How Denver Got Better On Defense Without Changing Its Roster

The signings and trades of the NBA’s entertaining offseason help us figure out how we feel about a team’s chances of contending for a title the following season. But focusing on splashy roster moves — DeMarcus Cousins to Golden State, Kyrie Irving asking to leave a team that made three NBA Finals in a row — can blind us to other improvements a team can make.

That’s part of what makes the Denver Nuggets so compelling this year. The team played little to no defense last season and missed the playoffs. A few months later, the Nuggets rank among the stingiest groups in the league, have won seven straight and lead the West standings. And they’ve done this with virtually the same group of players from last year.

While a combination of secondary factors helps explain the turnaround, it makes sense to begin with the most eye-popping change in Denver: the Nuggets’ suddenly stifling defense.

“It’s our identity,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters last week after his group held LeBron James and the Lakers to just 85 points. “Let’s be honest, our first three years to be in the bottom five of defense every year, for me, it’s embarrassing. When you’re known, ‘Hey, he’s a defensive coach,’ and three years running, you’re bottom five. I have pride. We all have pride.”

And they should be proud for the time being. Denver, which was 25th on defense while surrendering 111 points per 100 plays last season, has jumped 21 spots, all the way up to No. 4 on that end, now allowing 105.5 points per 100 plays. And again: This reversal has taken place despite the fact that the vast majority of the Nuggets’ minutes this season — 99 percent, in fact — have been logged by players who were also on Denver’s roster last season.

The San Antonio Spurs became a lockdown team after they drafted Tim Duncan. The Boston Celtics were dominant on D after they traded for Kevin Garnett. But no team has ever improved by as much as this Denver defense has while keeping the cast virtually1 the same.

Denver didn’t have to change its squad to dominate on D

Biggest one-year improvements in defensive efficiency, and the share of minutes played by returning players, since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger

Opp. pts/100 poss. relative to league avg.
Team Season % Ret. MP Previous season Value Change
Spurs 1997-98 59% -5.7 +5.7 +11.4
Celtics 2007-08 50 -0.4 +8.6 +9.0
Bucks 2014-15 67 -5.2 +3.4 +8.6
Bobcats 2013-14 64 -5.7 +2.8 +8.5
Lakers 1999-00 69 -2.1 +5.8 +7.9
Nets 2001-02 41 -2.5 +5.0 +7.5
Pistons 1995-96 68 -4.7 +2.5 +7.2
Nuggets 2018-19 99 -2.3 +4.7 +7.1
Raptors 2006-07 37 -6.5 +0.5 +6.9
Hawks 1993-94 71 -2.2 +4.6 +6.8

Positive values mean the defense was better (e.g., allowed fewer points); negative values mean it was worse.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

A lot of that relative improvement2 stems from a schematic change in how the Nuggets — specifically, Nikola Jokic — defend pick-and-roll scenarios. The team was shredded in screen-roll action last season, ranking third worst in the league in defensive efficiency when facing such plays, according to data from Second Spectrum. Fast-forward to now, though, and Denver is tied for third best against the pick-and-roll,3 largely because of how Jokic negotiates the plays differently.

Jokic is arguably the most well-rounded center in the NBA from an offensive standpoint, but with lackluster quickness, he has often found himself in no-man’s land: playing just far back enough to routinely give ball handlers wide-open jumpers but just far up enough to give speedsters the runway necessary to finish at the basket before he can get in position to block their shots.

This season, though, he’s made a concerted effort to play farther up on pick-and-roll ball handlers in hopes of forcing them into making quicker decisions. Yes, guards and forwards will often still be much more explosive than he is and will beat him to the cup at times, but with improved communication and more decisive action on Jokic’s part, Denver is better able to protect the rim when Jokic isn’t in position to make a play.

The Nuggets are using “soft” coverage — in which the man guarding the screener doesn’t come up and truly engage the ball handler — on pick and rolls about 13 percent less than last year when Jokic is on the court, according to Second Spectrum. Opposing jump-shooters last season, having plenty of space, overperformed their expected effective field-goal percentage4 by more than 4 points when Jokic was the nearest defender — a sign that he may not have been playing up far enough to affect their shots. This season, though, opponents are shooting jumpers more than 5 points worse than their expected effective field-goal rates.

Similarly, the Serbian center — who ranked among the NBA’s bottom five rim protectors in both 2016-17 and 2017-185 — this year ranks smack-dab in the middle of the league’s rim protectors in how often he forces close-range misses when serving as the nearest defender. In other words, he’s been more than serviceable this season.6

Of course, it’s fair to question the sustainability of this strategy with Jokic and Denver’s torrid defense as a whole. After all, the Nuggets allow a relatively high number of looks from the short corners and have been somewhat unscathed in that their opponents have hit a below-league-average mark from those spots, and on wide-open triples in general, to this point. In fact, if you look back at Denver’s struggles in early November, when it dropped four contests in a row, teams hit better than 54 percent of their completely open looks from deep. (On some level, this has long been one of the things that Denver sacrifices in hopes of aiding Jokic in the paint. Other defenders, often assuming the 7-footer won’t hold up in coverage, provide help away from their defensive assignments, and in doing so, they run the risk of giving up an open jumper.)

Still, there are more reasons to believe in Denver than there are reasons not to. Despite having battled one of the NBA’s toughest schedules so far, the club — with Western Conference wins over the second-place Thunder, third-place Clippers, fourth-place Warriors, fifth-place Lakers and seventh-place Blazers — the Nuggets have beaten almost everyone in the West’s crowded playoff race. Denver has also knocked off Toronto, sitting in first in the East, on the road.

Other sources of optimism: Paul Millsap, after missing 44 games last year, is logging a career-high true-shooting percentage at age 33. Guard Monte Morris, who played in only three games as a rookie last season but now sees 24 minutes a night, is unbelievably sure-handed and owns the NBA’s best assist-to-turnover ratio by a country mile.7 Malone took the necessary step of inserting Swiss Army knife Juancho Hernangomez into the starting five when it became apparent that opponents were flat-out ignoring Torrey Craig because of his inability to shoot from outside.

Denver is one of the youngest teams in the league, but it leads the NBA in rebounding percentage, is tied for second in assist percentage and has managed to stay atop the standings without Will Barton, its top bench scorer, who should be back from injury in the coming weeks. The Nuggets’ defense has been the headline this season, but they still possess a top-10 offense, and Jokic — already one of the better passing bigs of all-time — has only continued to blossom on that end since bursting onto the scene.

It’s still somewhat early, yes. But if Denver’s defense is here to stay, the Nuggets have enough things going for them in just about every other facet of the game not only to make the playoffs for the first time under this regime, but also to do some real damage once they get there.

Neil Paine contributed research.

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