This week’s edition of Stat of the Week will focus on a curious tidbit regarding the Denver Nuggets defense: the Nuggets haven been at their best defensively after the offense struggles.

According to Inpredictable’s possession tracking data, there are three primary scenarios in which a team defends the opposition from game-to-game:

  • Dead ball possessions after the offense scores or turns the ball over by throwing it out of bounds or committing an offensive foul
  • An offensive miss and rebound by the opposing team
  • A live ball turnover

Using this possession tracking, Inpredictable has measured the average time spent in a given possession type from team to team, as well as the points per possession on both sides of the ball. Denver’s defensive numbers are fascinating and give way to a new level of focus when things go wrong.

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The Nuggets are defending possessions just over one second per possession less than last year. Given the increase in pace of play across the league, this isn’t entirely surprising. What is truly remarkable thus far: the Nuggets have gone from 26th in the NBA to 4th in points per possession yielded. Last season’s bottom five defense turned into a top five defense in the early stages of this season. It’s still early in the year, but even if Denver fell to league average, the improvement remains staggering.

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Adding to the intrigue of Denver’s defensive improvement is their surprising consistency after made baskets. Again, possession time is down roughly five percent from 17.4 to 16.5 seconds, but the points per possession is remarkably similar for a team that has made such massive improvement overall.

Points per possession after a made shot (or a dead ball turnover) is the best representation of a team’s half court defense. By cutting out transition opportunities, it’s easy to see that the Nuggets remain slightly below average defensively as a half court unit. This, perhaps, is the biggest reason why I expect the Nuggets to eventually drop out of the top 10 defensively.

Here are the top 10 teams in points per possession allowed after made baskets in 2017-18 next to their defensive rating:

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Generally, teams that perform well after made baskets possess the foundation for strong overall defense. The Utah Jazz were leaders in each category. The Detroit Pistons, New Orleans Pelicans, and Indiana Pacers were buoyed by their defense after made baskets, particularly because it allowed their rim protectors (Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Myles Turner) to set up and see the floor.

This is why the Nuggets defense could be in trouble, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. The largest negative difference between half court defense rank and total defense rank in 2017-18 came from Toronto Raptors, who ranked 14th in half court defense and 5th in overall defense. This was due to exceptional coverage after live ball rebounds and turnovers. The 2018-19 Nuggets have checked both of those boxes thus far.

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The Nuggets have averaged just 9.3 seconds per possession following a defensive rebound by the opposition. The next closest team, San Antonio, averages 10.1 seconds, meaning Denver is defending these possessions at an outlier pace. In addition, the Nuggets have defended efficiently, allowing just 0.93 points per possession, good for second lowest in the NBA (Boston is lowest at 0.92).

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Denver’s biggest weakness defensively last season was defending after live ball turnovers. After these turnovers, defensive focus must be at its highest in order to mitigate opportunities for the opposition. Thus far, the Nuggets have thrived here. Too often, Denver would only return two or three players in transition consistently. Sometimes, Nikola Jokic wouldn’t even come across half court. Thus far, the Nuggets have excelled at limiting the opposition’s time of possession on these plays by forcing tougher shots.

Denver is playing a philosophical brand of defense to become one of the best in the NBA with limited personnel. In general, Denver spending more time holding the basketball is better for winning because it allows more scoring chances in a game for the Nuggets than for their opponents. The league’s pace has quickened to the point where most teams are playing faster and faster. The Nuggets are using this to their advantage, goading the opposition into taking moderately contested shots while making defensive plays to limit the opposition’s total time of possession by grabbing every defensive rebound and generating frequent turnovers.

Offensively, the Nuggets average 14.4 seconds per possession, good for 19th in average time spent. The Atlanta Hawks are first and average just 12.5 seconds. They are running hard offensively, but this is to compensate for the offense being so inefficient that they need as many possessions as possible to score. The Nuggets are going the other direction. They are trying to maximize their possessions offensively (19th in time per possession in 2018-19, 6th in 2017-18), even though they average fewer possessions per game than most NBA teams, and focusing on limiting the total number of possessions their opponent can use to score. This comes from limiting an opponent’s average time of possession (3rd fastest defensive possessions in the NBA) even though the total number of possessions is similar (12th in pace in 2018-19, 15th in 2017-18).

The Nuggets are playing at a more methodical pace after defensive rebounds than before, and this method to Michael Malone’s madness has helped the defense focus. The floor becomes more balanced this way, and it puts Denver’s players in better position to react to opposing teams and guard them in transition.

Even more than that though, the Nuggets have hustled back defensively and contested shots when the offense hasn’t been at its best. More often than not, Denver would operate in a lackadaisical manner after possessions didn’t work offensively. The per possession data above backs that up, especially after turnovers. More than anything else the Nuggets could be scheming for mathematically or stylistically, the Nuggets are trying to make things work more frequently. Jokic is at the forefront of this momentum shift, but Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap especially deserve credit for maintaining this focus.

Denver is clearly tired of losing, and their defensive effort speaks to that. It shouldn’t be an expectation for Denver to maintain a top five defense for the entire season, and the half court data bears out how unlikely it is for Denver to stay in the top five. Despite that, there’s a path for Denver to finish in the top half of the league or even in the top 10 defensively as long as they maintain this focus. If Denver can continue generating steals and rebounding defensively at a high level while at least trying to contest shots consistently, there’s no reason for Denver to finish anywhere other than top 15 in the NBA in defensive efficiency.

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