BOULDER — "The challenge is one word, defense," Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone called out on media day during his opening remarks, outlining a training camp and preseason where improving the Nuggets' league-worst defense from a year ago would be the main focal point.
During Denver's first training camp practice, Tuesday on the campus of the University of Colorado - Boulder, Malone's assertion rang true as the Nuggets focused on defense for the entirety of their hour and 40-minute morning session.
"First day, definitely about defense, but you expect it and I think we're up to the challenge," Paul Millsap said after his first official practice in the blue and yellow since coming over from the Atlanta Hawks this summer. "Guys came with a great attitude. We have to be better on the defensive end and that was what today was about."
By now, you know the statistics. Last season the Nuggets allowed teams to rack up 110.5 points per 100 possessions — just .1 points per 100 or what amounts to a mathematical error better than the Lakers who were last in the league. Ravaged rotations due to injuries, a pick-and-roll scheme that was in constant flux and Denver's inability to contain the ball from the point of attack all contributed to the Nuggets' inability to stop the opposition.
The good news is it will be hard for Denver to be worse on defense next year. Millsap, who's still a plus-defender at 32-years-old, will serve as the Nuggets' conductor on that end of the floor and Jamal Murray and Gary Harris could enter the season healthy — something that wasn't the case a year ago. The Nuggets are also overhauling their pick-and-roll coverages, something they found some success doing over the second-half of last season with the addition of Mason Plumlee, but with a training camp to embed a new scheme and a preseason to watch it play out, Malone and his staff are hoping it's the key to success on that end of the floor.
"Last year after we got Mason (Plumlee) we were pretty aggressive with Mason in pick-and-rolls. The one guy who probably has the biggest adjustment is gonna be Nikola (Jokic). We kept him down the floor. The whole goal of that was to eliminate the three-point shot which we obviously didn't do," Malone said referencing the new, more aggressive scheme and how it's different from last years'. "So our whole mindset going in is to be more aggressive."
Throughout most of last season, the Nuggets typically dropped Jokic when involved in pick-and-rolls. The thought was, as Malone pointed out, to eliminate threes and minimize Jokic's lack of foot speed and inability to hedge ball-handlers effectively on the perimeter. Here's an example of that scheme from a February win against Dallas.
Dropping your big is a common practice across the NBA that countless teams deploy from time to time but Denver's switching things up to a more consistent approach to start this season after tinkering and tinkering with their scheme all through last year.
The Nuggets, however, did find some success with a more aggressive, hedging pick-and-roll scheme in an early March loss to Charlotte.
Here's Plumlee, then Arthur (twice) hedging to quell Hornets' guards. This is the style you'll see the Nuggets play when guarding pick-and-rolls to open the season.
The blueprint for success is there. Many teams around the league including top defensive units use that kind of scheme. But Denver's success in such an aggressive style could come down to Jokic and if he can flourish in that type of role that's going to be much different than the one he played last year. He's not exactly fleet of foot, he isn't the quickest guy, but he's good positionally.
"(Jokic's) biggest challenge is there are going to be times when he's able to be up at the level and impact the basketball, there will be times when he can't and when he's down the floor, he'll have to find the area on the floor where he can make his line of demarcation," Malone said. "This is where I'm going to pick my spot. Teams will look to attack him in the pick-and-roll, attack his feet."
"I know he can do it. The challenge is going to be buying in committing and doing it consistently," Malone continued. "But I think teams will look to attack him in pick-and-rolls and we have to make sure we give him help behind him."
Denver's defense could hinge on the shoulders of Jokic and if the big man can prevent other teams from taking advantage of him, but don't count out Millsap's role as Denver's leader and leading voice on both ends of the floor. Like it or not, Millsap is counted on to be a voice that brings "a quiet team" as Malone called his group on Monday, together and to act as five guys on a string on defense.
Millsap is a fan of the aggressive approach.
"I like it because you put pressure on the ball-handler," Millsap said. "Most of the guards in this league are pick-and-roll heavy and they'll eat you alive in pick-and-roll situations whether that's making a play for others or making a play for themselves. If you can put pressure on those guys and make them put a ball up or make them make tough decisions, it makes it a little easier."
A scheme that fits Denver's roster better, along with health could lead to an uptick in defensive efficiency this season. The Nuggets have defenders in Murray, Harris, Millsap, Wilson Chandler and even Juancho Hernangomez and Darrell Arthur who can be effective and plus-defenders in the right system.
A consistent approach, after a season where Denver spent 82 games mixing and matching will help too.
"It gives us consistency," Wilson Chandler told BSN Denver about the new scheme. "If we're going to do one thing and lock in that way and play that way, you at least know what you're doing game in and game out."