“Know Thyself” is one of the Delphic Maxims, old bits of wisdom chiseled on stone lest we forget in the day-to-day rush of life, that it is hard to take hold of what we want in life without knowing what we bring to the table in the pursuit. Aristotle fleshed it out a little: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” The Denver Nuggets have come out of the gate with 10 wins in 13 tries, which is great - but it’s the past two games that have really started to remind the Nuggets of who they are.
The struggle is in reconciling disparate visions. Michael Malone, a defensive coach with a defensive mentality to his bones, has a vision of the Nuggets as a defensive team. After the Nuggets beat Brooklyn last Thursday, Malone had this quote:
Michael Malone on the #Nuggets second half defense:— Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717) November 15, 2019
“That’s who we are.”
Denver held Brooklyn to just 32 second half points and held them to 0-of-17 from the three-point line.
The Brooklyn Nets missed all those three-pointers they took in the second half of Denver’s comeback win on Thursday. Is that good defense? Is it altitude wearing on tired legs? Is it chance? Malone’s vision of Denver is as a hungry, never-quit defensive team but they don’t really have the individual defenders one would think of anchoring that sort of defense. Paul Millsap is a grind-it-out, intelligent defender but he’s neither especially quick nor athletic at this age. Torrey Craig is an effort defender but tends to foul a lot and struggles on offense. Jerami Grant is long and athletic but not dramatically effective on defense. Which leaves Gary Harris, whose offense has been in deep storage this year while effectively suppressing the other team’s main scoring threat so far.
Is that enough to do it Malone’s way? The other approach is leaning on the offense with its passing, ball-movement and transition scoring, which Denver has not been especially effective with so far this year. The game against the Memphis Grizzlies was a nice reminder of the sort of offense Denver can put out there when it wants to. In a 131 point outing the Nuggets had around 80 more passes in the Grizzlies game than their season average. Passing and movement really is the key for this team on offense, whether to initiate the leak-out transition game or get the right cuts to open up the defense. The Nuggets were not the fastest team last season. It’s a far cry from the run-and-gun Nuggets of George Karl. The Nuggets need to pass the ball, and move without the ball. They may not always score quickly but the goal is to generate the best shot.
But that’s a lot of movement on offense. It wears a team down. Combine that with Malone’s directive to be a defense-first team for four quarters and it’s a recipe for wearing out players. Against the Rockets, Will Barton was a dynamo on both sides of the court, terrorizing the guards of Houston in the best win of the season Wednesday night and finishing fast breaks in the paint. But he played only 26 minutes, most of them in the first half. In the second half, Torrey Craig took over the abuse as a shot-blocking and harassing dynamo who had this sweet dunk after a steal on James Harden.
At the end of the game, he looked tired on the bench, having given his all in 20 big pressure minutes. Is that the secret? Can Denver play like this going forward because they are so deep? Is burning all of Jerami Grant’s energy on defense fine if Juancho Hernangomez is there with the offensive firepower later? How does that affect them come playoff time with shortened rotations that can’t give 100% on both offense and defense, and that can’t make shots with tired legs? Those legs wore out in last year’s playoffs and trying to serve two competing goals may make both the offense and defense falter when it matters. Before the Rockets game, Stiffs’ own Ryan Blackburn posted this stat:
Stat of the Day:— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) November 20, 2019
When people talk about the Nuggets defense potentially regressing, here's what they mean...
Denver is allowing the 3rd lowest eFG% to opponents so far this year at 49.0; however, the EXPECTED eFG% allowed based on shots they yield ranks 18th at ~52.0%
That indicates they are getting lucky on shots not falling rather than being quite the defense that Malone would like to be. Still, the Nuggets are 7-0 when holding opponents under 100 points, a mark in favor of Malone’s defense-first preaching. The Nuggets are also overwhelmingly a victorious team playing Jokic Ball the past 3 seasons. Can they do both, or will one eventually have to take precedence?
Denver’s last two victories have them sitting pretty at 10-3, the second-best record in the Western Conference. Instead of the discordant play that marked the first few weeks, Denver has begun to straddle the mantras of their coach and the design of the roster in a healthy tension between their offensive and defensive output. I still believe the Nuggets will have to pick how they want to expend the majority of their energy and based on the roster construction that should be on offense. But for as long as Malone is willing to reach down into the depth of the roster they may be able to prolong the having-cake-and-eating-it-too mentality they are displaying thus far. Michael Porter Jr. and Malik Beasley still got no minutes in the Rockets game, showing just how deep Denver can go to stay fresh over the course of the season. Malone even indicated he was looking at his rotations as pieces to be deployed correctly after the Rockets game:
Malone referenced “having a bullpen” tonight with regard to his small forward platoon. That’s a really great way to describe it. Different skill sets and different looks for any situation.— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) November 21, 2019
But the playoffs are a tough place to display that mentality. Teams that win in the playoffs know who they are, and know how to get what they are best at despite game-by-game alterations by the other team and constant exposure to the same personnel. Denver’s set itself up well over the first 13 games by winning ugly, winning at the last second and eventually, finally winning by showcasing their talents on both sides of the ball. The tension between Jokic Ball and Malone Ball is setting up to be a season-long exploration, however, as the team discovers just how much of each they can commit to, and it will be a tricky line to walk.
Aristotle also said, “There is a foolish corner in the brain of the wisest man.” This may shape up as a season of wisdom for these young Nuggets and their ultra-competitive coach. Repressing the urge for foolishness - taking the open shot instead of forcing the harder play, not fouling the three-point shooter, and yes leaning into stretches that might go against the grain for either coach or player comfort - could well be the key to ultimate success this year.
And if it turns out that who the Denver Nuggets are happens to be a team that does whatever is necessary to win, then so much the better.