At 16-7, the Nuggets sit high atop the Western Conference standings, looking down at the Warriors, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Thunder and every other playoff team that qualified for the postseason ahead of them last year.
So how did Denver arrive here? Here are five numbers that explain why the Nuggets have clicked so far this season and why their hot start is no accident.
The Nuggets are only allowing 103.5 points per 100 possessions this season, good for the third-best defense in the league. A year ago, Denver gave up 109.9 points per 100 possessions and was the 23rd-ranked defense. The Nuggets have also seen their field goal percentage defense jump up from 30th overall in 2017-18 to 10th this year. But the most surprising defensive stat? The Nuggets are holding their opponent to 31 percent shooting from distance. It’s an astonishing turnaround for a team that returned 78 percent of its minutes from last season’s group that finished dead last in that category.
“That’s our identity,” Michael Malone said after a recent Nuggets win.
It’s not just Paul Millsap, who’s the best defender on the Nuggets’ roster and should be a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year honors at this juncture of the season. Everyone from Nikola Jokic to Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez has bought into the idea that Denver can only achieve its goals this season if they fully dedicate themselves on the defensive end of the floor.
Jokic didn’t move with this type of force on defense throughout his first three seasons in Denver, but this year he looks committed to rewriting the poor defensive narrative that’s followed him closely throughout his career.
Late in the fourth quarter against Portland, with Denver clinging to a one-point lead in need of a stop, the Nuggets’ defense came up big again. Denver navigated through rotation after rotation, closing out to one three-point shooter after another in a possession that spanned 26 seconds. Eventually, Hernangomez secured the biggest rebound of the night. Jokic was right in the middle of this defensive possession too.
When the Nuggets and Jokic met to go over their offseason goals after last year, they focused on three areas of improvement for the big man to work on: his mental toughness, leadership and quickness. The last factor was a priority so Denver could play a more aggressive style on defense that involved Jokic playing in space more often. He’s shown improvement in all three facets.
Jokic has been able to switch out onto smaller and quicker guards with more regularity this year. The aggressive defensive scheme has helped Denver hold the last three All-Star point guards they’ve faced — Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry — to a combined 36 points on just 13-46 (28.2 percent) from the field and 5-26 from three.