The Denver Nuggets’ defense has fueled another strong start to the season

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The Denver Nuggets have won at least seven of their first nine games to open a season, but it’s been their defense that has guided the team to victory throughout the opening weeks.

Yes, for the second-straight season, the Nuggets are winning as a result of their defense, not their potentially high-powered offense. In Denver’s 8-1 start to the 2018-19 season, the team’s third-ranked defense fueled the success. Now, the Nuggets still had an above-average offense during those nine games (12th in offensive rating, to be exact), which is a significant improvement on the team’s offense through the first nine games of the 2019-20 campaign.

Denver currently sits 23rd in the league in offensive rating after nine games, which is mainly a result of the team struggling from inside the arc. Overall, the Nuggets’ effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the additional value of 3-pointers) of 48.8 percent ranks 28th in the league, despite Denver’s 36.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

The Nuggets are 30th in shooting percentage at the rim (57.2 percent) and 26th in mid-range percentage (36.7 percent). Given the fact that over 70 percent of Denver’s total shot attempts come from those two areas of the court, it’s no surprise the offense is struggling to begin the season.

However, as a result of some recent clutch play from Nikola Jokić and the team’s impressive defense, Denver hasn’t struggled in the standings as a result of that slow offensive start. The Nuggets own the 5th-ranked defensive rating per Cleaning the Glass, which excludes garbage time. This is mainly a result of opponents being unable to hit shots against the Nuggets’ defense, as Denver has actually held opponents to a worse eFG% (48.1 percent) than their own this year.

“We’re 7-2 in large part because of our defense,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said Monday. “The consistency of it, (we’re) bringing it every night. I think our guys understand the importance of the defensive end and the fact that that is our identity. The offense is going to come, but defense is your anchor and if it’s there every night as it has been to start the season, you’re going to give yourself a chance to win a lot of games.”

The Nuggets are about league average in forcing turnovers and keeping opponents off the foul line, while there is actually some room for improvement on the glass. After ranking eighth in opponent offensive rebound percentage last season, the Nuggets are just 19th in that regard to begin the 2019-20 season. With an uptick in defensive rebounding, the Nuggets should continue to see success on the defensive end.

Digging deeper into the numbers, the Nuggets have continued to defend the 3-point line very well this season, which was a key question coming into the 2019-20 season. Opponents have connected on just 31 percent of their 3-pointers against Denver this season, which is the fourth-lowest percentage in the league.

Furthermore, the Nuggets have been the best team in defending the mid-range, as opponents have shot 31.2 percent from that part of the floor, the lowest percentage in the league. This cold shooting has helped cover up for Denver’s 20th-ranked defense in defending the rim, where opponents have shot 63.8 percent this season.

Looking at the lineup numbers provides a glimpse into which groups have been fueling this defensive start. The Nuggets’ starting lineup with Will Barton III has been excellent on the defensive end this season, posting a defensive rating of 89.2 in the 144 minutes of action it has seen this year, which ranks second in the entire league among lineups that have played at least 100 minutes this season.

While several players have contributed to this strong defensive start, Gary Harris’ play on the perimeter must be recognized. Despite matching up with some of the elite offensive guards and wings in the league, Harris has continuously held his ground. No, Harris doesn’t guard his position every single possession down the floor, nor does he contest every missed shot in the box score.

However, Harris has held stars in check when he has matched up against them, from Luka Doncic (0-of-4 from the field) and Devin Booker (1-of-4) to Damian Lillard (2-of-7) and Jrue Holiday (1-of-4). Harris also held Andrew Wiggins and Tobias Harris to a combined 1-of-9 shooting from the field this season.

While opponents will shoot better from mid-range and beyond as the season progresses, the Nuggets once again look like a top-10 team on the defensive end of the floor. With Harris leading the charge on the perimeter while bigs such as Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant provide support in the frontcourt, the Nuggets’ defense continues to look like the real deal.


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