DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 9: Paul Millsap #4 of the Denver Nuggets plays defense against the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 9, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Analysis: How the Nuggets Defense is Evolving for the Better

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

This is, at the same time, an exercise in patience and impatience. Overhauling things on defense and seeing improvement isn’t easy. And it isn’t a swift process. Yet, the Nuggets’ extreme makeover on the defensive end this season has already paid some encouraging early dividends.

Through 14 games, going into Thursday night’s contests, the Nuggets rank 16th in the league in defensive rating, at 104.4. The rating itself is a vast improvement from last year’s 110.5, which put the Nuggets next-to-last in the NBA.

“Prior to training camp opening up in Boulder we had a team meeting,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “And we talked about the importance of our defense improving. Listen, we’re not the Bad Boys from Detroit right now, but we’re definitely improved from where we were last year.”

He paused for a second.

“And why is that?” he said. “Yes, we’ve made some changes in our coverages, we’ve tried to simplify things, we’ve tried to become a little more aggressive. But the most important factor while we’re a little bit improved is because guys like Nikola (Jokić), guys like Will (Barton) and guys like Jamal (Murray) have really committed and bought in to playing on that end of the floor; accepting the challenge. To be a better defensive team, guys have to want to defend, guys have to commit to that. And I think we’re seeing that.”

Individually, Nuggets players are playing much harder on defense. And while game-to-game they generally pass the eye test of extra energy on that end, the NBA can quantify it. They call them “hustle stats,” and the Nuggets are all over them early on.

Going into Thursday night, Gary Harris was tied for sixth in the NBA’s top 10 in deflections per game at 3.1, and 16th in total deflections with 37.

Newcomer Paul Millsap is 25th in total deflections with 33 and Jamal Murray is 28th with 32. Jokic isn’t far behind at 31, neither is Barton, at 29. No team has more players in the top 50 in deflections than the Nuggets, with five.

“I just like how aggressive we are,” said Harris, who is also in the top 35 in loose balls recovered per game (1.1). “It’s been a noticeable difference this year at the beginning of the season. …It starts individually. We play defense as a team, but individually we’ve got to have the pride and try to do everything we can to stop our man from scoring. Take the one-on-one battle to heart, and then focus that into the team concept and just continue to play together.”

Harris has always embodied the spirit of taking the one-on-one challenge each night, and now he’s been joined in earnest by Barton. Barton has been so good defensively, Malone has put him on the opponents’ highest-scoring wing player several times this season. Barton was a big part of the defensive effort on Oklahoma City’s Paul George on Nov. 9. George was held to 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting that night. For perspective, after that game in which Barton defended George, the All-Star forward scored 79 points in his next two games.

Barton said his goal is to be a bonafide two-way player.

“He’s willing to do anything,” Millsap said. “Play defense; he told me early in the season he wanted to be a two-way player and he’s fulfilling that role. He’s coming in, not just offensively but defensively getting after it and causing problems for the offense on that end.”

Extra aggressiveness has been contagious. As a team, Nuggets are tied for third in the league in deflections per game (15.1) and are third in contested shots per game, at 63.9. They are sixth in contested 3-point shots per game (23.4), and that number is up from a year ago (21.0), even as Malone sometimes laments his team’s 3-point percentage defense and says the team’s know your personnel (KYP) quotient is “below average.”

Nuggets are in the upper half of the league in steals (8.4). That number is up 1.5 from last season (6.9). And few things illustrate more that the Nuggets are flying around on defense more than their distance miles traveled per game, which is up from 16.59 last season to 17.03 this season.

Pick-and-roll improvement: No action is run more in the NBA than pick-and-roll. Covering it effectively can be the difference between a victory or a loss every night. This season, the Nuggets are simply guarding pick-and-roll situations much better, and the numbers bear it out.

They are allowing .830 points per possession in guarding the ball handler this year as opposed to .896 last season, which was one of the worst marks in the league. Similarly, the Nuggets are allowing just .982 points per possession to the roll man in pick-and-roll situations – which, going into Thursday night’s games was fifth-best in the NBA – as opposed to last season’s 1.075.

Of all of the players that have made strides on the defensive end, particularly in pick-and-roll coverage, Nikola Jokić’s improvement is beginning to stand out. As Darrell Arthur explains, it starts with Jokić’s increased effort, but the coaching staff has also helped with a scheme change.

“We put him in a great spot to be better defensively,” Arthur said. “We put him more up in the pick-and-rolls, we switch a lot more with him. He’s not the highest jumper; he’s smart with his body, he uses his length.

“Playing up in the pick-and-roll just helps him to get back to his man a lot faster. Last year we had him down the floor a lot and guards were just attacking him, making him help and then throwing it to the big. So, I think defensively, especially with Paul out there, is helping out a whole lot.”

Oddly enough, the scheme change in how he covers pick-and-rolls has resulted in a jump in the amount of times Jokić has had to sprint out to guard spot-up shooters. Jokić defended those actions 12.6 percent of the time last season, according to Synergy stats. But this year that is up to 15.4 percent.

He’s been put in a ton of closeout situations to start the season because chasing the ball and jumping back to his man has meant getting back to shooting bigs. In a game against Miami, the Heat went so far as to put a lineup on the court so small that Jokić found himself guarding 6-foot-7 forward Justise Winslow. And he’s rising to the equation, effort-wise.

Jokić is being forced to guard post-ups much more this season – 15.4 percent of the time, which is up nearly a full six percent from last season (9.6).

But this is about Jokić’s increased activity on the defensive end. The NBA tracks average speed per game on both offense and defense, and Jokić gets around the defensive side of the ball at 3.70 miles per hour, which is up from 3.64 last season. And before you think the difference is negligible, think again. That extra tenth could be the difference between getting a block or not or getting a good hand up to contest the shot or not.

Playing up in screen-rolls more is getting Jokić in the action more, and he’s got quick hands. He’s getting more hands on the ball this season. His deflections are up. His steal rate per 100 possessions has increased from 1.4 last season to 2.4 this season.

Jokić’s improvement is part of a Nuggets team that continues to build on that end.

“I think for the most part, the defense has been pretty solid,” Millsap said. “There are a lot of things we can get better at – guys not getting open drives to the basket, having the help side – to where it’s second nature. It’s got to be second nature for us. We’re still getting better at it, guys are still getting used to rotations. But over time I think we’ll get better at it and it will be second nature for us.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.