The last time that the Denver Nuggets played the San Antonio Spurs they gave up 127 points. Tonight might be just as ugly as some of the team’s best defensive players are expected to miss the game including Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, and possibly Danilo Gallinari.
But whether those guys play or not, the Nuggets defense has been as bad as their offense has been good over the last 19 games, ranking dead last in defensive rating, a stat that measures how many points teams allows per 100 possessions. If the Nuggets can just become an average defensive team, then they can become a sure-fire playoff team thanks to their dynamic offense.
One play from the team’s previous matchup against the Spurs perfectly illustrates all of the issues plaguing the team on the defensive end. In the clip below, Tony Parker finds Danny Green for a wide open three in the corner, a shot that is a priority in the Spurs’ offense.
The breakdown begins with the initial pick-and-roll. Tony Parker is a great pick-and-roll point guard and is difficult to defend to begin with but Emmanuel Mudiay’s job is made even more impossible by Arthur arriving late to show on the screen. Arthur recognizes the screen late and sprints to recover but Parker perfectly reads how Arthur is out of position and running too fast to slow down and splits the defenders. At this moment, the Nuggets defense is at a disadvantage.
It’s important to note that Gallo stays home on the shooter in the corner whihc is the right decision but there have been plenty of times this season that Nuggets have made the wrong decision and given up the easiest pass in basketball.
Instead, Nikola Jokic steps up to force as difficult a shot as possible, preventing Parker from getting all the way to the rim, defending both the sprinting point guard and Dewayne Dedmon at the rim. To help, Harris rotates over from the corner to sag and tag Dedmon in an effort to prevent the offensive rebound or dropoff. It’s difficult to say how effective 6-4 Gary Harris is at deterring these types of dropoffs to a 7-foot center but there is no question that the team has been slow to recover from this position on kickouts.
Parker kicks the ball out to a wide open Danny Green who is able to enter his shooting motion before Harris can leave the painted area. Green is shooting 62% from the left corner, good for 1.8 points per shot attempt. Leaving him wide open all but guarantees three points for the opposing team. It’s also important to note that Arthur is barely in the frame of this photo, having been slow to recover from his failed hedge.
With the exception of the breakdown on the initial action, the Nuggets defended this play within the principles of their defensive scheme. The weakside guy rotates to tag the rim and the center steps up to prevent the easy layup. It’s a strategy that is vulnerable to open threes and a big reason why Denver has the worst defensive rating in the NBA over the last 20 games.
One thing many teams do differently with their weakside rotations is rotate the second weakside player over to the corner and have the tag guy, in this case Harris, rotate to the other open guy on the kickout, in this case LaMarcus Aldridge. In the clip below, you can see how the Milwaukee Bucks begin their rotation just like Denver does but there are two key differences. First, the helping center steps up preemptively in an effort to not only cut off a lane to the basket but to discourage any sort of dribble penetration.
Secondly once the kickout pass occurs, the other guard rotates to challenge the shot, rather than putting the responsibility on the guard who just sank deep into the paint.
The Nuggets have the speed in the back court to accomplish this but might not have the mental capacity to handle these rotations in real time just yet. Harris is just 22 years old and Mudiay is 20. These rotations seem simple enough when the play is simple, as in the clips above, but getting players to read these types of rotations in real time, several times in a single possession can be very challenging. Still, the Nuggets can’t really do a whole lot worse on the defensive end than what they are doing right now.
If the Nuggets do stick with the scheme, guys like Arthur and Kenneth Faried have to be very honed in to ensure they are on time on the hedge and Mudiay has to get much better at sticking with the ball handler and not letting them split the hedge or turn the corner.
For now, the Nuggets have been far too inconsistent with both of those things.