What’s up with the Nuggets defense as of late?
Daniel Lewis: It seems like it’s as simple as they’ve been running without a full crew for a while. Millsap is their defensive leader, and he’s just working back into his groove since being injured. Once Harris and Barton are back too, the Nuggets can deploy the scheme the coaching staff established in the preseason.
Zach Mikash: I’m with Dan, I think the injuries have taken their toll. Beyond just the sheer loss of talent, I think their versatility on the defensive end is really affected when you’ve got Mason Plumlee playing next to Nikola Jokic instead of Millsap. On top of that they’re dealing with all these guys being out but now coming back and it’s made it impossible to get any consistency in their rotation for the last month. All that mixing and matching is bound to have an effect on the defense.
Brendan Vogt: It seemed to me that the initial defensive turnaround wasn’t a result of any one person stepping up, but rather each and every player refusing to be the weak link, refusing to lose focus and let his teammates down. It’s been a collective effort. Beyond losing their two best defenders in Harris and Millsap, the injuries have also placed a heavier load on both Murray and Jokic offensively. As a result, the two stars haven’t been able to maintain the defensive effort that defined Denver’s hot start to the season. That’s just asking too much.
Adam Mares: They’ve missed Paul Millsap. Every team would struggle defensveily without their best defensive player. This is especially true of Millsap because he is so good at cleaning up everyone’s mistakes. I think Denver is two or three games away from regaining their defensive identity.
What is a New Year’s Resolution you’d set for the Nuggets this calendar year?
Lewis: Increase wisdom. I’m a big believer in the Nuggets core right now. Jokić is a transcendent talent, Murray has so much potential, and the rest of the team has incredible chemistry. But if they can increase in wisdom, meaning their basketball IQ, tendencies of teammates, how and when to raise intensity, and how to counter their opponents’ strengths, they’re on the verge of becoming the next Western Conference perennial contender.
Mikash: I’ve got a much less abstract resolution: trade Trey Lyles. It sucks that this is what it’s come to but here we are. When Will Barton comes back Juancho Hernangomez slides back to a reserve role and can fill those backup stretch 4 minutes a lot more effectively. You’ve also got Michael Porter Jr who obviously isn’t in the immediate plans but gives them another long term option at that position. Trey isn’t going to bring much in a trade but the Nuggets future 2nd round pick cupboard is really bare so even if that’s all they can get for him it’s worth it in my opinion, as disappointing as that may be.
Vogt: Close quarters strong.
The Nuggets are among the most difficult teams to blow out in the entire NBA, they are relentless when trailing, but there’s a mercy to their game. They’re still learning how to step on an opponents throat, how to erase all doubt, put the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Denver is capable of jumping out to massive leads, but they’ve struggled to close out second and third quarters, leaving games wide open when they could have been—should have been—decided long earlier.
Mares: Get healthy. That’s the only thing standing in the way of this team really taking off. Think about that. They are #1 in the Western Conference and they haven’t taken off yet. They need to get the starting unit healthy and a large sample of games under their belt to refine their chemistry but if everyone can get back to full strength by the middle of January, that would give the Nuggets half of the regular season to find their groove.
Can Jamal Murray be the Nuggets closer?
Lewis: Absolutely. He has the shotmaking ability to be a guy they can rely upon to get a basket from anywhere on the court. For him, he needs to gain more experience in these situations. Failure is a great educator, and I’m fine with him making mistakes in the regular season to prepare him for success when it matters — in the playoffs.
Mikash: He can and will be if he already isn’t. Jamal struggled in December at times but we also know he was a little banged up which might have played a role in that. I think we’ve seen it enough times to know he’s got the closing ability in him, and the struggles he’s had I’m far more comfortable chalking it up to inexperience rather than inability.
Vogt: He definitely can, because he already has. Murray has out-closed Damian Lillard, gone head-to-head with Kyrie Irving, gone for thirty-plus in a second half, and delivered more than one dagger late in games. He’s got a long way to go as a late-game-manager, but he’s only 21, and he’s got the stuff you can’t teach.
Mares: He can be but he shouldn’t be because Denver doesn’t need a “closer.” The Nuggets aren’t a traditional basketball team and they don’t revolve around any one player. What makes them special is that, at their best,all five guys seem to fit together in perfect harmony and become more than the sum of their parts. Murray is one of the best tough shot makers on the team, but I’d still rather take a great 5-man possession over an isolation. That being said, Jokic and Murray have really started to form a nice two-man game in closing quarters and I think that two-man action will continue to grow as Denver’s backbone in close games. But neither are the team’s “closer,” they are just the team’s most likely starting point in close games.
What is your favorite play of the first half of the season?
Lewis: The Malik Beasley alley-oop where he bounced his head off the backboard. Beasley has incredible hops, and I really enjoy watching his in-game dunks. No one has been willing to challenge him this season, but it’s only a matter of time before he posterizes some poor big man.
Mikash: The Juancho block to seal the Warriors win. In hindsight, the Nuggets were showing us right then that this team had the talent, and more importantly the grit, to beat any team on any given night.
Vogt: I think Mikash has the right answer here. That Juancho block was our first real indicator that this season could be special. More importantly, it marks the return of the Juancho-man, who has been stellar in Will Barton’s absence. What a game, what a play, what a fun moment.
Mares: Mason Plumlee’s three-pointer against the Utah Jazz was a pretty special moment. Pepsi Center exploded after that one. It was a big shot at a crucial moment in the game, it felt like a turning point for the fanbase’s acceptance and appreciation for Plumlee’s role on this team (ironically from a shot that is as far from his role as possible), and it propelled the team to a blowout victory and their finest quarter of basketball to date.