On the season, the Denver Nuggets have been a very poor defensive team — only ranking 24th in the league in defensive rating. At one point, they had dipped all the way to 28th. However, the Nuggets have improved as of late on the defensive side of the floor with them ranking 10th in defensive rating since December 7th and 12th since December 6th.
With the most recent defensive performance against the Grizzlies, being perhaps the best of the season, it seems as though the Nuggets may have figured some things out to help mend the holes of what has been a debilitating defense.
It’s often stated that the vast majority of successful defense comes from the effort put forth by the players on the court. There are obviously other factors at play, such as scheme, personnel, etc. but effort is among the most crucial aspects when it comes to a teams’ ability to defend well for extended periods of time.
Michael Malone has touched on how it seems the team just doesn’t seem to remain focused for full 48 minute games, instead picking and choosing when to defend. This can be backed up by the fact that Denver is the best clutch defenses in the league with an 82.3 defensive rating. They’ve played 57 clutch minutes (defined as games in which there are 5 or less minutes remaining and the score is within 5 points) this season, so it isn’t exactly a small sample size either. In clutch games, the Nuggets are also 2nd in win percentage with a 9-4 record putting them at 69.2%.
In recent weeks, the defense has seen an uptick in steals, blocks, and (anecdotally speaking) have just been giving more of a crap. Everyone in the organization knows the Nuggets have to be better defensively, and most players when asked have said something along the lines of “Yeah, we need to better. We need to figure something out.” Aaron Gordon specifically has stated time and time again that the team just needs to be better at communicating, something that seems to be coming into form as of late.
What lineups are working for the Nuggets?
Here, color coded DRTG duos chart. Easier to break down. These are all per cleaningtheglass.— Asher Levy (@asherlevynba) December 23, 2022
-Bones makes the defense significantly worse
-Ish is pretty good right now, would like to see more
-Zeke might do well if he plays instead of DAJ, would like to see more pic.twitter.com/9EZCHpK50T
Looking at lineups for the Denver Nuggets provides good perspective as to who the Nuggets should play when trying to really lock in defensively, and unsurprisingly a lot of the starters have pretty decent defensive ratings. Nikola Jokic has a positive defensive rating with most people relative to the Nuggets normal defensive rating (115.5) and so do Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr, and Ish Smith.
The best defensive lineups that the Nuggets have played with more than 45 possessions are the normal starters of Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr, Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic. That lineup has a defensive rating of 104.4 — which would be the best in the league if an entire team had that rating.
Context is important for stats like these as numbers won’t tell the whole story. Christian Braun for example has been one of the best defenders on the Nuggets this season, but he is bottom 3 on the team in individual defensive rating. However, it can also show that Bones Hyland is far from what he needs to be defensively right now. His individual DRTG of 123.6 is the highest on the team, and would be the worst defense in the league by 5 points.
Bones also has the worst defensive EPM (estimated plus-minus, which is an impact metric from dunksandthrees.com) in the league. He’s been among the worst defenders in the league, not just a below average one. At this point, a lot of the defensive struggles can be pinpointed to lineups at least including Bones.
DeAndre Jordan has been used as a scapegoat for the bench’s lack of success, but if you take out his minutes with Bones Hyland his defensive rating drops down to 110.7. It’s time to start pointing the finger at Bones Hyland for the bench defense — he’s not the only player playing bad defense, but he makes it far more difficult for everyone else on the floor to defend. That negative impact becomes clear when looking at Ish Smith’s numbers — the leader in individual defensive rating on the team.
Ish Smith is not an elite defender, and the numbers would go down with more minutes, but likely not to the levels of Bones’ minutes. He doesn’t let up easy layups most of the time, and puts forth a high defensive effort. It may be worth looking at what bench minutes without Bones Hyland would look like, because in minutes without Bones the Nuggets are putting up a 111.7 defensive rating.
The Nuggets will look to carry over the defensive success from the Grizzlies game into the rest of the season, and try to become a respectable defense. They’ve shown in spurts why they can be a good defense, a lot of it just comes down to putting forth a better effort and making some scheme changes here or there — like playing Jokic at the level rather than in drop. Playing the right players will also help, and it feels like the Nuggets are turning a corner.