There were times during the 2016-17 season when you could almost see the steam coming out of Michael Malone’s ears.
Last year, Malone’s Denver Nuggets posted prolific numbers on the offensive end. But far too often, so did the team the Nuggets were facing.
Following an ugly 120-113 defeat to the Sacramento Kings in January, Malone called Denver’s defense “embarrassing” and “a joke.” Then in April, after Russell Westbrook exploded for 50 and officially ended Denver’s playoff hopes, Malone went as far to say that “we have to add defensive-minded players, in my opinion.”
Denver finished the year ranked 29th in defensive efficiency. The Nuggets hemorrhaged 110.5 points per 100 possessions, avoiding last place in defensive rating by about the length of one of Nikola Jokic’s whiskers.
Malone, who begins his third season in charge Wednesday, knows what needs to change if Denver hopes to nab a playoff for the first time since George Karl stalked the sideline.
“The only way we’re going to be a successful team is if we defend and find ways to be a lot better than 29th in defensive efficiency,” Malone said.
Malone got his wish to bring in defensive help this summer.
After years of striking out in free agency, Denver finally came up big by inking Paul Millsap to a three-year deal worth $90 million.
Millsap, who twice has earned NBA All-Defense honors, offers a rare combination of strength and speed at the power forward position. Over a 12-year career, he’s averaged 1.3 steals per game and 1.0 blocks. He’s already one of 23 players ever to post 1,100 steals and 850 blocks, and he’s only 32.
“Hopefully my defensive impact will help this team out a lot,” Millsap said shortly after signing. “That is one thing that we are striving to get better at, definitely on the defensive end.”
The Nuggets are banking on it.
Last year, Denver allowed opponents to score 47.4 points in the paint per game (27th) and shoot 37.5 percent from beyond the arc (28th). Opposing teams feasted from just about everywhere on the floor, which kept the Nuggets from missing out on the playoffs even though they were the NBA’s most efficient offensive team for a four-month stretch.
“Offensively, we have a lot of weapons,” Malone said. “We have a lot of tools. We can shoot the ball. We can pass the ball, we run, we cut. We have some really good playmaking bigs. But can we get stops on a consistent basis? If we do that, we have a chance to have a really exciting season.”
The revamped scheme is more aggressive.
In early July, Millsap and the Nuggets’ brain trust sat down in Atlanta. The two sides were there to feel each other out at the start of free agency. At some point, the discussion turned toward the defensive end. Malone asked Millsap how he liked to defend pick and rolls.
“His answer was, ‘I like to be aggressive. I like to be up,'” Malone recalled.
If the preseason was any indication, that’s precisely how the Nuggets will attempt to defend the pick and roll in 2017-18, which is a departure from how they tried (and failed) to defend one of the simplest and most effective actions in basketball a year ago.
Here’s a clip from Denver’s home opener last season. Look how far Jusuf Nurkic, who’s now in Portland, hangs back while Damian Lillard uses Mason Plumlee’s screen. Lillard’s able to build up a full head of steam by the time he reaches Nurkic near the free-throw line and goes right by him for the easy bucket.
Here’s another one from later in the game. This time, it’s Jokic who gets beat after watching the play develop from the free-throw line.
Now compare that with the way Denver’s bigs have blitzed the ball handler on pick and rolls this preseason.
Millsap times his hedge perfectly and pries the basketball away from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
And look at Jokic, who does well here to contain Brandon Ingram and then recover.
The more aggressive scheme paid dividends during the preseason, as the Nuggets forced 18.6 turnovers a game. Denver forced only 12 turnovers per game last season, a mark that ranked dead-last in the NBA.
“It’s fun. We get to get out in transition a little bit more,” Gary Harris said. “I like to be a little more aggressive. I’ve got the bigs coming up my back a little bit more this year. It kind of lets me gamble a little bit more.”
Denver’s defense showed signs of improvement in the preseason. How it translates in the games that actually count in the win/loss column remains to be seen. The answer to that question could determine if the sweet-shooting Nuggets are playing postseason games for the first time since 2013.
“Last year, it burned that we were as bad as we were defensively,” Malone said. “And we gave up everything: the paint, the 3-point line. Hopefully, by us simplifying things and being more aggressive, it will help us.
“Hopefully, with guys buying in more and not just trying to out-score teams. Guys would say in the past, ‘We’ve just got to outscore teams.’ And that’s a losing philosophy. But it definitely starts with me. I’ve got to help this team become better.”
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