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Stat of the Week: The defense for offense swap

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As the Nuggets have committed to becoming a defensive team, a once elite offense has slipped

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

When one door closes, another door opens.

As the Nuggets have committed to changing their identity to become a defensive team, there have been several ramifications. The most important of those: the Nuggets have become an elite defense. Don’t let numbers against bad teams in situations when Denver wasn’t fully engaged fool anyone. When the going has gotten tough against tough competition (or at least what was thought to be tough competition at the time), the Nuggets have locked in. Against the Portland Trail Blazers to open the year, the Nuggets allowed a 99.0 defensive rating and just 100 points overall. Against the Houston Rockets, the Nuggets allowed a 97.9 defensive rating, limiting MVP candidate James Harden to his second lowest point total of the season. Against the Boston Celtics, an elite eastern conference opponent, the Nuggets allowed just a 95.8 defensive rating and allowing the Nuggets offense to basically take the night off.

But that’s the key to everything this season: in moments where Denver’s defense has reigned supreme, their offense has generally struggled. Denver’s five best defensive performances have also coincided with four of their five worst offensive performances of the year. Denver’s best performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves on a Sunday matinee? That was their worst offensive performance. When Denver has tried to tun things around offensively, their defense has generally slipped:

The Nuggets are winning with defense while their offense continues to struggle
Cleaning the Glass

50th percentile in the above cases is average, and so far, the Nuggets have had only four defensive performances below the 70th percentile in Cleaning the Glass’ database of game logs. The only games in which Denver actually lost have been when the defense falls below the 20th percentile. Even strong offense performances have been unable to stem that tide.

But notice the frequency of wins in the top left quadrant? That represents Denver’s formula while the offense hasn’t worked thus far. Denver can control their defensive output in those cases, and they have done so at a high level. There’s a reason why all of those games have been wins, and head coach Michael Malone would be proud.

It’s interesting that this doesn’t seem to be a one year trend either. Over the last three seasons, the Nuggets have trended up on defense and down on offense. This year, that focus seems to have gone to an extreme.

Nuggets Offensive vs Defensive Rating by year
NBA.com

There is perhaps no better visual to represent the Nuggets’ changing identity than the one above. At one point in time, defense was an afterthought, and the Nuggets struggled to execute basic defensive coverages to impede the most open of shots by the opposition. Now, the Nuggets are running multiple coverages, mixing up their schemes from game to game, and playing with more intensity and effort from game to game on that end. It’s something I never thought I would see after watching the 2016-17 season.

But the ultimate question remains: can the Nuggets continue playing offense and defense at a high level at the same time? Last year, the Nuggets ranked seventh offensively and tenth defensively, but they went through spurts in the season where they were elite on one end and lacking on the other. Here’s how the 2018-19 season broke down rating wise:

  • Season Opener to December 3rd (23 games): Offensive Rating - 9th, Defensive Rating - 3rd
  • December 4th to All-Star Break (34 games): Offensive Rating - 3rd, Defensive Rating - 21st
  • All-Star Break to End of Year (25 games): Offensive Rating - 22nd, Defensive Rating - 7th

Last year seems to hold a strong representation of Denver’s changing focuses throughout the season. With Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap out for significant time, the Nuggets were forced to change their identity in order to win games at various points in the year. With everyone back in the lineup post All-Star break though, that offense couldn’t seem to find their rhythm again.

This year, the story remains the same. The Nuggets have struggled out to a poor start offensively, with various players shooting well below average and the shot locations on the floor proving to hold some stark realities. However, part of me wonders whether the Nuggets cannot focus on implementing legitimate changes offensively without beginning to struggle on the defensive end. This has proved true from game to game this season, as three of Denver’s four best offensive performances have placed them below the 50th percentile defensively.

Can the Nuggets eventually put it all together? Or will they always be a team that specializes in one side of the court or the other?

The answer to that question directly affects their championship contention going forward.