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 led 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.

“[Darren Erman’s] the guy who instilled a lot of what the Warriors did, as did Mike Malone early on,” Strauss said on BBall Breakdown’s Instant Offense podcast with James Holas. “I would say just from talking to people that those two guys get a lot of the credit.”

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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.

Harrison Wind

Harrison is a Boulder, Colorado native who graduated from CU-Boulder in 2013. He is the lead Nuggets writer for BSN Denver and has covered the team since 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @HarrisonWind

  • david 1.982k

    Gallinari is a bit underrated as a defender, he’s pretty good at positioning himself to cut off driving lanes and taking charges too. Wilson Chandler has also shown in the past that he can be a really good one on one defender and has shown that he has the strengths to defend guys from the 2-4 positions. I’d say Arthur, Wilson, Gallo, Harris, Nurkic, Mudiay, Barton, and possibly Faried have the tools to be at the very least average defenders, if not more so. Faried has always shown flashes of defense, particularly helping protect the rim by chasing guys down the floor in transition and as a weak side defender. Maybe a guy like Malone will get the most out of him and improve the way he thinks the game. I like the premise of the article, not only because it’s true that Malone has shown he can make a positive impact on his teams, but also because it’s a leap forward from the Nuggets last head coaching hire, who, it could be argued, actually made a poor impact on the Pacers offense which he was delegated responsibility for by Frank Vogel. I think there’s a lot to look forward to for Nuggets fans this year. I for one wouldn’t be terribly surprised if they did indeed show a significant turnaround on defense at least, where they’ve been dreadful the last two years. I doubt very seriously that will take them very far with how top heavy the western conference is again this year, but it could put them in contention for the last playoff spot, depending on how some of the younger players on the roster do, of course.

    • Nate Timmons

      Great take David! I found myself nodding in agreement with your points on Denver having the right players to be a lot better defensively. I think Gallo, Chandler, and Faried give the Nuggets incredible versatility on defense with the ability to switch everything.

      I hope you keep sharing your thoughts, enjoyed it!

    • Harrison Wind

      Thanks for the comment David.

      If Malone can get through to Kenneth, he should be able to be an above averaged defender, both one-on-one and covering pick and rolls on the perimeter, he has all the tools. I’d definilty expect everyone to take a slight jump defensively just from what Malone will stress from day one.