For almost as long as Nuggets fans can remember, the basketball team has not been one known for their defense. From the halcyon Doug Moe era to the Michael Malone era, the Nuggets have been known for points - both scored and allowed.
After four games in the 2018-19 season, the Nuggets are tied with the Boston Celtics for the No. 1 most efficient defense in the league. They’ve held their opponents to under 100 points in three of their four games, and the win over the Kings would have been a better performance if the score hadn’t been such a blowout.
The Nuggets are playing with a lot of hustle, and are using their cohesiveness to their advantage. Every single player in the rotation was on the team last season, and while their roles may have changed slightly, these guys know each other. They seem to have changed their scheme slightly, but it mostly comes down to the players executing the scheme better and the other team missing shots. It’s frustrating, but sometimes, that’s what NBA defense comes down to.
One of their weaknesses last season was defending the pick and roll. It’s one of the most basic plays in the NBA for offenses to run, and the Nuggets were torched by it. Jokic would stay below the screen, arms spread out, waiting for the guard to attack towards the rim. This would inevitably result in the guard blowing past Jokic, getting to the rim before help defenders could rotate over, and a layup. If the help did arrive early or on time, the guard would pull up and find a teammate that was open due to the rotation. The players struggled to communicate, rotate, and fight over screens - it was a disaster.
It seemed that the coaching staff eventually stopped getting frustrated about it, like a mother that resigns herself to the fact that her child is just going to be biting their nails until they chew off their fingers. But in the offseason, one of the messages had to have been that this would be unacceptable.
The Nuggets players didn’t become dramatically faster or taller or be able to jump higher in a few months - they understand where to go, when to go, who to leave, and how to get to where they need to be better this season. They’re doing things smarter, putting in more effort, and finding better results.
One of the smarter things they’re doing is having Jokic hedge the pick and roll ball handler. This means moving Jokic up from his passive stance below the 3-point line, and trying to impede the progress of the ballhandler. With Jokic’s size and wingspan, his job is to make it difficult for the ballhandler to whip the ball over to the roll man. The screened defender stays with the roll man for a moment, another defender rotates down to tag the roll man as the screened defender bounces back towards Jokic, to either trap or rotate to the player vacated by the tag man, and the defense has now switched their assignments on the fly. Jokic can either rotate back to his original assignment or stay with the ballhandler on the perimeter.
While it’s an effective scheme, there are counters that can be used to defeat it. Against this defense, the first counter is a skip pass to the wing or to the corner. Players as young as Luka Doncic are already able to execute a skip pass, and the Nuggets will have to hope that they can force the shooter to hesitate due to an aggressive closeout and put the ball on the deck or that the shooter will miss.
Here’s an example of the defense not working, with the counter being successful. Jokic makes a mistake by not being in the right position to defend Fox — it’s logical for him to be afraid of getting beat off the dribble here. Fox is a lightning fast guard, and Jokic ... is not fast. Unfortunately, his brain puts his body in a position that can be best described as “pooping while hiking only to find that you didn’t go far enough off the trail,” and Fox is able to sling the ball to Nemanja Bjelica for a 3-pointer. Millsap had to drop down to prevent a pass to Willie Cauley-Stein for an open dunk, and he can’t move 20 feet in the blink of an eye, so Bjelica has enough time to get off a shot attempt.
The Kings could make things even more difficult by rotating Buddy Hield across the baseline, which would leave his defender with the choice of “do I stick with the big guy open under the rim or close out to the shooter in the corner” which is not an ideal choice to have to make.
It’s important to note that there are counters for every single defense on the planet (as far as we know). The best defensive teams find a scheme that works for their personnel, and then takes advantage of their strengths. For the Warriors, that’s a defense that switches and attacks. The Bulls used to have an elite defense under Tom Thibodeau, where they would force ballhandlers towards the baseline and away from the paint. The more athletic the players and the higher the basketball IQ of the players, the better the scheme looks.
The Nuggets would be wise to switch up their schemes on occasion. A base scheme is great, but they can’t let teams get comfortable attacking the same scheme each time. That may mean dropping Jokic, or being more aggressive with the screened defender in an attempt to trap. Unpredictability helps the defense and hurts the offense — introduce a little chaos to the court.
After four games, we can definitely say that the team is executing better. In my opinion, the guards still need to do a better job fighting over screens and Jokic needs to do a better job committing to an action - either hedge or drop, but don’t get stuck in between. With Barton out, the Nuggets lose a player that is quick enough to close out. They’re going to struggle with isolations and in transition eventually.
But for now, things are good, and it looks like the players are committed to positive change.