's former star player in Sacramento, DeMarcus Cousins, showed glimpses during his rookie year that he could one-day anchor a defense from the center position. Guard Gary Harris, who I discussed in depth here, has the hands and like Mudiay, the instincts to be a disruptive force on the wing as well.
It might not happen this year, but the Nuggets certainly have the pieces and personnel to be a top 15 defensive unit. More importantly, they have a coach who knows how to get them there.