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What's up with the Denver Nuggets, and should we be concerned?

What's up with the Denver Nuggets, and should we be concerned?

After gaining a dominant lead over the Western Conference over the past couple of months, the Denver Nuggets have come back down to earth.

They've lost five of their last seven games, including a four-game skid featuring the Chicago Bulls at home, an 8-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs on the road, a tightly contested home loss to the Brooklyn Nets and a road loss to the Toronto Raptors, who dropped 49 first-quarter points on the Nuggets' head.

That four-game losing streak was their longest of the season, and only the second time they've lost three straight.

The big problem has been their defense. The Nuggets logged a defensive rating of 125.2 during the losing streak, with that dropping to 120.5 when accounting for the entire seven-game run. Either mark would easily be the worst in the league if extrapolated across the entire season.

The defense has almost always been the reason they've lost games this year; their defensive rating is nearly 13 points worse in losses (122.4) than wins (109.5), representing the sixth-largest gap in the NBA.

(Brief aside: Cleveland — at 16.6 points worse in losses — is kinda lapping the field in that stat. When the defense gets hit, it gets hit. Worth keeping an eye on, at least.)

WHAT'S UP WITH THE DEFENSE?

Before digging in, let's set the appropriate framing for the struggles of the Denver Nuggets: they may be recent, but they're not new.

Naturally, we have to start with Nikola Jokic here. I hate most of the conversations around his defense because I feel it devolves into “HE SUCKS!” a little too quickly. But I don’t think his defense can be at the level it was in the Bulls game, and it especially can’t be at the level it was in the Spurs game.

Jokic doesn't offer much scheme versatility; at the very least, he isn't effective at multiple coverages. He's at his best — and, in turn, the Nuggets are at their best — when he's operating at the level of the screen or higher. 

Because of that, they absolutely can't afford slippage within that coverage.

Heading into this stretch, the Nuggets were allowing 0.916 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a ball screen defended by Jokic at the level or higher, per Second Spectrum. That was in the vicinity of guys like Jarrett Allen (0.898 PPP) and Draymond Green (0.905 PPP), and better than Joel Embiid (0.927 PPP) on much higher volume.

During this stretch, that number has risen to 1.018 PPP — a below-average mark. 

It's inherently a higher-risk style of defense, which was covered earlier this year. The margin for error is smaller because of the rotations required. It's even harder to pull off if Jokic doesn't do his job by getting to the level on time and serving as a deterrent to the ball-handler, or if he takes his sweet time recovering.

Possessions like this can't happen:

On top of the timing and rotations being off, teams have also attempted to mess with Denver's rotations by sprinkling in cuts and relocations as the ball screen occurs.

The slippage at the level feels worse because of how vulnerable they've been with Jokic in a drop this season. He's shown growth within that coverage over the past two seasons, but still remains a negative overall. His contests don't bother attackers all that much — and that's if he's actually contesting shots versus swiping down in hopes of getting a strip.

It's worth noting that, surprisingly enough, the drop with Jokic has been much better statistically (0.887 PPP) during this stretch of games. I'd attribute that more to the point-of-attack defense perking up over the past three games than anything Jokic is doing. That's not to say he's made no adjustment — it feels like he's picking up ball-handlers a little higher within the drop, for example — but he's getting real help up top.

Bruce Brown, in particular, has stepped up.

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It's unlikely that Denver's drop is as good as the numbers reflect during this stretch — one littered with teams without elite pull-up chops. But it's at least encouraging that the point-of-attack defense has looked a little better.

There also seems to be more intention with insolating Jokic. 

The Nuggets have seen their "ICE" or "weak" calls — forcing the ball-handler down the sideline (ICE) or shading them towards their off-hand (weak) — increase from 12.3 picks per 100 possessions (18th) before this run, to 15.5 per 100 over the past seven, a mark that would rank fifth in the NBA if extrapolated across the entire season.

Keeping things 2-on-2, with Jokic picking up the ball-handler around eight feet or so, is Denver's way of trying to limit the amount of shots they give up from the corners and directly at the rim. It's worth keeping tabs on. 

WHAT'S UP WITH THE OFFENSE?

It's mostly been business as usual here. They've logged a 116 offensive rating over the past seven games — off their world-beater path, but a mark that would still rank seventh in the league.  

The largest issue doesn't involve Jokic. Literally: this team is scary (derogatory) without Jokic on the floor. 

They've gotten very little from their midseason additions, Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant. Jackson hasn't been able to knock down shots, while Bryant's defense has been harmful enough for head coach Michael Malone to call on Jeff Green's number more consistently. 

Jamal Murray has been tasked with spearheading non-Jokic lineups, but it's a lot of pressure on him. And as my Dunker Spot cohost Steve Jones has noted, the Nuggets don't have pressure points aside from Murray in those lineups to truly bend defenses. It turns into "Murray save us" too frequently for my sensibilities.

There are adjustments to be made, like flanking Murray with another starter whenever Jokic gets rest. They're already doing that by keeping Murray and Aaron Gordon together — I'm a little intrigued with Gordon-at-5 minutes. Maybe keeping Murray and Michael Porter Jr. together would work. It could have the secondary benefit of unlocking Brown as a screener again.

Ultimately, the goal should be to take some pressure off Murray. The Nuggets need his shotmaking once playoff time comes; they can't afford for wear-and-tear to get to his knee while trying to carry second units during the regular season. It's concerning that he's only made 39.7% of his shots over the past seven games, with only 23% of those coming at the rim.

If there's a Jokic-related thing to poke at, I'd keep an eye on who gets the Jokic assignment moving forward. It's something that really popped for me during the Sixers-Nuggets showcase game late in January, but PJ Tucker drew the Jokic assignment, allowing Joel Embiid to lurk around the rim and muck things up. 

Other teams have tried it. The Wolves have given Kyle Anderson that assignment. The Raptors, as they tend to do, tossed OG Anunoby on Jokic with Jakob Poeltl nearby. The Nets threw forwards at Jokic in their first meeting, with Nic Claxton roaming around. 

There's no way to stop Jokic, really, but using mobility to stifle some of the juicy stuff he creates on the perimeter is worth trying. Per Second Spectrum, the Nuggets have seen a dip in efficiency with dribble handoffs and ball screens when Jokic is defended by a forward instead of a center.

  • Jokic handoffs (center defender): 541 handoffs, 1.073 PPP
  • Jokic handoffs (forward defender): 241 handoffs, 1.058 PPP
  • Jokic PnR screener (center defender): 722 picks, 1.12 PPP
  • Jokic PnR screener (forward defender): 354 picks, 1.026 PPP

Not everyone has the personnel to pull it off, but the Nuggets may want to find counters regardless. It may be as simple as Gordon knocking down enough shots, or creating enough openings as a handoff hub or screener, to render the crossmatch obsolete. We'll have to see.

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