Old habits, you know. Hard to break. -Johnny Depp aka George Jung in 2001's Blow.
Brian Shaw was bullish on how he wanted to play before the season. Slow in down and execute in the half court, play inside-out, run when you can, and no doubling or switching on defense. And then the season happened.
Whether it be injuries or the fact that learning a new system is difficult, the Nuggets have had their issues this season. When the bulk of your roster found success under the old coach and his style, it can be hard to break players of the way they are used to playing. For Shaw, whenever he loosened the reins this year, the team responded with pretty good play. Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried credited an early season seven-game win streak with Shaw, in essence, throwing out his playbook.
The Denver defense found success last season in a high-risk/high-reward style that was predicated on jumping passing lanes, pressuring the ball with timely double-teams, and being able to switch just about everything in pick-and-roll situations.
It was easy to switch match-ups when you rolled out a lineup featuring Andre Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, and Kenneth Faried. Those four guys are all roughly the same size and all possessed the ability to guard just about anyone in certain possessions.
Shaw sees things differently on the defensive end. He wants to play man-to-man and ideally doesn't want to switch on the pick-and-roll, but would rather see his guys fight through screens, hedge hard and recover, and protect the driving lanes. Here is how Shaw described to me how he wanted to cover the pick-and-roll back on Nov. 1st:
"Most teams nowadays play a spread pick-and-roll situation," said Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw. "So, they have fours [power forwards] that pick-and-pop and stay out around the three point line."
The Nuggets must find a way to defend the athletic and skilled power forwards in Shaw's one-on-one, no doubling, scheme.
"With our fours, and their athletic ability and quickness, we want them to basically blitz or show on the screen-and-rolls and get back to their man." said Shaw.
This means that when Hickson's man (or Faried or Arthur's man) is setting the screen, that means Hickson must meet the guard on the other side to prevent dribble penetration and once he stops the guard and Ty Lawson is back to defend him after fighting through he screen, then Hickson has to get back to his man. So, how about with the centers?
"With our fives," said Shaw. "We want to keep them closer to the basket so they are in what we call a 'drop'. We like to handle the middle pick-and-roll between the ones [point guards] and the fives, between just those two players, so we want our ones to chase them basically into our centers and make them have to finish over our centers."
But since November, the Nuggets have been implementing different schemes with their pick-and-roll coverages. We've even seen some switching ... which is what Shaw didn't want to let the team do early in the season. All teams switch off the pick-and-roll, at times. It's not the worst thing in the world if you need to switch, but Shaw didn't want that to be the way his team defended all the time and he's going back to his way now.
"We're going to get back to how we started out training camp," said Shaw. "Doing things in our pick-and-roll coverages and eliminate all that doubt and confusion."
Again, you can put some of the blame of the Nuggets defensive issues on injuries. Chemistry is paramount on the defensive end, but so if effort. And defense is all about effort. You have to want to play defense every night and it's the only part of a team's game that can be a constant. Some nights you may miss shots, but you should never have an off night on defense.
Shaw and some of the players talked about having too many schemes on defense and that led to confusion. Shaw cleared things up for his team and said they responded well at practice. Lawson also said it was good to have things cleared up a bit.
Shaw is going back to his original pick-and-roll coverage.
"Our centers more in a drop and just in a protective mode, protecting the basket and not really coming out away from the basket," said Shaw. "And our four men, power forwards, basically hedging the screens all over. And those are the only two coverages that we're going to do.
"The guards are never supposed to go under pick-and-rolls," said Shaw. "So, now we're not giving them too much and there's not going to be any excuses in terms of: if a guard goes under now, then he's making a mistake because he's not supposed to go under. Hopefully this will eliminate the confusing we've been having and that's my fault."
I like that Shaw is going back to how he wants his team to play, but why did he ever change? Coach needs to stick to his guns, wins and losses be damned. Perhaps now that the playoffs are out of the picture, the coach feels more comfortable focusing on how he wants the team to play.
The only issue I can see with the pick-and-roll coverage is when Shaw starts mixing and matching his rotation. There are times when it's not clear what position J.J. Hickson is playing. Will he understand the way he's supposed to cover the pick-and-roll when he's in a center? Or will it just be Timofey Mozgov that is going to 'drop' and all the other actual power forwards will blitz and hedge? We'll see what happens.
The easier play is to switch, but taking the easy way out shouldn't be an option for a team that needs to get back to hard work. Perhaps having Lawson back is giving the Nuggets their groove back on offense, but at some point, this team needs to develop a defensive identity.