As Russell Westbrook made what is possibly the shot of the year against the Denver Nuggets to eliminate them from postseason contention, the one thought that continued to cross my mind was this: how many times have we seen this before?

Not the fact that the Nuggets collapsed down the stretch, or that Westbrook had “done it again,” but that it seemed like every team’s opposing player had a field day against the Nuggets. I went back through every single boxscore of these past 80 games to determine if this was true, and it is in fact completely and utterly true.

  • Number of games allowing 30+ points to the opposing star player: 26.
  • Number of games allowing a double-double to the opposition’s star: 22.
  • Number of games allowing a triple-double to the opposition’s star: 5.
  • Number of triple-doubles allowed out of three games against Westbrook: 3.
  • Number of times allowing the opposition’s star to shoot 50 percent from the field: 45.

I can go on and on. The number of times the Nuggets allowed a player like Westbrook or James Harden or Anthony Davis, or even Gordon Hayward, is astronomical. The Nuggets have allowed the opposing star to accumulate at least 24 points in half of the games played this season, the ultimate sign of defensive futility. Only 14 players are averaging 24 points per game throughout the season. Against the Nuggets?

Here are the top 10 on the points per game leaderboard in the NBA compared to how they performed against Denver.

Player Points per game Points per game vs the Nuggets Difference
Russell Westbrook 31.9 39.3 +7.4
James Harden 29.3 32.5 +3.2
Isaiah Thomas 29.2 25.5 -3.7
Anthony Davis 28.0 36.8 +8.8
DeMar Derozan 27.0 31.5 +4.5
Damian Lillard 27.0 32.0 +5.0
DeMarcus Cousins 27.0 30.5 +3.5
LeBron James 26.4 22.5 -3.9
Kawhi Leonard 25.8 25.7 -0.1
Stephen Curry 25.3 22.0 -3.3

Overall, the Nuggets are terrible against the top scorers in the NBA. They can thank a spirited effort from Gary Harris in his games against Stephen Curry and Isaiah Thomas for their subpar showings. They can also thank LeBron James for simply not caring enough about the Nuggets on the road to really try in one of his two contests. Kawhi Leonard’s lack of change relates more to the San Antonio Spurs blowing out the Nuggets rather than Denver doing anything major to slow him down.

The other six players? Major improvement.

This, in my opinion, is why the Nuggets are a stepping stone for the rest of the league defensively. The team has no answers for the first option opposing teams utilize to score a large chunk of its points. With very few players that possess the athleticism, defensive skill, or “give a damn” factor on the less glamorous end, it’s easy to see why stars look at a matchup against the Nuggets and breathe a sigh of relief.

The principles of defense focus on forcing the offense out of its comfort zone. Contesting shots closely, pressuring the opposition constantly, being physical, and being smart are all important components in the engine of team defense. When only a few of the players possess some of those traits, and only one possesses all of them to some degree (Harris), it’s very difficult to neutralize the opposition.

Here are the per game averages for the opposition’s first option throughout the season, ranging from Westbrook and Harden to players like Jordan Clarkson and Buddy Hield.

Points Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks Field Goal % 3 point % FT Attempts
24.3 6.5 4.9 1.2 0.8 49.7 36.1 6.2

To put that in perspective, in the history of basketball, only eight players have matched that number of points, rebounds, and assists per game on such incredible efficiency:

  • Michael Jordan
  • LeBron James
  • Alex English
  • Kevin Durant
  • Clyde Drexler
  • Larry Bird
  • Charles Barkley
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Adding in the shooting from behind the three point line, and English, Drexler, Barkley, and Abdul-Jabbar are cut off the list.

  • MJ
  • King James
  • KD
  • Larry Legend

That could be the list of the greatest four scorers of all-time after James and Durant finish their careers…I hope the point is well taken.

With the Nuggets, it’s hard to mask some of their deficiencies long term. The majority of players, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Emmanuel Mudiay among them, have taken a step in the wrong direction in terms of defensive development. The veterans have done their best, and at times they have not done their best, leading to some slow rotations or none at all. The coaching staff should also shoulder some blame, as largely the same cast of characters has regressed under their watch.

This also calls into question the game plan Denver is using every night, as well as the team’s level of desire to be good. Why are the Nuggets repeatedly burned by the most important offensive player on the opposing team? Why is there no pride in trying to shut down the opposing team? It comes down to the “give a damn” factor so many great defenders have, that so many defenders take pride in, knowing they shut down the man across from them. No coach can scheme around that, especially when so many players act that way.

Whatever the case may be, the Nuggets will have a lot of work to do this offseason. If they cannot defend with the current cast of characters, improvement will be marginal until they find players that can.

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