Two quotes immediately come to mind when watching the Denver
Nuggets play basketball this season, both coming from their Media Day back in
One comes from head coach Michael Malone.
"We understand that you can't be 15th in the NBA in defensive
efficiency and be serious about winning at a high level... You look
at the two teams in the NBA Finals; they were (No.) 1 and 2."
That trend — the Finals representatives being elite defensive
teams — mostly holds true over the past 20 years, with LeBron James
and the Cleveland Cavaliers being the exception to the rule.
This absolutely holds true if you filter the Western Conference;
the 2000-01 Lakers were the last West team to make the Finals
without a top-10 regular-season defense (22nd). They, of course,
compensated with the NBA's best offense, headlined by some guys
named Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Oh, and they had the best
playoff defense by a wide margin that year en route to a 15-1 title
The other quote from Media Day comes from back-to-back MVP
Nikola Jokic, on the topic of his defense.
"Maybe I can be a bad 1-on-1 defensive player, but I can be a
good team-defense player... I think that's how we can plug holes if
we have some holes in our defense."
It's a wild thing to hear or read, but it's easy to see where
the logic comes from. Jokic has clear strengths defensively — his
size, strength, a plus-4 wingspan (and 9-foot-3 standing
reach) and quick hands. He also has clear weaknesses —namely
his lateral quickness and vertical pop. Within the lens of title
contention, building a scheme around Jokic's defensive skill set
has been the Nuggets' biggest challenge.
Between the Aaron Gordon trade (2020-21) and recent offseason
moves for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (trade) and Bruce Brown (free
agency), the effort has been made to become a deeper, more talented
defensive team. Malone said his goal for the Nuggets was to become
a top-five defense this season.
Not only has that not happened, but this is also shaping up to
be the worst defense of the Malone era in Denver.
The Nuggets are currently allowing 115.7 points per 100
possessions (PPP), 27th in the NBA per Cleaning The Glass. That's
2.7 points worse than league average, putting them in the
discussion with the 2016-17 Nuggets (112.4, 29th, 3.4 points worse
than league average).
To fully understand what's going wrong with the Nuggets on
defense, it's important to understand what they're trying to
(Diehard Nugget fans are welcome to skip this section.)
With Jokic at center, the Nuggets have opted for a more
aggressive base coverage against pick-and-rolls. While teams like
the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics play drop coverage — asking
their bigs to hang back — the Nuggets ask Jokic to play higher up
against screens. He's mostly at the level of the screen, but is
sometimes asked to hedge or full-out trap the ball-handler.
This is Jokic's best coverage because of his aforementioned
strengths. He's a large human with a solid wingspan and quick
hands; naturally, that makes him difficult to dribble around or
pass over. There's a reason Jokic is routinely among the league
leaders in steals among centers, and has ranked in the 80th
percentile or higher in steal rate in five of the past six
This is generally what the alignment looks like for the
The coverage is of the high-risk, high-reward variety.
There's strain on Jokic and the ball-handler's defender to
contain the action up top; if the ball-handler is able to pass
early or dribble around Jokic, the defense in trouble. And if the
three players on the back end aren't in position, the offense will
have easy reads to make, and easy shots to take.
(Nugget fans can resume reading here.)
By virtue of the scheme, the Nuggets are able to shape the
opponent's shot profile. Per Cleaning The Glass, the Nuggets rank
10th in rim rate allowed, 18th in mid-range rate allowed, and 19th
in three-point rate. Not allowing many shots at the rim is a good
thing, though being in the middle of the pack in mid-range and
three-point rate leaves a bit to be desired. Here's the real
kicker: Only five teams allow a larger share of corner threes than
Funny enough, the Nuggets have been (statistically) solid in
their base. Per Second Spectrum, the Nuggets have allowed 0.88 PPP
with Jokic defending a pick-and-roll at the level of the screen or
higher. That's on par with where he was last season (0.88 PPP) and
way better than it was the year before that (0.97 PPP).
What keeps popping for me is how small the Nuggets often are on
the back end. Teams have been able to generate good looks by either
having Gordon's man run the pick-and-roll, or by spacing him at the
wing. Because the Nuggets ask the weak-side corner defender to pick
up the roll man, teams are able to create size advantages at the
Oddly enough, the Nuggets kinda miss Michael Porter Jr. on this
front. While he (clearly) isn't the defender Brown is, his size
could be a valuable asset on those low rotations.
The real issues arise when the Nuggets attempt to toggle between
schemes. Remember that 0.88 number with Jokic playing higher up
against ball-screens? It rises to 1.00 PPP on trips with him in a
drop. In the rare occasion he's been tasked with switching, the
Nuggets have bled points (1.5 PPP).
It's worth diving into the drop coverage reps for this team. In
theory, they have more room to go conservative because of the added
screen navigation from Brown and Caldwell-Pope. In practice, the
screen navigation has trended more "solid" than "good," which has
put more spotlight on Jokic's ability to navigate the gap in drop.
He's often caught in no man's land, oscillating between
waving/swiping at the ball-handler to throw off his rhythm and
hanging back too far and allowing the ball-handler to lead the
The issues are compounded when opponents throw in two (or more)
ball-screens in the same possession. Jokic may defend the first one
well, whether he's in a drop or at the level. The second one is
dicier. He's either late getting up to the level, or is caught too
low in a drop. Add in the inconsistent (or nonexistent) help, and
you end up with possessions like this.
Can you tell that the Atlanta Hawks game was perplexing to
Ultimately, Denver banks on its defense to win at the first two
levels (perimeter, mid-range) because the team just doesn't have
much juice at the basket. When playing aggressively, the Nuggets'
help is often small, even when it's on time. And when they aren't
playing aggressively, they're dealing with shoddy rim protection
between Jokic, this version of DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green or Zeke
A not-so-fun fact: Literally every Nuggets big man
is allowing a field goal percentage over 65% at the rim this
season. On the whole, teams are shooting 70.7% at the rim against
the Nuggets, the worst defensive mark in the NBA.
It's hard to foresee a big shift coming. They aren't trading
Jokic, because duh. But because they have Jokic, they don't have
much scheme versatility to play with unless they want to lean more
into zone. That generally isn't Malone's vibe, but it's worth
noting this is the most zone he's thrown out there during his
- 2022-23: 98 total possessions, 4.6% of
- 2021-22: 265, 3.5%
- 2020-21: 186, 2.8%
- 2019-20: 48, 0.7%
- 2018-19: 7, 0.1%
- 2017-18: 11, 0.1%
- 2016-17: 7, 0.1%
- 2015-16: 4, 0.1%
Finding a trade to improve the frontcourt defense off the bench
could help. The Nuggets haven't defended well with Jokic
on the floor (113.9 Defensive Rating), but they've been even worse
without him (118.4), and that's with teams shooting better from
three with Jokic on the court (37.7% vs 34.3%). Shooting
regression could make the disparity look even worse.
Beyond that, it's just on the Nuggets to play better — and get
healthier. They've shown flashes of being able to string good
possessions together. The personnel is better than it was last
season. Consistency, health and a little luck — in terms of shot
location and expected efficiency, only five teams are dealing with
worse luck than the Nuggets, per Cleaning The Glass — should see
the Nuggets improve. A top-five defense is out of the question, but
there's a wide gap between top-five and bottom-five.
There's still potential, and time, to find the middle