DENVER — The Denver Nuggets are attempting to become the worst defensive team to make the playoffs since the Golden State Warriors in 1991-92.
Let that sink in for a moment. No team has allowed their opponent to score more points per game than this year’s Nuggets squad, (who’s giving up 111.4 per contest) and qualified for the playoffs since Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin surrendered 114.8 per game 25 years ago. That year the Warriors still grabbed the third seed in the West but were upset by the Sonics, who were led by Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Ricky Pierce, Eddie Johnson and Derrick McKey, and scored at least 115 points on Golden State in every game that series.
Scoring is astronomically up across the league this season so it’s difficult to put Denver’s defense this year in perspective, but the numbers and eye test can’t hide the struggles the Nuggets have endured on that end of the court through 62 games.
Denver probably doesn’t have to be better on defense to make the playoffs this season. The eighth seed in the West is projected to come in at around 38 wins, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, which would be the lowest win total to qualify for the playoffs since Brooklyn posted 38 wins in 2015. The Nuggets need to stay on pace, though, play .500 ball from here on out and hope none of Portland, Dallas, Sacramento, Minnesota or New Orleans catches fire during the final stretch of the regular season. Denver is currently 1.5 games up on the Trail Blazers.
However, Michael Malone and his coaching staff are trying to kick-start Denver’s defense with just 20 games remaining.
Here’s a brief synopsis of how the Nuggets have defended pick-and-rolls for much of this season. Denver has generally elected to have their big sag into the paint and reduce the pick-and-roll to 2-on-2 basketball.
The results haven’t been great. For example, check out this defensive possessions from an early February home win against Dallas. Jokic sags off Wes Matthews as he comes around a Dirk Nowitzki screen and slides down to protect the paint, but isn’t quick enough to recover back to Nowitzki.
It was during that win where signs of the Nugget’s changing philosophy when it comes to their pick-and-roll coverages began to emerge.
“We wanted to be more aggressive, up at their level,” Malone said of a new scheme and strategy to cover pick-and-rolls, which went into effect over the last two quarters against Dallas. “Attack the ball and get back.”
Compare that previous Nowitzki jumper to how Darrell Arthur attacked this pick-and-roll late in the third quarter of that same game. Arthur doesn’t sag and instead jumps out to hedge the ball-handler, forcing the action elsewhere. That’s the adjustment Malone was referring to.
Since that win over Dallas, Denver has gone back and forth between that same 2-on-2 coverage and the more aggressive and attacking mindset on defense that Arthur showed in the clip above.
The Nuggets are giving up 109.9 points per 100 possessions in six games since the All-Star break, good for 23rd-best defense in the league over that span, and although that’s just a point per 100 improvement from their pre-All-Star break numbers (110.9 points per 100 possessions), there have been some signs of a more aggressive identity taking shape.
Throughout most of the first quarter in their loss to Charlotte Saturday, the Nuggets deployed that same basic coverage which opposing offenses have shredded throughout the year. Watch how Kemba Walker, who hit 5-9 threes on his way to 29 points against Denver, has the necessary airspace to rise and fire from deep off a Cody Zeller screen as Jokic sags into the paint.
Although Denver lost the game, what the Nuggets did over the next three quarters on defense gives a good blueprint of what to expect from their pick-and-roll coverages over the remaining 20 games.
Fast forward to later in the quarter and watch how Mason Plumlee jumps out from behind a Christian Wood screen and forces Marco Belinelli to backtrack towards the center of the floor, leading him into a contested three.
Then, in third quarter, here’s Darrell Arthur jumping out to quell Walker, who’s looking for a lane or split-second opening to launch another three. Arthur stepping into Walker’s path doesn’t guarantee a defensive stop but gives the guard a roadblock to navigate through, putting the Hornets’ offense a second or two behind schedule and slightly out of rhythm.
“We’ve changed our coverages to be more aggressive,” Malone said. “So the gameplan has been less being down the floor, more being up and I think that’s helped us at times. When you are aggressive in pick-and-rolls for example, that does open up other areas, and you need great weakside awareness to account for that. But I think having a guy like Mason Plumlee, who’s so versatile in pick-and-rolls, you can do a lot of different things.”
This shift in philosophy could lead to a slightly improved Nuggets defense. Simply playing the pick-and-roll more aggressively won’t automatically transform Denver into a top-half defensive unit, but it’s a step in the right direction. Many top defenses around the league take this aggressive mindset as well. Most think back to the dominant defensive teams in Miami with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade when reminiscing about hedging and playing with more aggression while defending pick-and-rolls.
What’s also interesting about Denver’s newfound defensive identity, is that you’ll rarely see Jokic hedge aggressively to the ball-handler, a privilege that for now, seems to be exclusively reserved for more mobile bigs like Plumlee and Arthur.
It’s another benefactor of Denver’s move to acquire Plumlee at the deadline. The 27-year-old is essentially Jokic-lite at the five. Plumlee has the vision, passing acumen, and on-court IQ to form a sense of continuity from the Nuggets’ starters to their bench unit on offense and can be used as an athletic backbone to Denver’s second-unit defense which has struggled all year.
But Plumlee still has to gain the trust of Denver’s bench mob on offense, mainly primary ball handlers Will Barton and Jamal Murray to play through him, much like the starters do with Jokic. It’s a relationship that’s developing game-by-game.
Through injuries, changes to the starting lineup, and other obstacles that have stood in Denver’s way, the one constant has been their offense.
The Nuggets have the sixth-most efficient offense in the league this season and are the No. 1 ranked scoring team since Jokic became Denver’s starting center on Dec. 15. The Nuggets are at a point where even when injuries hit, they can usually plug-and-play their way to 110+ points on a nightly basis.
But Denver’s defense will be the focal point throughout the last quarter of the regular season.
If the Nuggets can string together five or six solid defensive performances over these last 20 games, they’ll likely take home the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Their offense can carry them otherwise.
“We definitely are being a lot more aggressive on the defensive end,” Gary Harris said. “We’re just a lot more in sync with each other. We still need to be better, but we’re making strides in the right direction.”