A few games ago, when Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was asked what was wrong with the defense, his answer confused some people in the room.
His response was quick and direct.
“Offense,” Malone said without hesitation before glaring at anyone who laughed thinking he was being facetious.
This may seem incorrect. How could a defense be hurt by an offense as good as the Nuggets? The answer lies in Denver’s most glaring offensive problem: turnovers.
“There are always other things, but I think it definitely starts there,” Malone said when asked if turnovers were the biggest contributing factor to Denver’s defensive confusion. “[If] we go back to that third quarter in Oklahoma City, we had nine turnovers in that quarter. That’s a lot of turnovers in a quarter. I believe Nikola had seven. When you do that, you allow a team to come out and run and score and live to the edge. Craziest stat from the Oklahoma City game: For 48 minutes, they shot 78% on our rim. Without rim – I don’t say without paint – without rim they were 28%. It was our inability to defend the rim for three quarters and especially this third quarter. So when you return the ball; especially those live ball spins that allow teams to get out and run and score easy baskets, that’s definitely a place to start, but it’s not the only thing.
Denver’s turnover issues aren’t even a constant problem. Their biggest problem are those waves of turnovers that can span a quarter or two in each game, immediately causing leads to dissolve or deficits to increase. A good example is the one used by Malone; when Jokic had seven turnovers in the third quarter against the Thunder that nearly sent Denver into a tailspin before recovering in the final frame.
One of the main culprits for Denver’s defensive shortcomings and their rolling problems is a lack of cohesion at both ends of the field or, as Ish Smith put it, “connectivity.”
“Connectivity,” Smith replied during our one-on-one chat when asked what was the biggest problem to overcome defensively. “Something we take for granted is that we have eight or nine new guys. What has made Denver so good over the past two years is their continuity and consistency. You had guys around five, six or seven years old and now you have a brand new roster. And you obviously have (Michael Porter Jr.) coming back after being out last year and you have Jamal (Murray) who’s been out for two years now. So you have to be on the same page… For the most part, I think overall it’s just the connectivity you can take for granted; as you guys who have been here for a minute know. The consistency of having the same team is important and now with eight, nine or ten new guys it will be a situation where you get to know each other on the defensive side which is communication and then on the offensive side where the guys are going to be. It will take a little time. »
“There is always work to do. For the most part, people think you just plug and play. No. There is certainly work to be done and it is part of this work; find each other and find that connectedness with each other, but there’s a lot of work to be done.
The work to be done has little to do with finding or nurturing more top talent. Denver has talent to spare. What they need more than anything is to find a way to combine that talent and find understanding on the pitch between everyone. It wasn’t soon enough, but as the games piled up, Denver was getting closer and closer to refreshing their roster. Their demolition of the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night was the perfect example of the quality of this group.
Murray looked like the best version of himself to date before his ACL tear. Porter wasn’t just hitting shots from anywhere in the half court, but was catching loose balls, rebounding tenaciously, leading the bench unit and fitting into the starting lineup. Jokic was unstoppable like only Jokic can be. Denver’s defense played under control and efficiently. They even limited their turnovers for three quarters before the garbage weather set in and led to a bit of chaos. Everything we hope to see from the Nuggets to confirm their claim shown in Denver’s 126–121 San Antonio beat.
The comfort and connectivity they showed at home against Spurs is exactly what Smith expected to see from his team.
“A lot of people don’t realize how important that is,” Smith explained in the same one-on-one interview. “When you’re dealing with a team, the personalities have to fit together. Guys just think you can put your talents together and just play. No. Talent is the easy part. The hardest part is connecting the relationships and connecting the personalities. They must all log in. We all have to be on the same course to be able to do something big this year.
Now that the Nuggets are starting to connect with each other on and off the court, they’re reaping those benefits. Their turnovers are down, their defense has improved, the offense scores easily, and the rotation seems to have been established (when Denver is healthy). They are 4-0 at home and, with a tough period ahead, they have a chance to capitalize on a schedule filled with weaker opponents.
Yet even with their cohesion growing every minute, there are still wrinkles to iron out; especially in defense.
“If you had to move up to number two on this list it’s that we don’t have great rim protection, you know what I mean? That’s just not one of Nikola’s strengths” , Malone said before the Nuggets were briefed against Spurs. “He’s a phenomenal player, but he’s not a shot blocker. We can still be better with our body position, but our ability to keep and contain in the half court really needs to be better. The shrink and the help behind must be extreme.
“If you sometimes struggle to contain and you struggle to protect the rim in the half court, that’s a really bad combination that we have to shore up and do it with all the tools we have.”
As things seem to be falling into place, Malone needs more proof before his faith in the urgency, effort and focus of his team remains consistently high.
“I’ll be honest. I don’t know if we understood anything,” Malone said after the Nuggets’ statement win over Spurs. “Tonight was a hell of a win, but next time that we will be in this situation, I hope it will be the same type of team, but that remains to be proven.”
This trust must be earned. Every season is different and for this iteration of the Nuggets, so many players are new or returning from a major injury. Once again, Smith’s wise words ring true.
“Every year is different. You know that,” Smith said to wrap up our conversation. “Every year is different and you can’t play and think the same way as in the past. It’s a new year.
“I have to steal this from Shannon Sharpe. It always says “update your resume” and that’s what we’re doing right now. »