3-point defense

By now, it’s no secret that the Nuggets are struggling to defend the 3-point line. The team is currently 29th in opponent 3FG%, allowing opponents to shoot 39.8% from deep on nearly 26 attempts per game. On average, opponents are shooting 7.1% better from behind the arc against the Nuggets than they are against the rest of the league.

It’s an area of significant concern and head coach Michael Malone has emphasized the importance of defending the 3-point line on several occasions this season already. Most notably, he lamented that “our inability to defend the 3-point line is a joke,” after the team lost to the Phoenix Suns, allowing the Suns to make 15 3-pointers on 55.6% shooting. At practice on Monday, Malone went further and said 3-point defense was the area that was “most in need of improvement.”

Team 3FG% Total 3FG% vs DEN Difference
Golden State Warriors 45.3 52.2 +6.9
Houston Rockets 34.5 27.3 -7.2
Los Angeles Lakers 41.6 57.1 +15.5
Milwaukee Bucks 40.2 45.5 +5.3
Minnesota Timberwolves 29 0 -29
New Orleans Pelicans 37.3 50 +12.7
Oklahoma City Thunder 32.5 62.5 +30
Phoenix Suns 46.9 55 +8.1
Portland Trailblazers 37.7 38.5 +0.8
San Antonio Spurs 38 57.1 +19.1
Utah Jazz 40.4 56.3 +15.9

There are a couple of forces that are beyond the Nuggets control that have made defending the three especially difficult. The first is the schedule. Of the 14 games that the team has played, six have come against teams that are top four in the league in 3-point attempts. The Rockets, Suns, and Warriors are all high volume and high efficient 3-point shooting teams and the Nuggets have played each of those teams twice already. The Bucks, Trailblazers, and Pelicans are also all in the top 10 in 3-point efficiency.

The Nuggets are also lacking a rim protector. Jusuf Nurkic is the only true center on the roster and the only real rim protector. Rim protector might even be the wrong word. Nurkic is more of a rim deterrent because, while he isn’t the most agile or high flying shot blocker, he has great timing and instincts and his real strength on defense comes from players not even trying to challenge him at the rim. Nurkic is a huge and intimidating presence and he has just enough crazy in his eyes to make smaller guards think twice before trying to score in the paint.

Unfortunately, Nurkic isn’t healthy and his replacement has been a hodge-podge of forwards and undersized bigs with little in the way of rim protection. The reason this matters for 3-point defense is that opponents are routinely collapsing the defense and pulling helpside defenders into the paint. When guards like Eric Bledsoe see that Keneth Faried or JJ Hickson are the second line of defense for the Nuggets, they don’t think twice about blowing by their man to challenge Faried at the rim. This is by no means an excuse. It only serves as a starting point to explain why the Nuggets have no wiggle room to slip up on defense. If they are out of position to provide helpside or if they fail to contain penetration, the result is almost always an easy shot at the rim or a quick kickout for an open shooter.

In the clip below, notice how all five defenders have a foot in the paint as the guard drives. Either by design or by habit (or both) all four helpside players react strongly to the guard getting past the first line of defense and as a result the Nuggets give up a wide open kickout. Teams like the Clippers, Heat, and Spurs don’t react as strongly to drives like that in part because the wing players know that they have a big rim protector behind them to challenge penetration.

While over-reacting on defense and being out of position is a big issue for the Nuggets’ 3-point defense, the breakdowns begin by the players not being able to contain penetration on drives and in the pick-and-roll. The pick-and-roll in particular has been an issue for the Nuggets bigs. Opposing ball-handlers have a 47.5 eFG% in the pick-and-roll, the 3rd highest in the league. The crux of this issue is poor positioning and awareness, particularly from the bigs. JJ Hickson, Kenneth Faried, and Nikola Jokic have been the biggest culprits of the failed pick-and-roll defense. All three of those players routinely find themselves out of position or caught off-guard in pick-and-rolls.

Defending the pick-and-roll is substantially more difficult than it appears on TV. It’s really easy to look at a defensive breakdown in hindsight and point out what went wrong. It is much more difficult to read how to defend a pick-and-roll in real time. The big defending the screen must recognize when and where the screen is coming from in a split second and recognize who the ball handler is that is receiving the screen. If it is Steph Curry or Brandon Knight, the big needs to call out the direction of the screen and step up enough to prevent an open shot while the on-ball defender fights to recover. If it is a driving guard like Ricky Rubio, the big must drop enough to protect the roll while also walling off the driving lanes.

In the first clip above, notice how Jokic runs to the wrong side of the screen, giving Steph a wide open three-pointer. This may have been Harris's fault since it appears as though Jokic was expecting Harris to "ice" the screen, meaning force him toward the sideline. Even so, the miscommunication is on both players since Jokic is still the one who needs to call out the screen and direct traffic, so-to-speak.

In the second clip, Hickson does a decent job of making the read difficult for the guard but he starts out too low on the screen, allowing the guard to get far too close to the basket. He follows it up with classic Hicksonism, jumping to block the shot even though he has no chance of affecting the play. By pointlessly jumping, Hickson ensures that he is out of position for the rebound as well. In the third clip, Faried doesn't even realize that there is a guard driving right down the paint until it is too late. Harris needs to do a better job of containing off of the dribble, but the second line of defense is completely non existent on that play.

The three bigs in question have routinely fallen asleep on defense and/or made the wrong read. When Malone discusses
"effort" and guys "playing hard," most of the time he is referring to the defensive end and being focused enough to never miss assignments on pick-and-roll. It isn't surprising that Hickson, Jokic, and Faried have all been benched or given a short leash by Malone and all three struggle with maintaining the energy level and focus required to play proper pick-and-roll defense, especially when there isn't a second line of rim protecting defense behind the play.

Danilo Gallinari Post Ups

Gallo is currently 3rd in the league in points per possession on post ups, per Synergy. He is scoring an impressive 1.12 PPP, thanks in large part to his impressive rate of drawing fouls in the post. Unfortunately, the team hasn't been able to get him the ball in the post frequent enough to really take advantage of his skill as a post man. Coming in to the season, there was a fear among fellow stiff's writers, myself included, that Malone would look to post Gallo up too much. So far, the opposite has been true.

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With just 26 total shots or turnovers from the post, the sample size is too small to say anything definitive but in the instances that the team is able to get him the ball in the post, Gallo produces. At practice on Monday Malone mentioned that the team needs to get Gallo the ball more, not just in the post but in pick-and-roll situations as well. One of the issues that the team has in getting Gallo in the post more frequently is that the team already lacks spacing. Since Gallo is one of the few floor spacers on the court, it's difficult to find opportunities to get him the ball in the post without the defense helping off of a non-shooter.

"We have a few post up plays. Some nights (Gallo's) great in the post and we get it to him a lot. Other nights, when teams are very physical and they don't guard our big men and they tilt over with their five-man, obviously there's not much room for him to operate."

That last point is the key since, as presently constructed, the roster doesn’t have the floor balance and spacing to allow him to post up as much as say, Dirk Nowitzki or Markieff Morris. However, Gallo’s skill in the post is something that can be utilized if and when the Nuggets build a more versatile roster or develop better spacing. For now, look for Gallo to draw contact quickly when he can get quick post touches against slower defenders, and look for him shoot over smaller defenders after the defense is forced to switch on 1-3 pick-and-rolls and Gallo is able to get down into the post.

Mudiay stopping short on drives

One of the things that stood out about Mudiay at summer league was that he was so good at getting into the paint and finishing over bigs. His 6-5 frame and fearlessness was one of the things that made him such an interesting prospect. Unfortunately, that skill hasn't translated over to the regular season thus far. Mudiay is shooting just 43.1% in the restricted area, the 2nd worst mark of any player to average at least three attempts in the restricted area per game and 7th worst for players that attempt at least two per game.

Spacing has been a huge reason for Mudiay's struggles. Teams are packing the paint against the Nuggets, especially rim protecting bigs who don't have to worry about the outside shooting of Faried and Hickson (basically the opposite of what the Nuggets are experiencing on defense). Spacing was especially an issue for Mudiay early in the season when he would routinely get into the paint and throw the ball away. Over the course of the last few weeks the Nuggets have improved their spacing quite a bit through better ball movement and that is part of what has helped Mudiay lower his turnover rate.

However, he still seems shell shocked about taking the ball to the rim. Far too frequently Mudiay is settling for pull-up jump shots off of the dribble when there is clearly an opportunity for him to attack the big one-on-one. According to SportVu, Mudiay is attempting 7.5 pull up jump shots per game, less than 2 per game fewer than Steph Curry and Damian Lillard. He is shooting just 29.5% on those shots. With that efficiency, pull up jump shots should be more of a last resort type attempt for Mudiay rather than a rhythm shot. In short, Mudiay should never settle for it.

In the first three clips above, notice how Mudiay stops short on the drive and goes to the pull up. He needs to get it in his head that this shot is yielding 0.59 points per shot on average. It’s not that he should be discouraged by his jumper, but rather that his success in this league will be much more closely tied to his ability to get into the paint and finish or make plays. Reggie Jackson, John Wall, Jeff Teague and many other players are impactful in the offense in large part because of their ability to challenge rim protectors or collapse the defense to create an open shot. Mudiay’s development as a star player will be as much about his ability to do that than it will be about his jumper going in.

Malone's Movember Beard

It appears as though coach Malone is participating in no shave November. For weeks now he has been growing out an unkempt, salt and pepper beard. The gesture is admirable and many people participate in an effort to raise awareness for different causes, including cancer awareness. Nonetheless, it's still fun to see what otherwise clean shaven people look like with facial hair.

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Malone looks like he should be helming a crabbing vessel. He's got a very tough look about him anyway, with a natural scowl and a very no nonsense way about him but the beard just adds to the look. He could easily be at the wheel of a fishing boat, pipe in hand, barking orders to lowly deckhands as he chases a mysterious white whale. I'm not sure if the look is gold or fool's gold but Malone the skipper is kind of a fun look for November.