After experiencing an initial uptick in defensive efficiency to start the season, Denver's defense has cratered without Paul Millsap in the lineup. Since Millsap went down a left wrist injury that will keep the four-time All-Star out of the Nuggets' lineup for "several months" after surgery, Denver has slipped from the 17th to 25th-best defense in the league.
The Nuggets went from surrendering 105.0 points per 100 possessions with Millsap healthy to 112.7 points per 100 possessions over their last nine games.
Denver's defensive issues climaxed Wednesday night in New Orleans when the Nuggets surrendered 123 points to the Pelicans on 53.5 percent shooting. Denver has allowed at least 100 points in each of its last five games and in seven of the nine it's played without Millsap. The Nuggets' last six losses, which have all come on the road, have been by an average of 20 points.
“My message is stop feeling sorry for yourself," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the loss Wednesday night via Altitude TV. "Take pride in your defense. Because if you don’t, the same thing is going to keep happening. I’m not going to play the same guys over and over when we give up every single night 110 (points), 120 (points), 55 (percent shooting) from the field 50 (points allowed) in the paint. It’s not in my nature. I’m not going to sit there and watch that much longer. I’ll tell you that much.”
In New Orleans, Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins did most of the damage. Holiday got one straight-line drive to the rim after another as did Cousins, who finished 10-16 from the restricted area. Holiday had 15 drives against Denver, per NBA.com, nearly four more than his season average of 11.2.
Afterwards, both Malone and Mason Plumlee took issue with how the Nuggets defended Holiday, Cousins and Pelicans' personnel based on the scouting report.
"Jrue Holiday went left every time. And we went over personnel, talked about how he likes to go left. Yet, he got left every single time. DeMarcus Cousins went right every time. Talked about personnel. DeMarcus is going to go right," Malone said.
“You get guys’ tendencies in the scouting report. We let them play to their tendencies,” Plumlee added. “You got to make guys beat you with their “B” and their “C” moves, but they beat us with their “A” moves tonight.”
Like Malone noted, Holiday went left on the majority of his drives to the basket.
Cousins did most his damage in the paint as well. The All-Star big man shot 12-25 and hit 2-6 from three-point range. The rest of his 10 makes came from within five feet.
Cousins was able to get to his right hand with ease and bully his way past Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee. When he wasn't scoring, Cousins was drawing fouls. Plumlee fouled out in 23 minutes. Faried was called for five fouls in the 24 minutes he spent on the floor.
Malone called his team "slightly below-average" earlier this season when it comes to K.Y.P. (Know Your Personnel), and it showed against the Pelicans.
Denver's coach also took issue with his team's lack of help defense. On many of Holiday's and Cousins' drives, the Nuggets didn't come with help.
"DeMarcus Cousins is a great player and he's hard to guard 1-on-1 especially when he's in the post. But when he's catching it outside the three-point line and just getting direct line drive after direct line drive to his right hand, which is what we covered in the personnel report, that is discouraging," Malone said Thursday on Altitude Radio 950. "What's also discouraging is that the guys behind him, where is the help? Are you worried about your man or are you worried about just playing team defense? One guy is not going to guard DeMarcus. It takes five guys defending as one to be a good defensive team and we did not have that last night."
"Right now, you have I think individuals saying, 'Well my man's not scoring.' Instead of saying, 'You know what, let me give help to help Kenneth out let me give help to help Mason Plumlee.' When we give the necessary help, now we become a much better team because it's five guys defending as one instead of everybody being on an island," Malone added.
Like Malone alluded to, maybe changes to Denver's rotation are in order. Malik Beasley, who's jumped ahead of Juancho Hernangomez in the Nuggets' pecking order likely because of defensive reasons, could be in line for more playing time. Beasley played 17 minutes in New Orleans, hit two threes, finished with eight points and was a plus-eight in 17 minutes off the bench.
Denver's free-fall on defense is alarming, but the Nuggets can still keep their head above water without Millsap because their offense is producing. On the year, Denver has registered the league's seventh-best attack even though they've fallen off by about a point per 100 possessions without Millsap, per NBA.com.
That's a good enough rate to keep Denver afloat for now, but they'll need to rediscover their defensive prowess from earlier in the season to retain their current playoff standing.
On their current six-game road trip, the Nuggets are 0-2. Three of their four next opponents (Indiana, Detroit and Boston) rank in the league's top-half in offensive efficiency.