Why Defense is Becoming the Nuggets’ New Calling Card
At his core, Nuggets coach Michael Malone is a defensive guy. He grew up around defensive teams. He’s coached good defensive teams.
And he’s desperately wanted the Nuggets to be one of them.
But for the last few seasons, Malone has had to enjoy the offensive fireworks while keeping a clenched jaw at a defense constantly under construction. It could be, however, that those days are over.
His wait could be coming to an end.
The Nuggets’ three-game start on defense this season has been nothing short of spectacular.
“This is the defense I dream about,” Malone said. “Ever since I got here.”
It’s early. Super early. No one is hiding from that fact.
But this is also the most promising defensive start in the Malone era – and beyond. The last time the Nuggets’ were solid on defense for an entire season was the squad that advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2009. Those Nuggets ranked eighth defensive rating (105.6).
These Nuggets? They’ve held all of their first three opponents under 100 points in an NBA that is seeing scores rise out of control. Their defensive rating is 92.9. That’s a whopping 17 fewer points per 100 possessions from last year.
The question is: Why?
“I would say just an overall buy-in and commitment,” Malone said. “You can talk game plan and you can talk strategy but at the end of the day, for me, defense comes down to pride. Do you want to go out there and give it everything you have to defend? The second part of that is the multiple effort.
“We are flying around, whether it is deflections, contested shots, and again not always right and it’s not always going to be right, but what do you do when it’s not? Do you quit on the play? Last year, we were much more of a single effort team and the thing that stands out to me is keeping three straight opponents under 100 points means our guys care about it, they are committed to it, and the multiple effort is there.”
That’s the beginning.
In truth, this has been a four-year evolution of coverages and individual effort. The Nuggets started last season as one of the better 3-point percentage defensive teams. But they were simultaneously allowing bunches of points in the paint. When the coaching staff adjusted to better protect the rim, the entire system broke down.
They covered pick-and-roll a certain way last season, but Malone and his staff have made alterations to that this season. Nikola Jokic, in the past, was primarily instructed to ‘drop’ in screen-roll coverage to clog the lane for ball-handlers looking to get to the rim. But he felt vulnerable in that scheme as guards attacked his feet, got to him with a full head of steam and were able to finish over or around him. Jokic expressed a desire to be more aggressive at the point of attack and Malone granted the request. Jokic has responded with active hands and feet at the screen and has been very effective in pick-and-roll coverage.
The Nuggets have simplified when switches take place. They have a system in place to fix mismatches not in their favor that occur due to switches. They drilled help rotations over and over and over during training camp.
The Nuggets also drilled multiple-effort plays repeatedly, creating new, hard-working habits. That has carried over into games as well, not only in physical effort but in mindset.
This is how forward Torrey Craig described his work on defense and getting after loose basketballs.
“I just knew it was a big game and every possession is crucial,” he said. “So, if the ball was loose, I was going for it.”
Adding defensive-minded players like Craig, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee has helped. The development of younger Nuggets who needed to have experience in seeing all of the things offenses, and various offensive players, could throw at them, has helped as well.
That leads us to the defensive effort against Golden State. The Nuggets have held the Warriors to under 100 points in two of the last four meetings – and have won three of the last four.
“Obviously, to hold them to a 7-of-29 from the three-point line was terrific with the shooters that they have and then offensively,” said Malone after Monday night’s win. “I just asked our team, ‘If I were to tell you before the game that we are going to shoot 40 from the field, 18 from the three, and miss 18 free throws, what would you have said? That we would have gotten blown out.’ What I love about our team is that in LA, our opening night on the road, (and) tonight, we are not making shots; we are struggling to make free-throws but we did not let that affect our defense.”
Just as Malone would have dreamed.
“We know how much talent we have on this team,” Craig said. “And we know if we just defend, then we can pretty much outscore every team in this league.”
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org @chrisadempsey on Twitter