The Denver Defense and Courting Chaos


(Photo by Aaron Ontiveroz, Denver Post)

"I think you win so many games on extra possessions and good defensive plays and steals and deflections."

-George Karl

"There's an advantage to creating your own chaos on the court. A team's offense and defense both perform better when live ball changes of possession are created."

-Danny Martinez, Courting Chaos

Over the course of this season following Denver I have been impressed with how Denver has taken their aggressive defensive style to a new level and have come to believe it is the main reason for their success.

This aggressive defense has been the biggest factor missing in the first two playoffs games for me.

One Denver Stiffs poster Margabelle summed up my feelings well in a comment on a recent post: "I think the thing that has me most worried is how un-Nuggets the Nuggets have been in game 1 and 2. The defensive pressure leading to turnovers only really happened at the end of the 3rd quarter of game 1 (and is why we won that game). No alley-oops, no fast break points, no paint domination, no relentless wave after wave of talent from the deep bench."

I believe this must change if Denver is to advance to the 2nd round.

Recently Danny Martinez wrote a great article on called Courting Chaos. It was a Heat focused article but the formula he proposed and the concept of ‘creating chaos' with aggressive defensive, helps illustrate the defensive identity Denver must regain if it is to return to its winning ways before it is too late.

As it was such a cool concept and fitted to describing the Nuggets defensive style so well, I have taken the chaos percentage article as a starting point, applied it to the Nuggets, and brought in some further relevant material.

From Courting Chaos:

"[T]he basic currency of basketball is the possession. Much like outs in baseball, teams have to use their possessions as efficiently as possible. On offense, this means taking good, high-value shots - at the rim and behind the arc - and getting to the free throw line. On defense it's about preventing these opportunities. Forcing bad shots and grabbing defensive rebounds is probably the most basic way to do this. The other way is to not let the ball get to the rim at all, causing a change of possession without the other team having a chance to score.

Changes of possession without a shot attempt come in two basic forms: live ball and dead ball. They're the results of blocks, steals, charges drawn, shot clock violations and random dribbles off of a foot. Live ball changes of possession are more valuable than dead ball changes of possession. The beauty of these plays is they not only end an opponent's possession, but they also allow a team to get out in transition against defenses that aren't set. The NBA's least efficient transition offense this season, 1.016 points per possession, is still more efficient than the top halfcourt offense, .982 points per possession."

Denver Defense

The Nuggets very much this season have employed ‘the other way' of playing defense (i.e. forcing a change of possession). Denver plays an aggressive team defensive style that uses long wingspan athletic players (see this TyLawesome fanpost on wingspan) who can switch to guard multiple positions and also disrupt passing lanes.

This is reflected in Denver finishing 2nd in steals, 3rd in blocks, and 3rd in forcing turnovers in the regular season. They also finished 1st in points off turnovers showing a vital defensive link to Denver generating offense.

Chaos Percentage

From Courting Chaos:

"Blocked shots are generally good events for a defense. They prevent shots getting to the rim and possibly discourage opponents from taking the same shot again. However, blocks as logged in the box score are incomplete. Many blocks result in changes of possession, but it's probably not as many as we originally thought. On average, the defense gathers possession after a blocked shot 57-percent of the time. This distinction is important to note because it allows us to properly value blocked shots.

Steals result in a change of possession 100 percent of the time. They're extremely valuable. It stands to reason that a team that combines a high number of blocks and steals will have a good defense.

To measure this, we're going to create something called "Chaos Percentage." To calculate it we're going to find just how often teams create live ball changes of possession, through either blocks with retained possession or steals.

Live Ball Changes of Possession = (Defensive Reb% After Blocks x Blocks) + Steals

Opponent Possessions = (.44*FTAs) + FGAs + TOs - ORebs

We use these two figures to find a team's Chaos Percentage:

Chaos Percentage = Live Ball Changes of Possession / Opponent Possessions

The higher the Chaos Percentage, the more often a team turns an opponent possession into it's own without the clock stopping. These are extremely valuable plays. They end possessions and often lead to easy baskets."

Denver 2013 Chaos Percentage


In 2013 Denver ranked 3rd in the NBA in chaos percentage, behind only the Clippers and Thunder. Over the last 38 games they were ranked 1st in the NBA.

Note that while Golden State has almost the same defensive efficiency rating as Denver their defensive style relies much less on creating chaos.

The Winning Formula

So how important to winning is creating chaos?

I have used the result of creating successful chaos i.e. points off turnover to get an idea.


source data:

Chart guide

Red=Losses Green=Wins

The horizontal axis is wins and losses split into points differential categories

Steeper Slopes are more significant

While a completely horizontally flat line would mean that factor is unrelated to the team winning (as would a line that jumps up and down wildly without any pattern)

The white ‘games' line shows the number of games that occurred at each differential level (for example Denver had 14 wins between 1-5pts)

Points Off Turnover

Note: Points off turnover also includes ‘dead ball' turnovers (such as shot clock violations and out of bounds turnovers) but still gives the best indication of ‘pts off chaos' of the available stats


  • The Denver line (yellow) is upward sloping indicating a positive relationship to wins
  • The (yellow) line has 3 distinct steps corresponding to: losses 6pts+, close games (losses 5pts and under and wins 1-10pts), and wins of 11pts+
  • If Denver has more pts off TOs than the opponent they usually win (blue line dives under the yellow at losses of 5 or less pts and is under for all win categories)
  • The results indicate creating chaos is an important factor in the Nuggets winning games

1st Round Playoff Series so far

I calculated the Nuggets chaos figure for the first two games and obtained the defensive efficiency and points off turnovers figures, to allow a look at the first two games of the current playoff series.

Chaos Percentage



  • Firstly neither of the game 2 figures were high enough to even plot on the graph! I have placed game 2 in the bottom corner of the picture, but it would actually be even lower and further to the left than this if plotted accurately
  • In game 1 Denver had a better than average defensive efficiency but their chaos% was down 2.6 to 11.7 which would place them in the middle of the NBA pack
  • In game 2 Denver had a terrible chaos% of only 6. This was not the only terrible part of that nights defense indicated by the also terrible 132.6 defensive efficiency, but demonstrates how Denver were barely able to generate any chaos on defense at all in game 2
  • Points off turnovers

    The points off turnovers figures are also very consistent with the final results for both games.



    • Game 1 is right near the 'close games step' of the season line as would be expected in a 2pt game
    • Game 2s points off turnover is even lower than 'losses 6pts+ step', which is consistent with the big loss suffered in game 2 (-14pt differential)

    Playbreakdown example

    I have also selected a play from game 2 to demonstrate creating chaos in action.

    The Warriors rely on a lot of execution sets. This means timing and accuracy must be present if Golden State is to succeed. On this particular play, a slightly inaccurate pass from Curry lets Denvers defense get into the play and they are eventually able to force a liveball turnover.

    While Denver may not be able to rely only on inaccurate passes getting the Warriors out of their sets in future games, disrupting the timing of set plays is vital to creating a situation for chaos (an example would be brush screening offensive players who are running past defensive player on routes, to disrupt their timing and ability to get open before a defender can chase them down and recover).

    Golden State struggles on offense when things breakdown and this is also the best time for disrupting them with aggressive defense and creating chaos.

    Note: This play is also an example of Fourniers poor night. His great effort on D and running the floor at speed set him up for a transition drive to the hoop, but he then makes a couple of poor decisions on the break which leads Denver to come away empty handed on one of their few chaos opportunities of the night

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