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The Denver Nuggets are defined by their defense

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Deep dive on Denver’s defense

NBA: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets rank 24th in defensive rating (DRTG) this season, allowing 108.8 points per 100 possessions, according to nba.com. That’s an improvement over last season, when they ranked 29th with a DRTG of 110.5, narrowly edging out the 30th ranked Los Angeles Lakers.

While the modest improvement isn’t enough to inspire confidence that the team is on the cusp of becoming a defensive juggernaut, there are some signs that the team has some defensive upside. The Nuggets have an impressive 106.0 DRTG when Paul Millsap is on the court this season. As a team, the Nuggets held a 105.0 DRTG in the first 17 games, right before Millsap was injured. Perhaps Denver has a defensive leap in them through internal development, experience, and a full season with a healthy Millsap.

However, there’s also plenty of reason for concern that the team is not heading in the right direction defensively. There are a few statistical trends that point toward the team struggling with the same issues that they’ve been struggling with for three seasons. In 2015-16, the Nuggets allowed opponents to make 7.7 catch-and-shoot 3FGs per game, the 4h highest mark in the league. This high mark was due in large part to opponents shooting a smoldering 39.2% on zero-dribble attempts, according to nba.com.

There has been some really interesting and well thought-out research on opponent 3FG% that shows the key to 3-point defense is limiting attempts. Opponent 3FG% is largely just random so limiting attempts, especially open looks, is the best way to prevent teams from lighting you up from behind the arc. But the Nuggets ranked 9th in opponent catch-and-shoot 3FGA’s per game in 2016, 23rd in 2017, and 16th in 2018. Yet in those same three years, the Nuggets have ranked in the bottom 4 in opponent 3FG% on zero-dribble attempts. In short, Denver doesn’t allow teams to shoot more spot up 3-point attempts, but for three years in a row, opponents are shooting incredibly well on the average number of attempts they get.

Is Denver just unlucky? For reference, the Washington Wizards have allowed the exact same number of zero-dribble three-point attempts as the Nuggets this season but opponents have made 58 more against Denver than they did against Washington. That comes out to 2.4 points per game, a significant number that likely means the difference between a few extra wins.

It’s hard to tell if Denver has just run unlucky over the last thee seasons but there might be a few things leading to opponents shooting more comfortably from behind the arc against the Nuggets.

Early tag vs. late tag

One trend the Nuggets have had for a couple of seasons is the “tag” guy in pick-and-roll (PnR) defense being late to anticipate the drop-off pass. So much about defense is anticipation. In the clip below, Wilson Chandler should be able to fully anticipate the play the moment Buddy Hield turns the corner in the PnR. Since Hield is driving to the right side of the floor, away from Chandler and his man, Chandler becomes the designated help man. Chandler can anticipate Hield’s limited options - shoot off the dribble, pass to the rolling Kosta Koufas, or pass to either corner. Wilson, having three seconds to hang out in the key, should meet Koufas above the restricted area before the pass is even made. Instead, he is late and Koufas gets an easy shot at the rim.

Contrast the clip above with the one below in which Paul Millsap is in the help position. Millsap properly anticipates the opponents’ best option and gets to the spot early to force Koufas to shoot from a few extra feet further from the basket.

Millsap is among the most focused off-ball defenders in the league and his anticipation and basketball IQ help him become a monster on that end of the floor. But Millsap, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig are the only three Nuggets players who consistently demonstrate that level of defensive anticipation. Most Nuggets players, for whatever reason, look much more like Chandler when playing the tag role.

This manifests itself in easy shots at the rim but it’s also only one step in a longer chain of recurring events that leads to opponents getting comfortable catch-and-shoot three-point attempts. In the clip below, Chandler meets the roll guy early to tag and successfully takes away the easy drop off. However, it is clear early on the Millsap has recovered and that the ball-handler has no way of getting the ball inside. At that moment, Chandler must recover to his man at the three-point line.

Chandler recovers a full second later than he should and that leaves Miami’s sharp-shooter, Wayne Ellington, with a wide open three from the wing. This is one of Denver’s biggest problems. They are (rightfully) so concerned with getting beat in the PnR that they put help side defenders in all-out help on the roll guy. Yet Denver is equally bad at actually covering the roll guy as they are at recovering once they’ve prevented the roll. It feels at times like the Nuggets know where they are supposed to go once things happen but almost never are able to anticipate what will happen before it does.

Here is where Denver’s 3-point defense comes into play. Opponents know when and where their shots are going to come from. In a game against the Thunder earlier this season, Russell Westbrook dished out 21 assists, almost all on incredibly easy reads. Similar thing happened against LeBron James and the Cavaliers just a few weeks ago. Elite PnR ball handlers are able to easily read Denver’s back line PnR defenders and that leads to comfortable catch-and-shoot shots, even when they are “closely” defended.

Slip screens causing confusion

Defensive anticipation becomes even more complicated when mobile and skilled bigs are able to slip ball screens, as Kelly Olynyk was able to do in the Miami game. In the first clip below, Olynyk never makes contact on the screen, electing instead to slip toward the basket knowing that Denver prefers to show hard on a potential ball screen. Olynyk did this all game and it killed the Nuggets.

Millsap stays up high anticipating that he’ll prevent the ball-handler from turning the corner but that was rarely the Heat’s intention. Jamal Murray calls out an off-ball switch with Will Barton but in doing so, he is a step late to help on Olynyk. The slip screen makes for a bang-bang play so even a quarter-second lapse is enough to open up an easy layup for Olynyk. At least half of his 30 points came off of slipping the screen and catching Denver off-guard.

The second clip from above is even more interesting. Nikola Jokic actually makes a good read and meets Olynyk outside of the restricted area before he catches the ball. However, the Nuggets get confused about how to rotate once Jokic gets switched onto Olynyk. This is a common occurrence with the Nuggets. As Olynyk kicks the ball out to James Johnson, Murray properly stunts at Johnson to prevent an easy three-pointer and allow an extra second for the rotations to occur. However, no one rotates. Jokic sees that no one is rotating and runs out at him leaving Olynyk wide open at the rim.

In game 71 of a season, these types of rotations should be obvious. Unfortunately, the rotations are so inconsistent that it’s hard to know who was at fault. (It is likely Millsap who should’ve run out to Johnson but some teams would have Murray switch onto Johnson and have Millsap recover onto Murray’s man)

Confusion + hustle = 50/50

Defense at the NBA level is equal parts hustle and execution. If you have one without the other then you’ve got a 50/50 chance of getting a stop. Consider the two plays below. In the first, the Heat find Bam Adebayo on the roll out of the PnR and all three off-ball players rotate to tag the roll guy. It’s sort of a funny moment as Adebayo is surrounded by three bodies, all three putting full effort into their tag. But this is actually a great example of good hustle, bad execution. A better ball handler or more skilled roll guy would’ve found one of the three wide open shooters around the arc. Instead, Adebayo forces up a triple contested shot and misses.

In the clip below, Devin Harris gets beat off of the dribble by Goran Dragic. Plumlee responds immediately by switching onto Dragic and cutting off his wide open lane to the basket. It’s a great hustle play by Plumlee but he is essentially trying to cover up for two mistakes; Harris, who gets blown by so easily, and Barton, who is nowhere to be found in help side.

Plays like this one are valuable, even though Miami scores. Plumlee makes a 95% shot at the rim into a 75% shot at the rim just by being hyper aware. However, it’s a bit like that Mike Tyson quote: “Everyone has a game plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The Nuggets get punched in the mouth far too often and the end result is that hustle becomes the only thing of value. In other words, Plumlee makes the wrong play but it is the right play because everyone else also makes the wrong play. In the absence of great execution, hustle becomes the only virtue.

Closeouts and “KYP”

“KYP” stands for “Know Your Personnel” and it is a phrase coaches use when talking about knowing your opponents strengths and tendencies. Goran Dragic is a career 36% three-point shooter, good enough that you’ve got to run him off of the line but he’s even better at driving to his left. Harris gets blown by way too easily on the most important KYP assignment on Dragic’s scouting report. So now that the play is broken down, the rest of the Nuggets need to react with hustle and anticipation. That would mean Jokic reading that Barton has been switched onto a big and calling for a switch back. It’d also mean Jokic jumping into the help lane. Elite defenders make these types of hustle reads. Jokic does not.

As a side note, I asked Malone a few months back if Jokic’s limited command of English could be an obstacle in his ability to communicate on defense. He dismissed the suggestion saying something to the effect of ‘how hard is it to say “down, ice, help, etc.” He has a point but in moments like this, where Jokic doesn’t need to communicate a specific defensive action but rather just communicate in real time that Barton needs to grab Ellington on the wing might be hindered by Jokic’s language barrier. It’s not that Jokic can’t speak English, it’s that he has to think about what he’s saying. In a moment like this, where there is only a half second to communicate a switch, it might actually make a small difference.

Finishing the play

The Nuggets have become better at getting “timely stops” late in games over the last few months but the idea of flipping a switch in crunch time is always a dubious one. Sometimes a team can go from 50% effort to 100% effort but more often than not, the bad habits picked up over the course of a game stick around even when players make a conscious effort to ramp up their intensity in the final quarter of play.

Below is a good example of this. Jokic does a nice job containing multiple PnRs. He’s active for the entire shot clock getting out into space to stop the ball and then recovering onto his man. However, the Heat still score because after 24 seconds of great defense, Jokic relaxes and doesn’t finish the play. Although it isn’t his man that grabs the board, Jokic could’ve and should’ve easily been in position to either collect the rebound or at the very least, prevent the easy putback.

This is the level of execution, focus, anticipation, and effort the Nuggets have put forward this season on defense. There are moments of great defense sprinkled in but a team doesn’t earn a bottom 10 DRTG by luck. Many of the errors highlighted in this piece have little or nothing to do with the potential of players involved. Short guards make it harder to close out and slow bigs make it harder to contain PnR but far too often, the Nuggets wind up confused or chasing the play.

If the Nuggets are on track to make a serious leap defensively, there aren’t many hints of such a leap in the stats or the film.