Over the course of this past weekend, there has been a large course correction by Nuggets media and fans on how good they have actually been this season so far. After two disappointing losses against the Trae Young-less Atlanta Hawks, and the New Orleans Pelicans it has become apparent that the Nuggets are not where they need to be at to be considered a title contender.
Most of the wins that the Nuggets have had have not been statement wins — they’ve won games against the Lakers, Spurs, Thunder, Bulls, Jazz, Rockets, and the Clippers without Paul George or Kawhi Leonard. The only genuinely impressive wins they’ve had have been against the Warriors and Mavericks. They’ve had more bad losses than good wins — the games against the Lakers, Pistons, Celtics, and now the recent road trip come to mind.
With a record of 14-9, they are still the third seed in the Western Conference. The problem comes with the fact that they were expected to be different than last year’s team, and it just hasn’t felt like they are yet. It is still early, and there should be some grace given and time to figure things out, but it’s worth talking about the problems that plague the Nuggets on a nightly basis.
The biggest elephant in the room full of elephants is the Nuggets’ defense, or lack thereof. In an offseason where the Nuggets acquired defenders and were trying to build up a better defensive identity with a stated goal of being a top 5 defense in the league, they have massively let down on that end. Right now they are the 26th ranked defense in the NBA, bottom 5 — the inverse of their goal for this season.
The only teams worse than the Nuggets defensively right now are the Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, and San Antonio Spurs. That’s not company for a title contender — those are all bottom tier teams right now.
The players aren’t playing with enough urgency or care on that end. The starters often have a tough time guarding opposing teams, and the defensive players the Nuggets acquired haven’t been good enough defensively. Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been better than most Denver Nuggets defensively, but aren’t shut down guys. With Bruce Brown on the floor, the Nuggets defense gets worse by 7.1 points per 100 possessions.
It’s not because of the lineups he’s playing with either. Per cleaningtheglass.com, the starters when playing a lineup of the four other starters (Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic) plus Michael Porter Jr. register a very solid defensive rating of 104.4, where as with the same four starters plus Bruce Brown come in at a defensive rating of 116.9. That’s not to say he is the issue, he still registers high block and steal percentages, is a good hustle player, and makes a great impact on offense.
However, when he’s your guy for star level talent, he has to do a better job than what he’s doing right now. He practically wasn’t seen by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander earlier in the season, and Steph Curry went off when guarded by him. He’s still doing a better job than what the Nuggets last year would’ve had, but that’s not a high bar.
With the rest of the starters, the only players who have been good defensively this season are Aaron Gordon and Kenny Pope. Teams have had an easy time scoring in any pick and roll with Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic guarding it.
Jamal Murray is still a step slower than he is fully healthy, and sometimes has lapses of effort on the defensive end. Nikola Jokic just doesn’t try hard enough on that end. We’ve seen spurts where both of them have been good defenders, but they haven’t played with the engagement necessary to field a good defense in the NBA.
There’s still time to get right, but the Nuggets have been a sieve defensively and it starts at the nail. The Nuggets aren’t playing a good scheme defensively either, ever since Wes Unseld Jr. left the Nuggets defense has gone down the drain. It’s on both the coaches and the players, because the defense that is being played right now is embarrassing. The Nuggets play when the cover at the level, and it won’t fix everything but a schematic adjustment is a starting place. The Nuggets should’ve started some place long ago, but drop coverage just doesn’t work for them right now.
Another important piece that’s impact has been lost was Paul Millsap. He was a great back line defender, and the Nuggets just haven’t had good back line defense since he left. Aaron Gordon has the capabilities to be one, and Michael Porter Jr. is big enough that he can impact plays from there at times too, but something will need to change defensively for the Nuggets before they can be considered among the leagues elite.
The Second Unit
The hope coming into this season is that the Nuggets’ bench would be better than in the past — that they could be trusted to not blow double digit leads in 3 minutes. However, it hasn’t been pretty this season to put it mildly and Denver, once again, has one of the worst bench units in the league with a -5.3 net rating. That makes them the 28th ranked bench unit ahead of only the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
The bench has seen a revolving door of guys being in and out of the rotation, seemingly for no reason. Christian Braun was playing well early on, but has since vanished from the rotation for Davon Reed. Reed has shot 30.2% from the field, 15.5% usage rate, and a 17.4% turnover rate, on the other hand, Braun has shot 40.4% from the field, has a lower usage rate at 10.9%, and a turnover rate of only 9.2%. The eye test will tell you Christian Braun has been more effective on both ends of the floor, the stats will tell you Christian Braun has been better than Davon Reed. So why does Michael Malone continue to play Reed when he has a better defender riding the pine?
It’s been a pattern with Malone for his tenure that he tends to like to ride with his guys to a fault. Even when it’s clear that there are better alternatives, or at least ones that should be tried, Malone will still take his guy and put him in the game. DeAndre Jordan has been bad this season, it’s not surprising, but Malone continues to play him anyways. Zeke Nnaji also hasn’t been good, but we’ve seen less of him and you spent a first round pick on him — you might as well see what you have in him.
Vlatko Cancar has been a nice surprise, but Malone has probably given him too big of a role. It’s not his fault that the personnel for the Nuggets bench isn’t great, but there are better ways to make it work than what he’s doing right now. The Nuggets should try to let the lesser played guys run for a few games — not just a half, let them gel and build chemistry.
Bones Hyland also has to be better, but he has to be given the opportunity to be better. He’s a second year player, let him play through his mistakes. Yanking him early against the Pelicans for Ish Smith as a defensive substitution doesn’t make much sense. Just put a different guy in the lineup on him, or play Ish and Bones together. Without Bones, the bench doesn’t have enough scoring.
That being said, Bones also needs to be better defensively and offensively. He needs to be better at penetrating the defense and finishing his 2 point attempts, right now he’s only shooting 35.8% within the arc. Defensively he’s a non-factor. There isn’t a clear fix to the Nuggets bench, but it’s time to start trying new things.
It’s hard to not overreact to this road trip and say that the sky is falling, I’ve seen a lot of that and it’s understandable. However, the Nuggets still have a top player in the world with Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. has been missing games (and the nonsense about trading him or benching him is dumb, he makes the team better), Jamal Murray is still working his way back into full form, and it’s still only a quarter way into the season.
Just last season, Boston was hovering around .500 until the New Year — there is precedent for mid-season turnarounds. The Nuggets will have to have something akin to that though if they want to win a title — they aren’t where the need to be, but that’s okay if they can turn it around. There’s still plenty of time, but a bit of caution makes more than enough sense.