Defense in Denver?

Maybe for the Broncos or the Rockies, but not when it comes to professional basketball.

Dating back to their ABA days in Denver, the Nuggets have never been known for their defense. From Larry Brown to Donnie Walsh to Doug Moe to (egads) Paul Westhead and so on … all the way up to the present day with George Karl … Nuggets head coaches have preached a run first, ask questions later style hoping to run opposing teams out of an arena located 5,280 feet above sea level.

Over nearly 50 years, this strategy has worked to the tune of three NBA conference finals appearances and zero NBA Finals appearances, leaving the Nuggets as the lone ABA holdover to never experience playing for a championship in June.

Maybe it's time to try something else?

Rooting for a roster that currently possess no superstars, I don’t need to remind my fellow Stiffs of the unlikelihood that this current Nuggets squad will reverse over three decades of NBA history by ascending to a championship sans superstars. But what often doesn’t get discussed here is just how good NBA champions are defensively. When we think about recent NBA champs, we reminisce about LeBron James‘ near nightly triple doubles, Dirk Nowitzki’s amazing ability to make a variety of shots, Kobe Bryant’s ruthlessness as a scorer or Paul Pierce’s clutch shots. But often overlooked is just how tough those players and their teammates were (and in many cases still are) defensively.

So while this season I don’t expect Ty Lawson to become a 20-points / 10-assists point guard, or JaVale McGee to become a 20-points / 10-rebounds center, or Danilo Gallinari to become a 20-points-per-game small forward, or Andre Iguodala to connect (god forbid) on 40% of his three-point attempts – lofty numbers necessary if this Nuggets team is to compete for a trophy in June – it’s not unreasonable to expect these guys, along with all of their teammates, to become stingy, shut down defenders.

And in fact, we're already seeing it.

In recent “squeaker” wins against tough NBA competition like the Grizzlies (twice), Warriors (twice), Timberwolves and Pacers, it wasn’t the Nuggets’ overwhelming offensive prowess that won those games but rather hard-nosed defense. And it’s a good thing that the defense showed up, because this season’s Nuggets are averaging about four points less than last season’s roster, and 7.5 points less than the 2010-11 outfit (that admittedly had Carmelo Anthony and his 25 points per game for more than half the season). Pretty soon, the taco threshold will be dropped to 105 points.

Call me a myopic optimist, but with some dramatic changes in their philosophy the 2012-13 Nuggets could be a defensive juggernaut.

Already averaging nearly two steals per game, Lawson should stop worrying about when to pass versus when to shoot and just worry about making his opposing point guard’s life miserable for 35 minutes a game. Same goes for Iguodala, whom the Nuggets supposedly acquired for being one of the best defensive two guard in the NBA. Throw in known disruption artists like Andre Miller and Corey Brewer, and there’s no reason why the Nuggets should be in the middle of the NBA pack in steals and in the bottom third of turnovers caused like they are today. In fact, the Nuggets’ guards should cause so many turnovers per game that they need to start wearing bandannas while playing.

When it comes to defensive rebounding, the Nuggets rank 13th and worse than that, they rank first in offensive rebounds given up and fifth from the bottom in defensive rebounds given up. Those are inexcusably poor rankings for a team with a youthful and deep front line comprised of McGee, Gallo, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov. Centers are the laziest players in the NBA, so why isn’t the Nuggets’ three-headed center trio feasting on opposing centers on the glass? (I still stand by my August 3rd column titled “Do the Nuggets need a big man coach?” Instead of drive-and-dish, maybe the Nuggets should be focusing on turnover-and-run.)

The Nuggets undoubtedly need better shooters – and may even have a pair in Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier, if they ever see the light of day off of Karl’s bench. But until that happens, defense should be in full order as the Nuggets get a multitude of home practices over the next month and a half. After all, you’re either born with a shooting touch or you’re not, but good defense can be coached.

The Nuggets have the youth, the length and the talent to become an exceptional defensive team. But will Karl buck almost 50 years of Nuggets tradition and make professional basketball in Denver known more for its defense than its offense? If this team still thinks it has a conference finals run in them, it's the only pathway to get there.

On to the links …

Nuggets Karl considering reducing schedule
From the NBA's Hang Ttime blog, Scott Howard-Cooper speaks with George Karl and the coach alludes to taking on less work due to the NBA's grueling schedule.

It wasn’t always easy for Chauncey Billups, but that hasn’t stopped him from putting together one of the NBA’s best careers – Grantland
Eight teams. Five trades. Injuries. Doubt. It wasn’t always easy for Chauncey Billups. But that hasn’t stopped him from putting together one of the NBA’s best careers, writes Jonathan Abrams.

Denver Nuggets guard Andre Miller: Is veteran worthy of Hall of Fame? – The Denver Post
Adrian Dater makes the (long shot) case for Andre Miller to be inducted into Springfield.

Nuggets' Andre Iguodala at the wrong position? Flip Saunders thinks so
Former head coach Flip Saunders weighs in on Iguodala's struggles as a Nugget.

Jeremy Lin, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and the NBA’s newly eligible trade candidates – Grantland
Zach Lowe talks about some trade-able players and former Nugget Arron Afflalo’s shooting stroke.