DENVER — Emotions were running high in the minutes following Russell Westbrook‘s game-winning 36-foot three-pointer on Sunday that ended Denver’s season and playoff hopes and officially sent coach Michael Malone and general manager Tim Connelly into offseason mode.
When reflecting back on the season, there’s a lot of blame to go around for Denver’s failure to hold onto their lead for the eighth seed in the West, something that was theirs for much of the second half of the year.
You can look to the Nuggets’ youth and the fact that Denver relied on a young backcourt and center in Nikola Jokic mixed in with a veteran rotation to get them to the playoffs. Or that the Nuggets’ offense was unable to produce late in games all season, as evident by their league-worst field goal percentage in the last five minutes of games when the margin was five points or less. Denver’s roster was also ravaged by injuries all year preventing Malone from establishing a consistent rotation, save for a few weeks here and there.
But a constant throughout Denver’s 2016-17 campaign was that the Nuggets never played defense consistently and Malone never figured out how to get through to his players on that end of the floor.
While the Nuggets have scored at the most efficient rate in the league since Dec. 15 (the date Jokic became Denver’s starting center), pouring in 113.6 points per 100 possessions, they also house the league’s worst defense over that span.
Malone believes the way to improve the Nuggets’ on that end of the floor next season is by adding more defensive-minded players.
“We have to add defensive minded players, in my opinion,” Malone said after Denver’s loss Sunday to Oklahoma City. “You can’t try to outscore teams in the NBA. It’s great that we have one of the best offenses in the NBA. But if you’re trading baskets, you’re giving up a lot of points on a high field goal percentage every night. Over the long haul, that’s going to be a losing proposition. Hopefully, we can add some pieces to our team that can help us on that end of the floor.”
There’s going to be turnover on Denver’s roster this offseason but as it currently stands, there’s some defensive upside, which starts with Gary Harris, who’s well regarded across the league as a plus perimeter defender. Juancho Hernangomez, who’s displayed a fearless tenor on that end of the floor all season highlighted by his play against Kevin Durant in Denver’s Feb. 13 win against the Warriors, projects as a plus defender as well. Rookie Jamal Murray‘s bulldog-like approach on defense during his rookie year bodes well for his defensive upside going forward and Kenneth Faried is wrapping his best defensive season in recent memory.
But with this group, the Nuggets were rarely, if at all, able to string together a full 48-minute defensive effort and that shortcoming is surely at the top of the front office’s wish list this summer.
Armed with cap room, Denver is about to enter an offseason where there are ample defensive-minded players available, many of which would improve the Nuggets’ on that end of the floor.
Here are a few potential mid-level free agents to be that could jumpstart Denver’s defense:
Andre Roberson – SF – Restricted
Although he’s one of the best wing defenders in the league, Roberson hasn’t shown any signs of developing a three-point stroke and is shooting just 24.5 percent from three this year on 2.5 attempts per game. However, his IQ, athleticism, and ability to cut gives him some value on offense off the ball.
P.J. Tucker – SF – Unrestricted
Watch out for Tucker during the upcoming NBA playoffs, as the veteran has found a comfortable niche in Toronto as a valuable defender off the bench.
Patrick Patterson – PF – Unrestricted
The Raptors are the 8th-most efficient defense in the league this season and a large part of their success is thanks to the reliable Patterson. The 28-year-old is also shooting 37 percent from three, a deadly clip for a four-man that can also defend.
Amir Johnson – PF – Unrestricted
With the Celtics, Johnson is quiet but consistent. He’s also been a rock on defense for Boston who plays at an elite level on that end of the floor, only giving up 103.8 points per 100 possessions, with the 29-year-old on the court.
Taj Gibson – PF – Unrestricted
Gibson is 31-years-old and likely entering the twilight of his career, but is still a smart defensive player that could give the Nuggets’ frontcourt and rotation an edge.
Robert Covington – SF – Team Option
If Philadelphia lets Covington walk, he’ll undoubtedly have his share of suitors. The 26-year-old is an elite defender on the wing and can hold his own from beyond the arc.