NBA

Can the Nuggets Turn it Around on Defense?

After missing the Playoffs at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves on the last day of the 2017-18 regular season, the Denver Nuggets had a busy offseason. Their priority was bringing back their core players, and they did so by handing out a max rookie extension to Nikola Jokic and re-signing Will Barton to a four-year deal — moves that put the Nuggets above the luxury tax lines.

With no desire to pay the tax penalties, the front office was able to dump salaries smartly. Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, and Wilson Chandler were all traded away as expensive contracts with little use in Denver’s future plans. The team made up for those losses by drafting Michael Porter Jr. in this year’s draft and stealing free agent Isaiah Thomas on a veteran’s minimum deal. They were even in pursuit of LeBron James, the hottest free agent on the market, before he eventually chose to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Sounds like the Nuggets had a pretty good summer, right?

Superb offense, lacklustre defense

With a lot of their young guys still learning and Paul Millsap missing more than one-half of last season due to injury, one can only expect this Nuggets team to have better results this upcoming 2018-19 campaign. Add Thomas and Porter Jr. – if he is cleared to play – to their deep bench and the team looks stacked.

The first thing that comes to mind when looking at this depth chart is, “What an offensive juggernaut this team can be!”. But after a second look, one cannot do much but wonder how this team will try to solve their defensive struggles. Watching the Nuggets play defense last year was not pretty. How much better or worse will they be after losing solid defenders like Kenneth Faried and adding a defensive liability in Isaiah Thomas? Can their superb offense outweigh their lackluster defense? Before going any further, let’s take a closer look at how the Nuggets did on both offense and defense last season.

Denver’s offense is an overall positive they can rescue from last season. The Nuggets scored the sixth most points in the league (110.0) and had the fifth most assists (25.1) as well. In addition, they were tenth in field goal percentage (47.0), seventh in three-point percentage (37.1), sixth in three-pointers made per game (11.5), and second in offensive rebounds per game (11.0), something I found particularly surprising. Their team offensive rating (112.5) and effective field goal percentage (53.6) were both sixth in the NBA. Their main areas of improvement on offense are high turnover amounts (they committed 15.0 per game, 23rd most in the league) and free throw percentage (76.6, 18th). The latter was not terrible, but could clearly be better.

On the other hand, their defense left a lot to be desired. Denver was sixth in personal fouls (18.7), 22nd in both points allowed (108.5) and forced turnovers (13.8), 20th in steals (8.0), and 26th in opponent effective field goal percentage (53.9), as they allowed a dreadful 47.6 field goal percentage and 37.8 three-point field goal percentage, with both marks ranking as dead last in the whole NBA. Not everything is bad, though, as the Nuggets allowed a mere 20.4 free throws per game, eight in the league, and held opponents to only 41.6 total rebounds and 31.9 defensive rebounds per game, which were the second-best marks in the NBA.

They can’t get any worse on defense

Even after acquiring Thomas, who would be an immediate target on defense by opposing teams, the Nuggets cannot do much worse on defense – literally. No other team allowed a higher percent of their opponents’ shots to fall than Denver did last season, so we can only be optimistic. The best news is they have two solid defenders on the team: Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee; the rest of the team range from average to mediocre to terrible defenders that should be better. According to NBA Math’s TPA model, the only Nuggets to have a positive Defensive Points Saved total were Millsap, Plumlee, and Jokic.

No Nuggets player allowed less than 107 points per 100 possessions last year; not even Millsap. Throughout his career, he has developed the defensive habits of the most disrupting defenders in the league. Just watch what Mike Budenholzer did in 2015 with Atlanta; all he had was Millsap, Al Horford, and a bunch of solid role players. He turned the Hawks into the best regular season team on the East and led them to 60 wins. Millsap can handle players both on the perimeter and on the low block. Head coach Mike Malone now faces the task of creating a defensive system that allows Millsap to anchor the team’s defense. But there is only one Paul Millsap and the Nuggets struggle defending both outside and inside shots.

The Nuggets have some evaluating to do

Believe it or not, Mason Plumlee was actually the best defender the Nuggets had last season. Millsap would certainly be able to claim such thing if he had not suffered an injury that made him miss an extended and important period of the season. In limited action, Plumlee made his presence felt with very active hands near the rim. Averaging only 19.4 minutes per game, Plumlee was able to record 1.1 blocks per game and 0.7 steals; that is clearly not elite, but he saved his teammates from being yelled at during the next film review more than a couple of times.

The team has some options to evaluate. They could start Plumlee at center, Millsap at small forward, and have the former defend the paint while the latter takes care of the perimeter. Or they could bring Plumlee off the bench to ensure there is a solid interior defender on the court at all times. Either way, Nikola Jokic will still receive heavy minutes because his contributions on offense outweigh his holes on defense. Similar to fellow young center Karl-Anthony Towns, Jokic looks lost on defense at times. It will take the team of Malone, Millsap, and Plumlee to help the Serb improve on defense; he needs to if the Nuggets want to give that next step.

All data and statistics obtained from NBA Stats and Basketball Reference.

You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA

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