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Stiffs Mailbag: Finding defensive improvements within the Nuggets roster

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Answering Twitter questions from Stiffs readers

Denver Nuggets v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Everyone knows the drill. Thanks for tuning in and asking questions this week!

Let’s dive in.

Let’s run through Denver’s six losses to gain a better understanding of what’s going on:

  • Lost to the Sacramento Kings in the season opener on an overtime buzzer beater following some shenanigans from referees
  • Lost to the Los Angeles Clippers on Christmas in a redemption game for the Clips
  • Lost to Sacramento again on the second night of a back-to-back with Jamal Murray sitting out
  • Lost to the Phoenix Suns by three points in a game that saw Gary Harris and Will Barton combine to go 3-of-17 from the field
  • Lost to the Dallas Mavericks in overtime in a game Denver should have won
  • Lost to the Brooklyn Nets in a game Denver led by 18 points in the third quarter

Is there anything particularly insightful about those six bullet points? Probably not, but it helps to contextualize each loss. Denver should be at least 6-5 right now due to the referee shenanigans in the season opener, and if Denver had turned either of the past three close losses into wins, they would be 7-4.

The Nuggets have had a problem defensively in close games. They have two players they genuinely trust in crunch time no matter what in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić, but beyond that, they’re still figuring out a closing unit. Once they do, I expect things to go a lot better on both sides of the ball.


Right now, the best thing the Nuggets can do is improve their defensive rebounding. With a 72.1% defensive rebounding rate that ranks 23rd in the NBA, the Nuggets have taken a massive step back in a category that one never expected to trouble them with Michael Porter Jr. in the fold. Of course, Porter has played just four of Denver’s 11 games, leaving Denver small on the wings and in the frontcourt consistently.

The bench consistently features a small lineup with Facundo Campazzo and Monte Morris sharing the backcourt. In addition, Isaiah Hartenstein’s inconsistencies have forced Michael Malone’s hand to sometimes take him off the floor with the second unit. PJ Dozier has occasionally slid to the power forward spot to accommodate the change, and though Dozier has played well, he’s vastly undersized.

The Nuggets are always going to struggle with defense given their personnel, but the most important change they can make is to rebound better when a miss does occur. Giving opponents an opportunity for second chance points under the basket or on a kick-out three-pointer is the last thing Denver should hope for. If Denver’s defense does everything correctly and forces a miss, they have to be better finishing the play and grabbing the rebound.


Right now, the Nuggets view Michael Porter Jr. as a small forward. They want to treat him that way early in his career and place a better defender next to him at power forward that can cover for his weaknesses. That being said, things might change in the future depending on what the Nuggets believe Porter’s best position to be next to Jokić. If the Nuggets need that defensive minded wing, then Porter’s position might change in name.

Jerami Grant defended small forwards last season in the playoffs when on the floor next to Porter, who defended power forwards. The Nuggets drafted Zeke Nnaji and have high hopes for the Arizona rookie big man though, and playing Nnaji in between Porter and Jokić would move Porter to the small forward spot.

The truth is, the Nuggets see Porter as a versatile forward, and Michael Malone will utilize him however he needs to be utilized from game to game. Porter has advantages and disadvantages at both spots depending on the matchup, so call him interchangeable at forward for the time being.


Long term planning is always difficult for head coaches. They want to win so badly, and transitioning from Paul Millsap starting to Jerami Grant starting, while that’s something that Michael Malone wanted to do last regular season, was never in the cards once the regular season hit. The fear this season is that JaMychal Green, despite being a better player than Millsap right now in my opinion, is in a similar boat due to chemistry and lineup issues. After slowly developing chemistry with the bench unit, when’s the proper time for Malone to uproot both units and transition Green into starting more permanently?

If I had to guess, I’d say that Malone will attempt to wait for the proper moment. Whether that’s if Millsap sustains an injury during the season, if Millsap goes through a rough patch, or simply transitioning from one to the other at the midpoint of the season, I do think it happens. Denver needs Green’s superior mobility, length, and athleticism in their primary group in my eyes, and whenever that transition happens matters less than the transition actually happening at some point.


Bol Bol is so unique, as his start against the Brooklyn Nets showcased. He looked like a physical carbon copy of Kevin Durant on the floor, and he showed some impressive tools and skills while matched up with one of the best players in the world. It didn’t end well, but it wasn’t his fault.

When Michael Porter Jr. comes back, there’s almost certainly no room for Bol Bol in Denver’s rotation. The Nuggets want to be able to play him, but they can’t continue to deal with his tentativeness as a shooter, his spotty defense, and his overall level of inexperience while the team has to focus on winning games. If Denver were in a rebuilding situation, I’d have expected him to play every single game due to significant talent level. As it stands, he hasn’t been able to show that off for extended time.

With Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green are healthy, I don’t expect Bol to receive significant playing time going forward. If one were to go down, Bol would be a solid injury replacement. Beyond that, it’s up to him to develop and take the necessary steps to become a consistent rotation player. I think he can do it, but it won’t be easy.


The simplest trade Denver could make is moving Facundo Campazzo and whatever else it takes for a bench wing player with size. Denver’s starting unit will eventually be back to normal with Porter in the fold again, but coming off the bench, the Nuggets could use another 6’6-8” shooting guard/forward that could be a passable defender. Morris isn’t going anywhere. Denver likes Barton and Dozier as other wings, but they’re more guards.

A couple of names to watch: Danuel House and Taurean Prince, both recently affected by the James Harden trade. If the Rockets are in a bad spot and are willing to trade House, he’s a solid player that can make threes and defend reasonably well. Prince was moved to Cleveland and into a crowded Cavs rotation that features two young wings in Cedi Osman and Isaac Okoro, both of whom the Cavs like. If the Nuggets want someone 6’8” that can offer a bit more lineup versatility for Denver going forward, then Prince is a decent, relatively cheap option.


Seeding genuinely doesn’t matter for the Nuggets outside of their need to finish in the top six of the standings and avoid the play-in tournament. Denver’s home court advantage has been distinctly lacking with the Nuggets going just 2-4 at Ball Arena to start the season. The Nuggets will face good Western Conference opponents in every round of the playoffs, and eventually, they will have to run into the Clippers and Lakers at some point.

With no fans in arenas to start the year, I’m less concerned about home court than ever before. The Nuggets aren’t concerned either.