Last season the Denver Nuggets were one of the most exciting teams to watch in the bubble, whether it was Jamal Murray shooting lights out or Nikola Jokic making it known that he was one of the most skilled big men of his generation. That team made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before being stifled in five games by the eventual World Champion Los Angeles Lakers. That was the second season in a row that the Nuggets won at least one playoff series. With a young core of Jokic, Murray, and then “rookie” Michael Porter Jr., Denver seemed poised to step into that next tier of title contenders. They just needed to add one more piece.
However, it appears from this past offseason that they have subtracted from rather than added to their current roster. Most notably the team lost Jerami Grant, a key sixth man who brought plenty of defensive talent and energy to the team, as well as Mason Plumlee, their backup center. The additions to this roster were strange, the team received only cash in exchange for Grant in his sign and trade departure, signed JaMychal Green in free agency, and then traded for 24th overall pick RJ Hampton. It seems that the Nuggets have been focused on keeping costs down and hoarding flyer prospects like Hampton, and Bol Bol, hoping they pan out like Porter did, rather than making that one big move to bring them to the next level.
Nuggets’ Rough Defensive Start
Several playoff teams have opened this season with sluggish stretches and the Nuggets have been no exception. They are currently 7-7, but hold the sixth-worst defensive efficiency rating in the league, according to Second Spectrum. The only teams with a worse rating than Denver are the Los Angeles Clippers, Washington Wizards, Minnesota Timberwolves, Chicago Bulls, and Sacramento Kings. If you take out the Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, the teams ahead of them hold a combined record of 15-28. That is not what you want to be if you have championship aspirations.
The defense is what is hurting this team above all else, they are putting up similar offensive numbers to last season thus far, having finished fifth last year in offensive efficiency rating and sitting at second so far this season per Second Spectrum. The question now is what has caused this drop in defensive performance and what they can do to fix it if they hope to make it back to the Western Conference Finals and potentially make a run at the title.
The top five players on the team last year by Basketball Reference’s Defensive Win shares were Jokic, Will Barton, Grant, Murray, and Plumlee. The second-ranked player by Defensive Box Plus/Minus behind Jokic was Plumlee. Rather than attempting to at least use their depth to try and find a trade partner and make a big addition, the Nuggets have swapped their role players for worse ones and have eaten away at their own defense. This has been a big contributor to their rough defensive start. Grant was perhaps their best defensive player last season. He was an impressive stopper who could handle big-name assignments and Plumlee was a solid presence in the interior. Without the now-Detroit Pistons, the Nuggets have allowed opponents to shoot 39 percent from three, a bottom-five mark in the league. They also have the 28th worst defensive rebounding percentage.
If Head Coach Mike Malone cannot figure out how to improve his defense with some scheme changes then the team will have to look to add more pieces to this ever-growing puzzle. They need a trusted stopper. PJ Tucker and/or Trevor Ariza will become available if the Houston Rockets and Kings decide they don’t fit into their current windows. Perhaps the Cleveland Cavaliers will realize that they aren’t a real competitor (yet) in the Eastern Conference and will begin to shop Andre Drummond and Larry Nance Jr. With the addition of either player, the Nuggets could greatly improve their interior defense.
The Nuggets could just be adjusting to this new season with the league’s new protocols and regulations. We are still only a few weeks into the season and teams are still working out their identities. However, if the early season defensive struggles are not just the victim of small sample size, then the Nuggets must make changes. Fans will not settle for an early-round playoff exit after seeing what the team was able to accomplish in the bubble. The team’s offense can only carry so much of the workload, defense will become its Achilles heel come postseason play. If the Nuggets want to make some real noise in the playoffs like they did last year, a veteran addition has to be a matter of “when” not “if” to overcome a rough defensive start.
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