It's D-lightful, it's D-licious, it's D-lovely...
The D-loveliest part of the long gap between NBA Summer League play and the beginning of the regular season is that all the world is possibility. Will the Denver Nuggets run? Will Emmanuel Mudiay be Rookie of the Year? Do Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler like me like I like them right now? Will they try more post play with 4 guys hovering around seven feet? Can they get to .500? Should they? Should they lose as many as possible? What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? Shut up, brain.
Before that first tip-off, everyone has an opinion as to what's going to happen this year and rationale for the same... from a 0-82 season to some poor bastard who's figured out why the Nuggets will win their first championship this year. None of us will be perfectly right, but in the vacuum of the preseason, each of our plans is perfect in its way.
What does not seem to be a topic of great debate is that Coach Malone intends to get your Nuggets playing far tougher on the far end of the floor. Nearly everyone agrees that Defense is headed to Denver, my friends, and many of the moves made by the front office show the team to be committed to the same.
A quick deconstruction of what looks to be this season's core players, showing how we look to be slowly placing our bets on D:
Emmanuel Mudiay: At 19 years old, Mudiay has the skills, height, and quickness to be an above-average defender if he so desires. His youth shows some troubling early tendencies in lack of focus and movement through screens, but Emmanuel says all the right things about improving the aspects of his game it will take to win. If he's good to those words, he should be a more-than-serviceable defender at the toughest spot to guard on the floor.
Jameer Nelson: Nelson's defensive real plus/minus last season came in at an unfortunate -2.49 during his tenure with three teams. His career defensive plus/minus clocks in slightly better at a -1.0, so let's not lean on this particular example too long as indicative of Denver's newfound commitment to D. Nelson does seem to be a quality team guy, and I believe will work hard at whatever he's asked to focus on.
Erick Green: Green showed flashes of very good defensive capabilities last season, but rarely saw floor time unless things were already pretty dire, landing a DRPM of -2.7 in his first season. I'll show you why that's a bit skewed in a moment. Green is young and malleable... I hope.
Randy Foye: Foye is a career negative defender, without a single plus DRPM in his 9 seasons in the league. That said, he is one of the more effortful players on the squad, and even in our lowest points of the last two seasons, he's always given a consistent and concerted effort on both ends of the floor. Even if he's a net negative on D, the youngsters on the squad won't learn to slack off from Randy.
Gary Harris: Harris is acknowledged by most to be one of Denver's best defenders, with exceptional skills and a constant motor on D. That said, his DRPM for his first season was also a negative (-2.39), hence the grain of salt on Green above. Hopefully Harris finds his stroke this season, but when someone in the opposition's backcourt needs a shadow, look to see a lot of Harris on the floor.
Will Barton: Barton reminded many of Corey Brewer in his energy and play last season, finishing to the positive in DRPM at 0.34. Will has the length, energy, and drive to make life miserable for opposing backcourts as well. Look for a steady dose of Barton off the bench if he continues to show the skills he did when landing at the Pepsi Center via the Arron Afflalo trade. I loved Barton's play, and love that he had a better defensive plus/minus than AAA at season's end. (and offensive as well. Nice.)
Now it gets fun.
Danilo Gallinari: Gallo has shown the skills and size to be one of the peskiest guys in the league at his position, with no less than Dirk Nowitzki declaring Danilo's D his least-favorite in the league. There were stretches in the 57-win season in which Gallo, Andre Iguodala, and this next gentleman locked down the defense end of the floor for extended stretches.
Wilson Chandler: Ill Will is every bit the tenacious defender that Gallinari is, minus a couple inches in height, but with the toughness and ability to fight through screens and switch at will. His high basketball I.Q. makes him the Steve Foley of the Denver Nuggets, always in a good spot and close to the action. Barring injury, the three spot will be a bright spot for Malone this upcoming season.
Now it gets less fun.
Kenneth Faried: The Manimal has been a topic of Denver's defensive refocus, being the example in many a quote by Malone himself, asking players who have shown themselves to be offensive terrors to show the same on the other end of the floor. Faried has some bad habits on D, both mental and physical, but has the physical tools to change his game drastically if so inclined. In Malone's first press conference, he proclaimed that players would have to run both ways to stay on the floor, and seems willing to enforce the same. Malone got the Kings' DeMarcus Cousins to buy in on D, with DMC nailing his first All-Star nod in the process. If Faried is ever to shine on the far side of the floor, the is the time and the coach to make it happen.
J.J. Hickson: Hickson plays very physical basketball, but also tends to save his effort for the offensive end of the floor. We'll see if Malone can get J.J. to play-play on D. And to be fair, I give Hickson a pretty rough time on the site, but by the measure I've used on other players, he's a -0.1 for his career DRPM, having come back to center with a couple of positive numbers on that end for Denver the past two years. Huh. To be fairer, Faried is a +1.1 for career defensive plus/minus. That does not make either of these gents solid defenders in anyone's books, it makes me question my use of this stat. Both Faried and Hickson have the physical gifts to be much better defenders if they choose to buy into the effort this upcoming season.
Darrell Arthur: Darth has a reputation as a solid and smart defender, having learned from being an important part of a solid Memphis defense before coming to Denver two seasons ago. Though Arthur is not yet re-signed by the Nuggets, their pursuit of him this summer shows a desire to bring some D back into the position.
Joffrey Lauvergne: Early to tell, but Lauvergne notched a plus (0.7) in his first season's 268 minutes on the floor. With the build, attitude, and sensibility to be a complete pain in the ass on D, Lauvergne's capabilities here are completely up to his own wishes at this point.
Jusuf Nurkic: Prior to his injury last season, Nurkic had shown himself equal to a couple of last season's best defensive centers in Marc Gasol and Cousins in early season play. Fellow Stiff sensemaking had a killer illustration last season of Nurk's impact to Denver's defense while on the court. Though his return is up in the air, he's been spending a lot of time with the team and Steve Hess, working on the aspects of his game he can. Nurkic seems to take a lot of joy in being a nuisance to his opposition's counterpart, a tremendous mindset for any serious defender.
Nikola Jokic: Jokic is a smart player who has a year or two's workouts to get under his belt before he's ready to be a serious defensive presence. In the interim, his smarts got him in good position in many Summer League situations this year. He'll just need to muscle up a bit to hold those positions for very long. At least you can see he knows where to be. The rest is patience and time.
Why does any of this matter? Defense tends to be a less exciting part of the game for many players raised on cheers and highlight reels, as the broader crowd always brings more love for offensive success, but as much-smarter-than-me folks show in places like Sporting Charts, Basketball Reference, and The New York Times have shown, defense is what gets you to the promised land, long term.
What's even more heartening, strangely, is that there will be some obvious bumps in the road along the path to achieving the systems, communication, and trust that are common to most any successful defensive system a team could install. If there was a methodology being attempted during Brian Shaw's tenure, it was either unwise, unsuccessful, or broadly abandoned by the team as whole during an ugly season and a half. With high expectations coming off of the successful end of George Karl's tenure, it's safe to say patience was low amongst the players and Denver faithful alike, especially as the losses and days mounted without clear-cut direction at any level.
In contrast, this season the front office has built some leeway in for the team to learn together. How? Simply knowing the timeline anyone would expect a team to need by installing a 19-year old (Mudiay) in as one of the featured players and facilitators on the team. That ought to earn all of the squad time to work through the bumps and bruises of learning to play in concert. If Malone can garner the type of improvements he did in Sacramento, the Nuggets can climb up out of that 21st ranking they "enjoyed" last season, and hopefully slowly move towards to a top-10 ranking... one of things relatively common to the teams that eventually make it all the way.
Buckle up, Nuggets Nation. This D is under construction. But if the pieces come together, Denver will gain the ability to keep most games close. And that's enough to make a fan Stiff. there's no reason to think they can't eventually become a great defense, as most all of the players above have the physical capabilities to be good individual defenders. Let's hope by the end of the 2015-2016 season, your Nuggets will be playing some Tenacious D. Play video below at your own peril, NSFW.
P.S. Congratulations to Becky Hammon, head coach of the Summer League Champion San Antonio Spurs*, and former rock star point guard of the Colorado State University Rams during my stay there. We sang at a number of functions on campus that put us at or around the women's basketball games when they were at their zenith with Hammon running the show, and I loved watching her play basketball. Even then, with her talent and eye for the game and improving the players around her, it was wildly obvious that all she ever wanted to do was be around the game. Kudos to Gregg Popovich for recognizing that in someone deserving of a shot. Made my basketball day.
* Spurs: really guys? LaMarcus Aldridge and David West weren't enough, you gotta spin off six in a row with your babies? Something going very right in Spursville.