If you told me the Denver Nuggets would be a top 10 defense during the 2018-19 season two years after finishing second to last in Defensive Rating in 2016-17, I would have called you crazy. Lo and behold, two seasons, the addition of Paul Millsap, and the improvement of Nikola Jokic later, the Nuggets cracked the top 10, a stupendous achievement given where they started early in Michael Malone’s coaching tenure.
The Nuggets can and should be proud of this accomplishment. Leapfrogging nearly half the NBA and into the top 10 on defense isn’t very common without a major change in personnel. The Nuggets didn’t change personnel though. They were simply healthier and sustained some internal improvement.
But will the trend of improved defense continue? Will the Nuggets continue to trend in the wrong direction offensively? It’s time to make a case for both sides of the ball to predict which end of the floor will be Denver’s strength this season.
The Case for Offense
For the last three seasons, the Nuggets have produced an elite offense that has never quite reached incendiary levels, outside of Post-December 15th during the 2016-17 season of course. This was the season Nikola Jokic first replaced former Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic in the starting lineup and will be remembered for the excellent five-out style with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler at the forward spots. Kenneth Faried also contributed heavily with his presence in the short corner just outside the paint. That season, the Nuggets identified a formula they could never recover.
Until this season of course with the additions of Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant.
Over the last two seasons with Paul Millsap as the starting power forward, the Nuggets have ran a variety of actions through him as a scorer and passer. As Jokic has grown more comfortable with his playmaking duties, Millsap has continued to trend into an off-ball role, much more so than his days as an Atlanta Hawks star anyway. He generally tries to fill the role of a floor spacing forward while Jokic and Murray work the two-man game, but with a slower release on his perimeter jumper and less leaping ability than in previous seasons, he doesn’t quite fit the archetype the Nuggets have needed offensively to reprise their 2016-17 offensive style.
Porter and Grant both fit that style though and should have the versatility to fill different roles based on the situation. Mike Schmitz of ESPN recently predicted that Porter would be one of six rookies to outperform his draft slot, citing his ability to immediately impact the rotation as a shooter.
“If there’s one area where Porter can have an immediate impact, it’s as a floor spacer. According to data from Krossover’s database, Porter is a career 39% 3-point shooter on 297 attempts and connected on 85% of his 445 free throws. Even beyond the numbers, his stroke -- while reliant on elevation -- is pure, and his ability to space the floor out of a variety of actions will prove beneficial within a Nuggets offense that relies more on movement than on pick-and-roll. With other shot creators on the roster, Porter doesn’t have to rely so much on the tough, contested pull-ups that showed up too often during his prep career.” -Mike Schmitz, ESPN
It’s unrealistic for Porter to shoot 40% from three-point territory and 85% at the free throw line in his first season, but as long as he makes a high enough percentage to keep the defense honest, Porter will help contribute to added space in the paint. It’s difficult to contest Porter’s jump shot with his high jump, release point, and 6’11 frame. Defenders will need to stay attached to Porter in much the same way the defense had to stick to Danilo Gallinari during the 2016-17 season.
As for Grant, he’s versatile enough to play out on the perimeter and in the short corner with the athleticism to jump over anyone while positioned just outside the paint. Jokic made a habit of finding power forward Kenneth Faried for dunks consistently two years ago, and now, Grant is cut from the same cloth as a finisher around the rim.
With two additional rotation players that are tall, athletic, and have skill sets that fit well in Denver’s offense, the Nuggets are primed to make a leap offensively. Murray and Jokic continue to get better, while hopefully Gary Harris and Will Barton continue to get healthier. If everything goes right for Denver this year, there’s no reason they can’t finish with the top offense in the NBA. Every team ahead of them sustained losses or has serious fit questions while Denver is poised to hit the ground running.
The Case for Defense
As it turns out, Jerami Grant isn’t just a good offensive player but also a strong defender. The Nuggets added him this offseason with the intention of utilizing his defensive versatility as needed, citing his ability to guard multiple positions during previous press conferences. The addition of Grant to Denver’s rotation adds some extra defensive ability where the Nuggets were previously lacking. Former backup forward Trey Lyles was a solid defender within the team construct, but his individual acumen and tools left a lot to be desired. The Nuggets were limited in what they could accomplish on defense by their rigid personnel, and Grant’s presence allows Denver to play different player combinations together. While the Nuggets talked about the idea of playing Lyles at small forward last training camp, it’s very possible that Grant could slide to small forward or center depending on the matchup.
But beyond Denver’s upgraded rotation piece is the prospect of a fully healthy season from all three of Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, and Paul Millsap. Harris and Millsap have sustained significant injuries the last two seasons, and they were clearly Denver’s most impactful defensive players last season when adjusted for role. Craig also provided elite defense when he was out there, though he was out there for less of the game than the other two. The three represent Denver’s best positional defenders on the roster and have the versatility to mix and match assignments. With the addition of Grant, the hopeful improvement of Jokic, Murray, Malik Beasley, and Monte Morris, and the presence of Denver’s current wing/forward defenders, it’s possible for Denver to take a step forward defensively.
Then again, it’s also possible that Denver had a strong run of luck with how teams shot against them. Among all 30 teams, the Nuggets allowed the most corner three-pointers attempted against them, an unfortunate design flaw in Denver’s defensive scheme surrounding Nikola Jokic, who would basically offer a soft trap against the ball handler in pick and roll situations. This could have contributed to Denver’s strong three-point defense above the break with Jokic out on the perimeter as an extra helper rather than locked in the paint, but it’s unlikely that teams shoot as poorly as they did against Denver.
The Nuggets allowed the lowest percentage of above the break threes this past year, as opponents shot just 32.4%, well below the average of roughly 35%. In addition, teams shot just 20.2% against the Nuggets during clutch situations last season, contributing heavily to Denver’s top defense during clutch time. It’s unlikely Denver will defend that well again this season, or at least get that lucky this season, meaning that regression could happen and teams could simply make more shots against Denver they had previously missed.
While there is a scenario in which the Nuggets aim to get more defensive, I believe this is the year where Denver recovers their offensive identity of spreading the floor, cutting off ball, and generating as many three-pointers and layups as they can around the Jokic offense. Murray is ready to take a leap forward with his develop on both ends, but especially offensively. In addition, Denver’s new pieces in Porter and Grant should have a larger effect on the offensive side of the ball, simply because the more time with those two likely means less time for Millsap and Craig, two elite defensive options.
The great thing about the Nuggets rotation now is they have the capacity to play different styles. If they need to grind out possessions and play defensive minded basketball, they can do that. If they need to score points in bunches, play smaller, and go for a spaced floor with players like Beasley, Porter, and Grant, next to Murray, Harris, and Jokic, they can do that too.
The talent on offense is just too strong though, and at some point, things are going to click again for the Jokic-led offense. They may be the best offense in the league at the end of the year, and betting on that talent has worked out well for Denver thus far.