20Q: What will the Nuggets’ defensive rating be next season?

Nov 12, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) battle for a loose ball in the fourth quarter at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 28 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 17: Just how good can the Nuggets defense be throughout the 2022-23 season?

After discussing the offensive end of the floor on Monday, today is all about defense.

The Denver Nuggets, during the last few seasons, have been roughly average on the defensive end of the floor. Denver ranked 15th with a 111.5 defensive rating during the 2021-22 season. Here are all of their finishes by season during the Michael Malone era:

  • 2021-22: 15th in defensive rating during the regular season
  • 2020-21: 11th
  • 2019-20: 16th
  • 2018-19: 10th
  • 2017-18: 23rd
  • 2016-17: 29th
  • 2015-16: 25th

To begin, offense has never been an issue for Denver. After turning over the keys to Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets have never ranked outside the top seven in offensive rating in the last six seasons. With Jokić on the floor and with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. returning, offense is extremely unlikely to be what holds Denver back next year.

Defense on the other hand? That could still be an issue.

The Nuggets have been to the postseason in each of the last four seasons, and it hasn’t been pretty defensively. Out of 16 teams in the playoff field, the Nuggets have ranked 10th in defensive rating in 2018-19, 12th in 2019-20, 13th in 2020-21, and an atrocious 16th this past season. Dead last in five games against the Golden State Warriors, which wouldn’t have been so bad had the Warriors simply demolished everybody offensively. They didn’t.

  • Warriors vs Nuggets: 121.9 offensive rating
  • Warriors vs Memphis Grizzlies: 108.3
  • Warriors vs Dallas Mavericks: 120.3
  • Warriors vs Boston Celtics: 110.0

The Nuggets (and clearly the Mavericks) have some work to do defensively. This offseason, Denver took those changes to heart without disrupting their core. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown highlight Denver’s newest additions, while Monte Morris, Will Barton, and DeMarcus Cousins highlight Denver’s biggest losses. The exchange was clear: fix the defense by adding perimeter defenders with versatility.

Of course, the Nuggets didn’t change their core of Jokić, Murray, and Porter. Those three, all important cogs on the offensive end of the floor, leave something to be desired on the defensive end. As a result, the Nuggets knew they had to surround that trio with defensive minded players. Adding Aaron Gordon at the 2021 deadline was the first step. Caldwell-Pope and Brown represent the next step, one that Denver hopes can bolster Denver’s regular season and playoff defense.

Denver’s two biggest areas of concern defensively are rim protection and perimeter contain. Those are also Jokić’s two biggest weaknesses. Interestingly, Jokić is one of the better defenders in the NBA at guarding the “in-between” game. Unfortunately, his inability to defend on the extremes has forced Denver to reconfigure their rotation.

Theoretically, Caldwell-Pope and Brown will help Denver cover the perimeter better. Murray’s return should also help Denver as an upgrade over Morris specifically. Those three are likely to be on the court for almost all of Denver’s important defensive moments, giving the Nuggets three quality perimeter options. Sometimes, the Nuggets had zero last year. Other times, they had Austin Rivers out there while Gordon played up a position or two. It just wasn’t viable at the time, and the Nuggets have to hope that the improved personnel will mean something tangible.

The interior defense is a bit more ambiguous. Moving Gordon from small forward to power forward should give the Nuggets a stronger defensive option closer to the rim. When there’s a big wing though, Gordon will still get that primary assignment, leaving Porter as the “rotation” specialist on the back side.

Though that might seem suspect at times, Porter as the weak side helper might end up being okay. Porter collected 54 blocks in 61 games during the 2020-21 season, his first as a starter. Jeff Green had 27 blocks in 75 games in 2021-22 while playing roughly the same total minutes. Porter may just be a better rim protector than Green at this stage, despite the injury. He will be playing his Age-24 season and will be more motivated than ever to contribute toward winning. The Nuggets might benefit from that.

There’s no doubt that, outside of Jokić, the Nuggets have the physical talent and athleticism to play strong defense at any point in time. The five starters, Brown, and players off the bench like Zeke Nnaji, Davon Reed, and Christian Braun should help the Nuggets be a better defensive unit. Effort will make up some of Denver’s improvement, but extra length, athleticism, and technique will go a long way beyond that.

Where Denver can make significant defensive strides in the regular season is with their bench unit. Though Jokić gets a lot of the blame, when he left the floor during the 2021-22 regular season, Denver’s defense went from 110.6 points allowed per 100 possessions to just 108.5. That’s because the Nuggets allowed 115.9 points per 100 with DeMarcus Cousins on the floor. Though Cousins helped Denver offensively, the Nuggets should improve their second unit defense by playing without a traditional center most of the time. Nnaji and Green should be good switch defenders in that regard.

Brown is also going to help out a lot defensively. He might be Denver’s most talented defender right now. His athleticism and versatility on the perimeter is something the Nuggets haven’t had since Gary Harris. Given that he’s coming off the bench, Brown will have plenty of energy to take away the opposing team’s best perimeter playmaker on bench units. Last season, that honor went to Rivers more often than not, but Brown is simply a more impactful defender.

What all of these additions, returns, and reconfigurations mean is still to be determined. The Nuggets should be better defensively, just like they should be better offensively. Common sense would say that the Nuggets, a more motivated team than ever with far better defensive personnel than last year, would show tangible improvement.

A marginal improvement for Denver would mean shaving roughly one point allowed per 100 possessions off of their defensive rating. By last season’s 111.5 number, dropping to 110.5 would move Denver’s 15th ranked defensive rating to 13th. Shave off another point and drop to 109.5, and the Nuggets suddenly climb into the top 10. It doesn’t take the world for Denver to become a top 10 defense again. Rather, preventing just one extra basket per game would probably get the job done.

To that end, it would be easy for Denver to go the other way if they simply don’t care enough to improve defensively. Adding one point to their 111.5 mark from 2021-22 would nearly push Denver into the bottom ten in defensive rating. That narrow margin can mean a lot over the course of a full season though, and the Nuggets will need all the help they can get to rack up regular season wins and keep pace in a loaded Western Conference.

I don’t expect to the Nuggets to take a step back though. For all of the reasons listed, the Nuggets will be better defensively. Improved personnel, improved effort, and a commitment to a championship goal will go a long way for the Nuggets. Their mindset has likely shifted after the last two postseason flameouts, and everyone should be on board this year.

If the Nuggets can be a top three offense and top ten defense, there’s no reason why they can’t win 55+ games next season. That will set them up for playoff success where the defensive challenges grow more complex. Still, this team appears up for that challenge. All they need to do is make things more difficult.

The offense should take care of the rest.

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