Denver Nuggets Season Preview: Can the Nuggets take another step defensively?

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

Many factors played a role in Denver’s 54-win campaign last season. Impressive depth and bench play allowed the Nuggets to overcome significant injuries to key starters, while the young core duo of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić took another step in their development.

However, perhaps no factor played a more significant role than Denver’s improvement on the defensive end. After finishing 23rd in the league in defensive rating during the 2017-18 season, the Nuggets jumped all the way up to 10th last season. While several players continued to make strides and gain comfort in Denver’s defensive system, increased availability for Paul Millsap and Torrey Craig really helped the Nuggets cement themselves defensively.

After playing on a two-way contract in 2017-18 that limited his playing time to 629 minutes across 39 games, Craig played in 75 games last season, totaling 1,503 minutes of action. Craig’s length and versatility allows him to guard multiple positions, and he was often the best option to guard opposing wing players. In the playoffs, when head coach Michael Malone needed a boost for his team in the first round, he turned to Craig at the starting small forward spot, as he could provide effective defense against DeMar DeRozan (and later Damian Lillard in the second round).

Meanwhile, Denver’s best defender was able to play in 70 games last season, compared to 38 games the year before. Millsap may have been 33 years old last season, but he provides physicality in the post, capable movement on the perimeter and elite defensive awareness. As Millsap continues to get older, his playing time may continue to decrease. However, when he is on the floor, he is a stabilizing, floor-raising player on the defensive end.

The good news for the Nuggets is that as Millsap may receive more rest this season, his backup is another impressive defender in the form of Jerami Grant. As a result of an offseason trade, Denver added a dynamic frontcourt defender that also projects to be able to switch and guard opposing perimeter players for stretches.

Standing in at 6’9” with a 7’3” wingspan, Grant has the length and mobility to guard nearly every position on the floor. The 25-year-old forward 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.

As a result of his length and wingspan, Grant is active in the passing lanes and blocks shots around the rim in impressive fashion. Last season, the former second-round pick averaged 0.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, which is similar to Millsap, who averaged 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 said on Media Day when asked about the addition to the defense.

During training camp, Grant was eager to join teammates such as Millsap, Craig and Gary Harris on the defensive end. “The sky is the limit,” Grant told Nuggets.com when asked about the potential of the team’s defense. “We have a bunch of different and versatile pieces that can guard multiple positions and I think especially in today's NBA, that will go a long way.”

With Grant joining a Nuggets team that brings back their entire playoff rotation, there is reason to believe the team’s defense can make even more strides in the 2019-20 season. Millsap certainly believes the team has that kind of defensive potential.

“I think it's easier now. You know, going from nearly last (in the league) to 10th is hard,” the 34-year-old said on Media Day. “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. Last year was top 10, and hopefully we’ll break top five this year.”

When Denver needs a stop in the upcoming season, Malone has a plethora of quality defenders to throw on the floor. Harris, Craig, Grant and Millsap could form a switching, versatile defense that should thrive in the modern NBA. When it comes to improvement, Malone has his mind on specific aspects of the team’s 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.”

If Denver can continue to be effective in guarding the 3-point line (the Nuggets were first in the league in opponent 3-point percentage last season after finishing 28th in the league during the 2017-18 season), there could be another jump defensively throughout the upcoming campaign. Even if some of the luck runs out in that regard, Denver has the most talented group of defenders it has had in years as it looks to compete for a championship this season.

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