The Denver Nuggets have one of the best offenses in the NBA. They only need passable defense to win far more games in the 2017-18 season.
The Denver Nuggets’ defense was a disaster in 2016-17. There were too many mistakes and blown rotations, it was too easy for opponents to penetrate and score inside, and there was too little communication. They lacked so many basic defensive intangibles that allow a team like the San Antonio Spurs to succeed based on discipline, communication, team play and intelligence, rather than relying on a bunch of freakish athletes and lockdown individual defenders (outside of Kawhi Leonard, of course).
Of course, the Nuggets are never going to come close to matching what the Spurs do next season. They lack the right personnel, their players are too young and they don’t have a well-established, Gregg Popovich-led system. The Nuggets ranked 29th in defensive rating last season for some very obvious reasons.
However, they don’t need tons of improvement to climb from the 40 wins they recorded this year towards the 50 mark.
The Houston Rockets are the best comparison for the Nuggets. From December 15 onwards when Nikola Jokic started at center, the Nuggets had the NBA’s best offense with 113.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. The Rockets weren’t far behind in third place with 111.9. However, defense is their main weakness.
While they obviously took a leap forward to 55 wins last season due to James Harden reaching new levels of offensive brilliance, extra shooting and the layup-or-threes based system of Mike D’Antoni, improved defense was another reason why the Rockets were able to win 14 more games than the previous season. It wasn’t all because of offense, though. Their defense also went from 20th in 2015-16 to 17th; it’s only a slight improvement, but being close to average on defense is all a team with formidable offense like Houston needs to excel overall.
This is what the Nuggets need to aim for. If they’re top-20 defensively or get anywhere close to the 16/17 range (that’s probably wishful thinking), going from pushover to passable at that end of the floor will make a drastic difference.
First and foremost, Paul Millsap will be instrumental in making this happen. I’ve dived into some of the reasons why in more detail here, but he’s the best defensive power forward the team could have ask for this summer and a drastic upgrade over Danilo Gallinari. Millsap can switch across positions one to four, he can cover pick-and-rolls, he’s a leader that can get the team talking more, and he can help protect the rim somewhat.
In addition to doing everything that made him the 14th-best player in terms of Defensive Real Plus/Minus last season, per ESPN.com, Millsap altering shots around the rim and serving as an elite help defender to cover for some of Jokic’s slow movements will be so valuable.
Plus, with another year of development and Millsap’s leadership (which will be huge from a training standpoint and when he’s a communicating defensive quarterback on the floor), there should be some improvement around the roster.
Jokic has been working hard on his body this summer. If he’s any more mobile and can at least be a better positional defender (he’s never going to be good at switching onto guards), he’ll improve and make the most of his size and length, as he can at times when he’s directly under the rim. And again, these are things Millsap can help teach him, not to mention how Millsap will cover for some of Jokic’s weaknesses on the court with his switching, added rim protection and great help defense.
If young guys like Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez at least rotate effectively to avoid giving up as many open shots or backdoor cuts because there’s late help or switches aren’t called out, that can make a big difference. You only need to cut out a few open layups a game to trim your opponent’s scoring down by six points, and the Nuggets’ offense can do the rest to turn the tide in their favor.
Similarly to the Rockets with Harden and D’Antoni (and now Chris Paul… yikes), the Nuggets are only just tapping on their elite new offensive ceiling. Quite frankly, with a full season of Jokic starting and improvement from himself, Murray and others, the Nuggets can win more thanks to that alone.
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But with any kind of defensive growth to create a more well-balanced team and reduce the pressure of their offense having to win a shootout every single night, the wins will rack up to ensure that Denver can host playoff basketball again.