As optimism swirled throughout Pepsi Center during Nuggets Media Day, head coach Michael Malone and several players were focused on how the team can improve on the court.
Denver enters the 2019-20 season with higher expectations after a 54-win campaign that saw them make it to the Western Conference semifinals. For a team that finished seventh in offense and 10th on the defensive end, the focus is now on ironing out a few kinks in order to become a true championship contender.
Defense still wins championships…?
After finishing the 2017-18 season with the 23rd-ranked defense, Denver progressed on that end of the floor last year. With Paul Millsap playing in 70 games and several young players making strides defensively, the Nuggets were able to climb all the way up to No. 10 in the league. A big reason for this improvement? Denver held opponents to 34.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc, best in the league. During the 2017-18 campaign, that number was 38.1 percent, ranking 28th in the NBA.
After that improvement, Malone is focused on shoring up other key areas of the defense. “You know, there were two things that jumped out from our defense (last season),” Malone said at his Media Day press conference. “We were 15th in the NBA in paint points allowed, and we want to be top 10 in that area. Then when it comes to (opponent) field-goal percentage, I believe we were 15th in the NBA there as well. Those are numbers we want to improve on that side of the floor.”
With these goals in mind, the addition of Jerami Grant to the frontcourt makes even more sense, given his unique shot-blocking abilities and defensive versatility. Standing in at 6’9” with a 7’3” wingspan, the 25-year-old forward has the length and mobility to guard nearly every position on the floor. Grant posted strong defensive metrics last season (+0.9 defensive box plus-minus and +0.86 defensive real plus-minus), while Oklahoma City’s defense improved by 1.6 points per 100 possessions when Grant was on the floor.
The former second-round pick’s length and wingspan allow him to be active in the passing lanes and block shots around the rim. Last season, he averaged 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Those numbers are similar to Millsap’s 1.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game.
“The versatility, the shot blocking, that guy (Grant) is one of the quicker jumpers that I've seen,” Malone added when asked about Grant’s addition.
Grant understands the value that he can provide to a team’s defense and welcomes the opportunity to join a defensive unit that is on the rise. “Yeah, I would say defense is the strength of my game,” Grant said at Media Day. “I think that was the reason why I got into the league and now I’ve been trying to expand my game from that. I definitely think to be a great team you need to have a great defense.”
As Millsap prepares for this third season in Denver, he understands there is still room to grow for this Nuggets team. “We're definitely you know, a top 10 defense,” the 14-year veteran said on Monday. “We know that we just established that last season and we want to be a really good defensive team again this season.”
When asked about the difficulty of improving on a top-10 defense, Millsap revealed that he believes it may be easier than improving the defense from their No. 23 spot in the previous season. “I think it's easier now. You know, going from nearly last (in the league) to 10th is hard. It started as a mentality change. It's a mindset shift. And we overcame that. And, you know, we feel that we're a good defensive team. As long as we feel like we're a good defensive team, we're good out there and we’ll play defense to the best we can.”
When asked about rookie Michael Porter Jr.’s potential role in the upcoming season, Malone was sure to point out that while his offense may generate attention, Porter Jr. will have to “understand that, you know, we're a team that prides itself on defense first and foremost.”
With Grant joining a team that returns the entirety of its playoff rotation to play another year in Malone’s defensive system, players and coaches alike want to make another jump on that end of the floor in the 2019-20 season.
More 3-pointers to fuel the offense
The Nuggets have had an elite offense the past three seasons. Denver has finished seventh, sixth and fourth in each of the past three seasons respectively. With Nikola Jokić leading the way, Denver is poised to continue enjoying offensive success.
However, there is always room to grow and diversify, especially as the Nuggets look to take their game to another level in hopes of competition for a championship. For Malone, that starts with increased 3-point shooting.
“We want to generate more quality looks from the 3-point line,” Malone said Monday. “We took around 32 threes a game last year and I’d like to take that up to 36, 37 attempts per game while making sure they are still quality threes. Our 3-point shooting took a big step back last year. Two years ago, we were at 37.1 percent. This past year, we dropped down to 35.1 percent. And the way the league is going, we want to be a lot more efficient from the 3-point line.”
Denver’s 31.4 attempts per game ranked 16th in the league last season. An increase to 36 or 37 attempts per game would place the Nuggets in the top five of the league based on last season’s numbers. While shooting more threes may help the offense space the floor even more for Jokić and the guards on the floor, an improvement in 3-point percentage would be even more valuable. As Malone mentioned, Denver’s shooting fell off in significant fashion last season, as injuries plagued key players such as Will Barton and Gary Harris.
Denver’s 35.1 percent last season placed them 17th in the league, which was a sharp drop from their 37.1 percent during the 2017-18 season, which ranked seventh in the league. If Denver can increase the number of 3-point attempts while also knocking them down at a higher clip, the offense is poised to jump back into the top five this upcoming season.
Given the team’s emphasis on sharpening the defense, the Nuggets are prepared to work on the areas of their game that will lead to even more success in the upcoming season.