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What's real and what's fake about the Nuggets through eight games

Harrison Wind Avatar
November 3, 2018

Paul Millsap is a man of his word. Five weeks after the veteran raised a few eyebrows by proclaiming he had top-five aspirations for the Nuggets’ defense, the 12-year veteran has followed through. After two weeks of regular season play, the Nuggets are the fourth-best defense in the league.

“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,” Millsap said. “That’s my goal, personally. I’m not sure what coach wants to do. Personally, I want this team in the top five.”

The Nuggets weren’t in the top five, let alone league average in any of Michael Malone’s first three years in Denver. Missed rotations, blown assignments and a lack of effort on the defensive end of the floor gave the Nuggets’ coach nightmares. Bad dreams turned into reality when Denver missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.

But the Nuggets have come out of the gates playing more aggressive on the defensive end of the floor than ever before, and they’re seeing positive results. Nikola Jokic is playing higher up the court — where he’s most comfortable — when guarding pick-and-rolls than he did last season. He’s also been able to plant his 7-foot frame in passing lanes and deflect errant passes into his teammates’ hands. Jokic is averaging a career-high 1.3 steals this season, and his 2.0 deflections per game is fifth among centers. Jokic looks quicker too.

Denver had Jokic prioritize improving his foot speed this summer so he could hang with smaller guards when the Nuggets switch. Watch Jokic’s happy feet as he contains George Hill off the dribble. He’s also done a good job of staying low and in a stance this season, whereas last year he mostly played upright.

Gary Harris looks like a more committed on-ball defender so far this season and is flying around on the backside of Denver’s defense, covering ground like a free safety who’s reading the quarterback and then arriving at a receiver at the same time as the ball. Harris was a heralded football player in high school who could have had his pick of colleges to play for had he not chosen basketball. He’ll go to his grave saying he was better on the gridiron than the hardwood. His instincts show on plays like this.

At the fulcrum of the Nuggets’ defense is Millsap, who’s one of the premier help-side defenders in the league. If one of his teammates falls asleep on the perimeter, Millsap is there to clean up his mistake. If Jokic needs another second or two to get back into position after hedging a pick-and-roll, Millsap can bump and stall his man for a split-second, allowing the Nuggets’ center to get back to the paint.

Denver is giving up 7.6 points per 100 possessions less when he’s on the floor, a mark that’s among the best in the NBA when compared to the league’s top defensive player of the year candidates.

So how sustainable is this defense? Will the Nuggets return to their high-scoring ways? Have they have kicked their habit of playing down to the competition? Let’s get into it.

The Nuggets’ improved defense – 100% real

Some regression is likely coming for Denver’s fourth-ranked defense, but the Nuggets’ early defensive success isn’t just luck. There’s real improvement across the board.

Denver’s aggressive scheme is resulting in more steals. The Nuggets are averaging 9.5 steals per 100 possessions this year, up from 7.7 last season. Opponents are shooting 34.9 percent from three this season, a stark improvement from the 37.8 percent teams shot from three against Denver last year, good for the worst mark in the league. The Nuggets are protecting the rim better too. Opponents are shooting 61.2 percent in the restricted area this season compared to 64.6 percent a year ago.

Most of all there’s a commitment and buy-in on the defensive end of the floor from Harris to Malik Beasley to Jokic and Trey Lyles that wasn’t there last season.

“The mindset is different,” said Millsap. “Teams talk about it. We talked about it last year, but this year we’re putting it in full effect. Guys are scrambling. Guys are trying. Guys are getting stops, especially when we need them.”

Denver was able to force overtime against Chicago thanks to a few clutch defensive stops late in the fourth quarter.

So far Denver has held every opponent except the Lakers under its season scoring average, and the Nuggets have held four of the eight teams they’ve played under 100 points.

The Nuggets might not finish top five in defense. But placing in the top 15 over the rest of the regular season, which would equate to something around a league average defense? That’s the new expectation for Denver.

Denver’s struggles from three-point range – 80% fake

How odd is it that in a year where scoring is up across the league thanks to teams playing at a faster pace and the freedom of movement rule being consistently enforced, the Nuggets, who have been among the league’s best offenses for last few seasons, are struggling to find their rhythm on that end of the floor?

The Nuggets are the 12th-best offense in the league, per NBA.com, a ranking that the Magic, Hawks or Suns would pay top dollar for. But Denver’s shooting? Its been M.I.A.

The Nuggets are 29th in three-point shooting, hitting just 30.4 percent of their threes. With mostly the same rotation last season, Denver shot 37.1 percent from distance. The biggest pain point for the Nuggets so far is how poorly they’re shooting when open. Denver is hitting just 32.5 percent (27th overall) on what NBA.com defines as “wide open threes,” when the closest defender is at least 6 feet away. Last season Denver hit 41.5 percent of shots of that variety, good for the third-best mark in the league.

The Nuggets hit a season-high 38.5 percent of their threes against the Cavs and showed some signs of breaking out of their early-season slump. But Denver’s not out of the woods yet. The Nuggets hit 11 threes against the Cavs but still haven’t eclipsed their 2017-18 season average of 11.5 three per game.

Right now Denver has three plus shooters — Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles, who all shot better than 37.8 percent on triples last season — hitting less than 27.0 percent of their threes. Those numbers, in particular, should correct themselves before long. The Nuggets are confident that will happen soon.

“As long as we’re generating the open looks, which we are, from the players that are effective shooting the ball, that’s all you can really ask for right now,” Malone said.

Denver is a better shooting team than what it’s shown so far. But then again, the Nuggets will be without one of their better three-point shooters in Will Barton for the next few weeks. They’ll rely on Lyles, Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Torrey Craig and Monte Morris, who don’t have a ton of three-point makes throughout their respective NBA careers, to nail triples in his absence.

The Nuggets are beating the teams they should – 70% real

Where did the Nuggets losing to teams like the Suns, Hawks, Kings and Grizzlies rank on the laundry list of reasons why Denver missed the playoffs last year? Pretty close to the top. Playoff-caliber clubs will slip up from time to time but beating the teams you should beat, especially at home, is an easy way to bank wins throughout the year.

This season, Denver’s already played four teams (five if you include the Pelicans, who were without Anthony Davis) that it should have beat: the Suns, Kings, Bulls and Cavs. Two were played within the friendly confines of Pepsi Center. Two came on the road. Denver won all four.

They haven’t all been walks in the park, though. The Nuggets let a 25-point third quarter lead dissipate as Sacramento nearly came all the way back to make things interesting in the fourth. Chicago nearly pulled off its own upset bid against Denver earlier this week, but the Nuggets won in overtime. Against Cleveland on Thursday, Denver tallied just 15 points in the first quarter but rallied to outscore the Cavs 95-64 the rest of the way.

What flipped? If you ask Nuggets coaches and players, their thoughts will instantly drift back to April 11, when Denver fell in Minnesota on the final night of the regular season and was eliminated from playoff contention. That loss stuck with the Nuggets throughout the summer, drove Denver’s roster to work hard this offseason and come into this year with a different mindset. The Nuggets know what it takes to make the playoffs, they also know that losses to the league’s bottom feeders could come back to haunt them again late this season in a jumbled Western Conference.

“You can just feel the energy, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players, equipment managers, everyone,” Barton said. “Everyone feels it. We know what’s upon us. We just have to go get it.”

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