At training camp, the Nuggets set a lofty goal of finishing this season as a top-5 defense. It was an ambitious mark to shoot for but one you could talk yourself into after looking at the roster that general manager Calvin Booth had assembled. He acquired Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He signed Bruce Brown. He drafted Christian Braun. The Nuggets have never had more individual defensive talent around Nikola Jokic than they have this season.
It’s not just that the Nuggets have been bad defensively through 23 games. They’ve somehow been significantly worse than they were last season. After giving 117 points on Friday to the Hawks, who were without Trae Young, and 121 points Sunday to the Pelicans, who were without Brandon Ingram, the Nuggets rank 26th in the league in defense. The only teams that they’re defending better than this season are the Magic, Rockets, Pistons and Spurs. Those four teams are all trying to lose this year.
The Nuggets’ 19 turnovers in New Orleans didn’t help their defense either. The Pelicans turned many of those opportunities into points. But some of the same breakdowns that we’ve seen all year — both in the half-court and in transition — were again on display.
This was pathetic transition defense.
The sea parted for Trey Murphy III on both of these uncontested slams late in the third quarter. Every Nugget who wasn’t guarding Murphy basically stood and watched.
More disconnected transition defense.
You’d think that the Nuggets would have made a point to stay connected to Jose Alvarado after he went 5-7 from 3 to open the game. Ish Smith, who I believe was in the game here partly for his defense and to match up with Alvarado, somehow lost him ahead of his sixth 3 of the night. Alvarado ended up going 8-11 from 3-point range. He went off for a career-high 38 points.
Based on the defense the Nuggets have played this season, you can’t consider this team a championship contender. Right now, Denver isn’t close to good enough defensively to make a lengthy playoff run. Nikola Jokic hasn’t been good enough on defense. Jamal Murray has struggled too, which shouldn’t be a surprise with him coming off the ACL injury. The bench hasn’t been able to string together defensive stops all year.
Maybe all of that will change. Perhaps the Nuggets decide to get serious on the defensive end of the floor and completely turn this around. Anything is technically possible.
But Denver has already played more than a quarter of its regular season schedule. Typically, teams are who they are by this point in the calendar, or at least close to it. With each game that passes, it becomes more and more difficult to talk yourself into this eventually being the defense that many within the Nuggets envisioned prior to the season. Personally, I’m panicking about this defense at this point. After Sunday’s loss, Michael Malone said he isn’t.
“I mean, we’re 14-9, we’re not going to panic,” Malone said. I’m not in the business of panicking and making wholesale changes after two tough losses. We’ll look at the film and see what the best options are moving forward.”
Malone also said there’s hope that Jeff Green returns to the lineup Tuesday vs. Dallas. I’d predict that he’ll immediately go back into the rotation and be a part of whatever Denver’s go-to bench lineup turns out to be.
Playing Green, or inserting Braun back into the rotation — it remains a mystery why he’s buried on the bench — or Zeke Nnaji isn’t going to magically get this defense on track. It could help, but it’s not a cure-all. It feels like the Nuggets’ defensive problems run deeper. It feels like Malone’s messaging isn’t resonating with his players. The Nuggets take no pride in their defense. There’s not the level of discipline or focus on defense that’s required to win a championship. This team just isn’t connected defensively like they should be.
Malone and his staff have to figure out why that’s the case and ask themselves, ‘How are we the 26th-ranked defense in the NBA with this talented of a roster?’
The Nuggets are scheduled to practice Monday, the morning after a two-game road trip. That’s very rare. Denver usually always gets the day off following a road trip of any length. I’m sure the practice will be defensively focused and include lots of film. The Nuggets also still have to figure out and fix their unreliable second unit, again. “That unit has struggled most of the year, and I take responsibility for that,” Malone said Sunday.
Even though the Nuggets are 14-9 and tied for the third-best record in the West with a home-heavy rest of December and January on tap, Denver’s lack of defense puts a ceiling on this team.
The Nuggets won’t be championship contenders until that changes.