After entering the season with the goal of fielding a top-5 defense, the Nuggets have a bottom-5 defense at the 23-game mark. Only the Magic, Rockets, Pistons and Spurs — four tanking teams — have been worse. It’s been both ugly and alarming considering the defensive talent on this roster. So how does Denver fix its defense? Is there even a fix? And how do the Nuggets jumpstart their underperforming second unit? DNVR Nuggets discusses.
How do the Nuggets fix their defense?
Adam Mares: Unfortunately, I think the biggest fix is to care about defense. And that doesn’t bode well for the Nuggets. Great teams score easily and great teams defend easily. The Nuggets can score even when their offense isn’t firing on all cylinders. But their defense can’t. And I’m not sure there is a regular season fix for that.
Harrison Wind: I thought Jeff Green put it well at shootaround Tuesday morning. There has to be “buy-in” from everybody. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Denver’s starters have to buy in. The bench has to buy in. Everybody just has to care more. That’s the first step. Teams are way too comfortable against the Nuggets. Teams don’t fear Denver’s defense. Playing harder and caring more on that end of the floor helps. Then, you can make the strategic and personnel adjustments to level up the defense more.
Is there a solution out there to jumpstart Denver’s underperforming bench?
Mares: Michael Malone has to find the right combination of talent, and not necessarily the five most deserving players. The difficulty is where do you start? Who is the singular talent that you say must be on the floor? For me, that would be Bones Hyland. But I’m not sure Malone agrees. If you start with Bones, I think you need to give him Bruce Brown and Christian Braun for help guarding the perimeter, Vlatko Cancar for additional playmaking, and either Zeke Nnaji, DeAndre Jordan, or Jeff Green depending on the matchup. Vlatko can guard centers alongside Nnaji in small ball lineups. Jordan can guard teams with traditional, large backup centers. And Green can be swapped for Nnaji when the team needs more all around play.
Wind: I sensed that Denver’s bench was trending in the right direction with Michael Porter Jr. staggering with the second unit, but he hasn’t played in six games and is out again tonight. It doesn’t feel like he’s necessarily on the cusp of a return either. I think Porter + Bones Hyland + Christian Braun is the correct foundation. But right now with Porter out (and even when he returns) I think Denver has the personnel to mix and match based on the matchup. If you need defense, Zeke Nnaji can provide that. He defended Luka Doncic well in space the last time Denver and Dallas played, so I wonder if we see him tonight. If the Nuggets are going against a bigger backup center that needs to be kept off the glass, DeAndre Jordan can play. Ish Smith can provide an offensive burst against certain matchups too. If you’re trying to push the pace and get up and down, Vlatko Cancar can do that. I don’t think the bench unit has to be set in stone, other than Hyland and Braun. Also, the Nuggets have to get Hyland going and back to the level he was playing at to close last season. Illnesses — COVID and non-COVID — haven’t helped him get into a rhythm.
What Nuggets players are you buying stock in right now?
Mares: Bones Hyland. The rookie hasn’t had a great season so far in large part because of how fragmented the year has been for him. The second unit has also been a rotating cast of characters that I don’t think have always suited his skill set. But there are some really high highs sprinkled in there. At the end of the day, he’s still a 43% volume 3-point shooter with an elite handle. If he can stay healthy for the month of December, I think he is going to have a breakout month.
Wind: Christian Braun. You’d think that Braun has to play tonight vs. Dallas and you’d think that he has to be back in the rotation permanently with how awful Denver has played on defense without him. He’s the exact type of player that can help the Nuggets get back on track defensively. He plays hard. He cares about defense. He flies around the court. He can inject energy into a defense the second he steps on the floor. It seems so obvious that he should be playing right now, but he hasn’t. We’ll see if that changes tonight. Hopefully, it does, and Braun can continue the upward trajectory he was on a couple of weeks ago.
Who are you selling?
Mares: Bruce Brown. It’s not right to say that I am selling him because I remain extremely high on him. I think he is an excellent weapon in the Nuggets’ arsenal that can fit alongside a wide variety of lineups. But I’m not sure that he is a shoe-in to be part of the team’s best closing lineup just yet. He lacks the size required to defend most small forwards and taller guards, as we saw against Dejounte Murray.
Wind: DeAndre Jordan. He’s been better than I expected and has rebounded well. The Nuggets also have a 109.4 Defensive Rating when he’s on the court. That’s the second-best mark on the Nuggets behind Ish Smith. But, I’m not buying that number going forward. He’s been great (and the bench has looked great) in some of Denver’s blowout wins. Jordan’s two best +/- games both came against the Rockets (+14 and +11). Denver needs to see what Zeke Nnaji has ASAP, or find a center that’s not currently on the roster to bring in.
What’s the Nuggets’ record over their next 12 games (through the end of December)?
Mares: 7-5. It’s a home-heavy stretch but the Nuggets aren’t exactly playing great right now, they haven’t shown the ability to get stops against good teams, and they still have to reintegrate Bones Hyland and Michael Porter Jr. I think they play well enough for no one to panic but not quite at the level that will demonstrate their championship upside.
Wind: 8-4. The Nuggets’ vibes are down, but this is where they usually surprise us. Is anyone on the Nuggets (I’m talking players, not coaches) overall concerned about those two losses and where the team is at? No. The Nuggets think they’re fine, which they probably are. The defense has been awful, and it’s very concerning that it seems to be getting even worse by the game. The second unit is in disarray. Still, it’s early, and players will remind you of that. No one’s panicking or coming close to panicking. Returning home will help. Denver plays eight of its next 12 at Ball Arena. I think they’ll get back on track.