Look at the teams still competing for an NBA championship.
As of Saturday, the Celtics, Bucks, Warriors, Heat, Suns and Mavs were all still alive. Now look at what they have in common. Five of the six teams finished the regular season with a top-seven defense in the league. Memphis, which got ousted on Friday night, was No. 6 in the NBA. Only the Bucks, whose successful formula earned them a title last season, finished outside of the top-10 defensively this season.
At No. 14, Milwaukee was percentage points better than the Nuggets at No. 15.
“To be a dangerous, deep playoff team, you have to have an elite defense,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said at his end-of-season news conference.
There’s an algorithm to winning playoff games, with few exceptions. If Denver has realistic designs on raising a banner in the next few seasons and capitalizing on the title window MVP Nikola Jokic has opened, there’s a glaring flaw that needs to be addressed.
The Nuggets’ average, inconsistent defense that allowed nearly 50 points per game in the paint (24th in the NBA) has to improve. In the playoffs, that defense plummeted to dead-last.
“Where we had trouble was, it started on offense,” Malone said. “We gave up 17.5 points a game off turnovers, so we fueled teams’ breaks. We gave them easy baskets. And then in the halfcourt, our inability to guard one-on-one, contain the ball, which led to a lot of rim attacks. I think we were 30th in opponents’ rim field goal percentage. We were 29th in blocks per game. It’s a bad combination if you struggle to guard the ball on the perimeter, and you don’t have Dikembe Mutombo blocking shots behind you.”
The Celtics have newly-crowned Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams and Al Horford mucking up opponents’ plans. Miami’s got Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry harassing offenses into uncomfortable shots. Phoenix has rangy wing Mikal Bridges, perpetual irritant Chris Paul and a much-improved Devin Booker, while Milwaukee has former Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo and defensive shadow Jrue Holiday, a player the Nuggets coveted before the Bucks snatched him with a mammoth trade offer in late 2020.
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Even Dallas and Golden State have installed schemes that have protected their superstars, Luka Doncic and Steph Curry, though neither are known as defensive stoppers.
It’s not as if the Nuggets are starting from scratch. Even though he’s best suited for limiting opposing wings, Aaron Gordon has been tapped to check everyone from Damian Lillard to Ja Morant to Jordan Poole. Denver’s blockbuster trade last season with Orlando to get Gordon was a necessary starting point, but it wasn’t enough. The best defenses introduce layers of impenetrability. Multiple plus-defenders offer a counter when teams hunt matchups and force switches.
Denver’s defensive depth was hampered early after P.J. Dozier (ACL) went down in November. Later, Zeke Nnaji, a budding defensive staple, missed most of the second half of the season with knee issues. The cascading effect on the defense eventually meant a team devoid of true wing players asked a lot of rookie Bones Hyland and then leaned heavily on Austin Rivers and two-way forward Davon Reed.
The end result was that Denver’s containment was underwhelming and often left Jokic exposed inside. The encouraging part is that the Nuggets have recognized their blemishes. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.’s impending returns will jolt the offense. The biggest question the Nuggets need to ask themselves this summer: How will we improve on the other end?