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SAN DIEGO — For a team to find success on the defensive end of the floor, all five players must be connected at the hip. One chink in a team’s defensive chain and your opponent is gifted an uncontested layup. One miscommunication on a switch and you surrender a wide-open corner three.
Defense is a team game. But there are not many individuals who can impact a team’s overall defensive performance and ceiling more than Paul Millsap.
Take last season for example. After 15 games, the Nuggets were 9-6, had the 18th-best defense in the league and on average, surrendered 104.7 points per 100 possessions. Then came a fateful Los Angeles night where Millsap went down with a left wrist injury that required surgery and forced the 33-year-old to miss Denver’s next 44 games. Including Nov. 19, the night when Millsap got injured and only played 13 minutes, the Nuggets fielded the 27th-ranked defense in the league and gave up 109.3 points per 100 possessions over the next 45 games.
Millsap came into training camp focused and determined to put last season’s disappointment behind him. He also arrived in San Diego in great shape and with a lofty goal of his own when it comes to how good he thinks the Nuggets can be on the defensive end of the floor.
“I’ve always aimed high. I’m always looking to crack the top five in defense,” Millsap said. “I’ve been a part of some really good defensive teams. I would say it is hard to do, but it’s really not. You get guys locked in, on the same page, staying disciplined throughout the course of the year, you know. You can be a top-five defensive team. That’s my goal, personally. I’m not sure what coach wants to do. Personally, I want this team in the top five.”
Millsap’s claim would fall on deaf ears if it didn’t come from someone with his defensive credentials. Millsap only has one second-team all-defense selection to his name but was the best defensive player on the Hawks from 2013-17. Over those four seasons, Atlanta ranked 14th, seventh, second and fourth respectively on defense.
“It starts with defense, and it ends with defense,” Millsap said. “We know what our offense is capable of.”
For Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who’s wanted to instill a defensive-first culture in Denver since he was hired in 2015, this season represents a significant chance for him to achieve that goal.
The Nuggets have the roster clarity entering training camp this season that they didn’t a year ago. Denver has a settled starting lineup, and Malone held his annual team dinner the night before training camp tipped off Tuesday morning with a clear sense of what his rotation will look like when the Nuggets open their preseason slate Sunday versus the Lakers.
Denver also returns eight of its top 10 rotation players from a year ago in Millsap, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Nikola Jokic, Trey Lyles, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig, along with reserves Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, who could both factor into Malone’s rotation at some point this season.
With that sense of continuity, the Nuggets don’t have to install an entirely new defensive scheme prior to their regular season opener Oct. 17. Instead, Malone is hoping that small tweaks to how Denver defends the pick-and-roll and in transition, along with how the Nuggets close out to their opponent on the perimeter, will result in better three-point defense, which the Nuggets finished dead-last in a year ago. Malone called the statistic a “glaring red mark” against his group this week.
The Nuggets want to give up fewer threes, layups and dunks. If Denver is going to get beat, Malone wants it to be via contested midrange twos.
“It’s a little bit of a change for us,” Malone said. “But I think our guys understand the importance of being much better defending the three-point line.”
Malone thinks the Nuggets can surprise the rest of the league on defense this season. At training camp this week, he’s hoping Denver can develop good habits and mesh together to form an above-average defense.
Millsap has his sights set a bit higher.
“Our main focus is giving extra effort, multiple efforts,” Millsap said. “I believe that with the team that we have, if we get around and scramble and get guys off the line, rebound and run, I think we can be top teams to do it.