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The Sixth Man: Denver has held 5 of 7 opponents under 100 this season, have they found their defensive identity?

Unlike previous preseasons, Denver’s major strength is now its defense. The chemistry is starting to reveal itself as the Nuggets develop their collective identity on their way to a championship.

Denver Nuggets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Denver’s 4-3 start is not as impressive as some would like because obviously, they should win every single game so we fans can avoid mild stints of depression, but there have been very impressive aspects to their play so far. I like to think I’m humble enough to admit when I’m wrong and I will do so here. Before the season began, I thought the Denver defense would be miserable to watch, but so far they have been top five in the league. They held five of their first six opponents to under 100 points which is incredible in the modern NBA.

Sure, some of that is due to the rule changes as offensive players are not afforded as many fouls as they used to (hallelujah), but the Nuggets are actually playing solid, intense team defense. They are fourth-best in defensive rating, third in opponent 2nd chance points, and fourth in opponent fast breakpoints. The bottom line is, Denver is not allowing constant offense because they are controlling the smaller nuances of the game.

They’re not as good of a defensive rebounding team as they would like to be yet but their defense is stingy enough to hold opponents from gaining second-chance points. They also aren’t giving the opposition easy transition looks which is important because fastbreak points are some of the easiest to come by. You’re also seeing better box-outs, more disciplined close-outs, and even traps off the pick and roll which we did not see as much last season. Here is an example:

Unfortunately, what this video does not show is the soft screen Adams give on Barton. After that show screen Adams gives, he immediately darts towards the basket but Jokic pressures Morant and completes a fairly decent double team with Barton. The only reason I call this a fairly decent double team is because Barton doesn't really trap Morant and he allows the cross-court pass to Melton. Nonetheless, it's a good idea and it disrupts the opponent's rhythm. Following the pass, you’re going to see some good activity out of Jokic.

He knows Melton will either shoot or immediately look for Adams so he gets in front of him to block that opportunity. Melton sheds Morris with a shot fake, but Jokic sets in a good athletic position forcing Melton to look elsewhere. Melton then gives it to Bane for a deep three and he misses as Jokic boxes Adams out.

It’s not the most eye-popping defensive play but I wanted to point out Jokic’s activity here. Initially, he follows Adams as he shows the screen, doubles Morant, runs back to Adams, forces Melton to give it up, and then boxes out one of the best rebounders in the game. That’s a tough ask for a center, but we’re seeing a different Jokic this year defensively and it’s absolutely incredible to watch. Here is another good example from Denver’s double teams:

One of the game’s premier decision-makers will be placed in Denver’s trap chamber here. Gordon recognizes the Ayton screen and he’s going to complete the trap with Barton. Will does a great job of fighting through the screen and staying on Paul, and they both block Paul’s vision to certain areas of the court. Monte is also another key to this play because he’s actually going to guard two people at once. He’s staying on his man (Bridges) but he is also blocking Paul’s passing lane to Booker in the corner.

Paul now has nowhere to go because Jokic is blocking the paint, Monte has the corner locked, and Porter does a great job fighting with Crowder for position on the perimeter. MPJ doesn’t give Paul an adequate passing lane, so Paul tries to place it on Crowder's right side, but the lane isn’t there and it ends up being a turnover for Denver.

This is what good communication and chemistry look like on the defensive end. Players are learning their role within the defense and it is paying off not only individually, but collectively. If you analyze this play closely, you see multiple players with their eyes on their man and the ball which is exactly what Malone is looking for.

Opponent’s screens are known to plague Denver but they buffed out some of the kinks this year.

Gordon has been impressive on both ends and he’s definitely getting in people’s heads defensively this year. Jaren Jackson is a good three-point shooter but he’s more of a set shooter and Gordon knows it, so he’s going to risk it and go under this screen. He knows Jackson is not going to shoot an off-balance or step back three so he goes under and will recover accordingly based on Jackson’s position. Jackson doesn't appear to like the wide-open look he’s offered off the screen so he dribbles within the arc.

He then gives Gordon a hesitation move which actually fools Gordon, but he’s so talented he recovers in seconds to get back into good position with the help of Nikola. Jokic does a good job of showing help, so Jackson backs out of the shot and wants to pass. Porter recognizes it and immediately attacks the pass from his corner spot forcing another Denver turnover.

Again, this is great team defense because Denver defenders are sticking to their man but willing to give help when it is necessary. They are becoming more cerebral, predicting where the next pass will go, and stepping into or blocking passing lanes.

Why does any of this matter? Well first, if you want to win a championship you need effective defensive, but also good defense leads to easy offense.

I wouldn't call that first video great defense, rather a bailout from Ja Morant but good teams capitalize on these opportunities. Morant makes a mistake and pulls up from three while Jackson is posted on the block with a mouse in the house as Morris is doing his best to guard a physical big. Denver does not bail Memphis out as Porter grabs a great rebound and actually catches this one this time. Long shots often lead to transition opportunities and the Nuggets will take advantage here.

For that same exact mistake Memphis committed, the Nuggets demonstrate to the Grizzlies how it should be done. Porter keeps his head up in transition and sees the clear mismatch Jokic has on Morant. Again, mom if you’re reading this, this is what we like to call a mouse in the house. When a big has a smaller man in the paint, you must give it to him because that is an easy bucket. Or as Shaq likes to call it, “barbecue chicken.” A lot of lingo here folks, so I hope I gave some people interesting topics around the water cooler.

Long story short, Porter recognizes the easy opportunity, gives a great pass, and Jokic finishes with the and-one.

It’s so crucial for Denver to be efficient defensively because oftentimes, their offensive energy is built by defensive intensity. A lot of NBA defensive possessions are going to be one on one, mano-e-mano, who’s the better player. So stopping a player from doing what he thinks he can do, is a massive confidence boost, often translating to success at the other end.

The Nuggets have not hit their stride shooting the basketball consistently yet but that will come with time. If they were struggling defensively they could be 0-7, so their defense is keeping them in games and when they find their stroke from three, this team is a contender against any opponent.