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The Denver Nuggets are emerging as something new

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In the Michael Malone and Nikola Jokic era, the Nuggets have been an offensive team that happened to play defense. This year, that script has flipped.

Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets, under the direction of Michael Malone and Nikola Jokic, have been an offensive team that happened to play defense. This year, that script has flipped in the other direction, and it’s working perfectly for an offense that is still trying to find its groove in the new season.

The Denver Nuggets have been a flashy offensive juggernaut for the past four or five years. In the year 2019-20, that identity is shifting to the other end of the floor, and it is a beautiful transformation. They’re currently eighth in the NBA in defensive rating, and they’re coming off their most impressive performance of the season, as they held the Houston Rockets to just 95 points, which snapped their 20 game streak of scoring at least 100 points.

Of the 14 players that have suited up for Denver this season, 10 of them have positive ratings in the Defensive Box Plus/Minus department, and two of those in the negative are Michael Porter Jr. and Juan Hernangomez, who haven’t been fixtures in the rotation. If he qualified, backup center Mason Plumlee would be in the top 10 in the NBA in DBPM at +4.6.

Their offense has failed to hold up their end of the bargain in the majority of games, as they’re just 23rd in the league in points per game, and they’ve only scored more than 110 points twice this season. One of those two games was a loss to the Atlanta Hawks when they gave up 25 points in the second half to point guard Trae Young. The offense has shown the ability to get hot, but, if the defense is playing like this, they can take their time to get in their groove.

Defense Wins Championships

This saying is old and outdated, and it doesn’t match up with modern football or basketball standards. Despite all of that, it still rings true. The Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 remain the only team from this decade to finish outside the top 10 in defense at the end of the year and still win a title, and they needed a Herculean effort from a future Hall-of-Famer in LeBron James to get the job done. The Nuggets have offensive roots, but their defense is finally catching up.

The Nuggets are in the top 10 in defensive rating, points allowed off of turnovers and second-chance points allowed. This elite production on defense has allowed their offense to focus on being just good enough, which is how they beat teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota timberwolves despite having less than stellar nights on the offensive end of the floor.

Denver’s offense needs to wake up at some point this year because the best teams are going to find ways to score, and the offense will need to make up for that. In two of the team’s three losses, the defense has allowed over 120 points, and you can’t do that when your offense isn’t clicking. What the Nuggets need to do to take full advantage of their defense is to convert quickly when they get a stop.

Fuel The Offense

They’re also 12th in steals which has helped fuel the offense, and it works towards the idea that good defense can lead to quick offense. For a team that’s 28th in the NBA in pace, quick offense is a good thing. The Nuggets don’t like to get out and run in transition despite having a bevy of young and athletic wings which is why they are tied for last in the NBA with just 12.6 percent of their possessions being in transition.

However, despite the low frequency, they’re highly efficient in their opportunities. They’re tied for third in the NBA with 1.21 points per possession in transition opportunities, and they have an effective field goal percentage of 65.7 percent which ranks second to only the Toronto Raptors. Their transition offense has them in the 89.7 percentile league-wide, which is also the fourth best mark in the league.

Particularly when they’ve been on the road, the Nuggets are using their defense to take opposing fans out of the game, which just makes life easier on the offense. Their defensive rating on the road is 1.5 points better than they are at home. Defensive stops lead to offense, and, while the Nuggets are close to the bottom of the league in transition points per game, they’re efficient when they do take those opportunities to feed off of the defense.

The Offense Will Come Around

The Nuggets are generating open looks. They have multiple guys that are still trying to figure out where they fit on that end of the floor, and it’s going to come around. They’re also supremely talented on offense with guys like Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and even Michael Porter Jr. Unlike teams that just have to hope that the scheme works, the Nuggets have the talent to score even when the scheme isn’t working.

This system is one that the Nuggets have ran since Jokic became the focal point of the offense, and it’s led them to finish in the top 10 in each of the previous four seasons in offensive rating. They’re hovering in the middle of the pack at 17th on that end of the floor, and, when they lit up the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies, they showed that they’re capable of still being that team that lights it up when they want to.

The issue for them is more that they haven’t felt the need to because of how great their defense has been. When their backs were pushed against the wall in those tight games, it was the offense that sealed it with game-winners from Nikola Jokic. After the defense got a stop, the offense went down and put the game away for them. When the offense wants to take the lead they can, and it’s usually the starting unit that focuses more on defense than the reserves.

This Nuggets team has built their identity around Jokic and the offense over the past five seasons, but that has changed through the early part of this year. They’re slowing the game down, and they’re forcing opponents to play their game. The defense, behind guys like Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Plumlee, are taking this team to the next level of competition. Even when the shots aren’t falling, the offense doesn’t have to panic, because the defense is making sure that the opponents shots aren’t falling either.