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
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
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
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
Bruce Brown, in particular, has stepped up.
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
There also seems to be more intention with insolating
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
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
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
- Jokic handoffs (center defender): 541 handoffs,
- 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,
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.