Denver Nuggets must revamp their defense to win their first championship

Dec 1, 2021; Orlando, Florida, USA;Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner (22) drives to the basket as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) attempted to defend during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Denver Nuggets believed they had all of the pieces to win the 2020-21 NBA championship.

After acquiring Aaron Gordon in a deadline trade in late March, the Nuggets had a blissful five games to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Nikola Jokić was on his way to his first MVP award, Jamal Murray was back on track to stardom after a slow start, and Michael Porter Jr. — who the Nuggets threw into the fire at the beginning of the season — was finding his best role as a hyper-efficient third scorer. Add in Gordon, an athletic, defensive-minded forward, and Will Barton, a jack-of-all-trades wing scorer, and the Nuggets certainly looked the part of a title contender.

14 months later, the Nuggets still have no titles to their name. They haven’t been back to the Western Conference Finals since an incredible bubble run in 2020. Though injuries are the primary culprit, sidelining Murray and Porter for extended periods of time during the two playoff runs, injuries aren’t the only issue. The Nuggets have moved away from the athletic, versatile, even defensively adept group that appeared unstoppable offensively. As a result, the Nuggets have failed to slow the Phoenix Suns in 2021 and the Golden State Warriors this past April in two extremely lopsided series. Denver’s 122.1 defensive rating against the Suns was about as bad as it gets, and their 121.9 defensive rating against the Warriors was the worst mark in the entire playoff field.

Denver’s defensive drop-off in the playoffs isn’t surprising. Though neither Murray nor Porter are elite individual defenders, their ability to shoulder the offensive burden for a regular season and playoff stretch makes life easier for those around them, including Jokić. Though Joker just produced the first 2,000 point, 1,000 rebound, and 500 assist season in NBA history, he and the Nuggets are probably hoping he never has to produce to that level ever again. Saving some of his energy for the defensive end is a great starting point for Denver’s defensive problems. Jokić is slow of foot already as a traditional center, which means an exhausted roster wasn’t going to make up for any of his defensive deficiencies. Jokić’s defensive weaknesses are lessening, but quick, perimeter-based offensive attacks will always give a traditional center issues.

Unfortunately, a healthy roster certainly won’t solve every problem. Denver’s injury absences highlighted some glaring holes in Denver’s defensive structure. A point-of-attack defender against ball dominant guards is probably the best place to start. Monte Morris stepped up admirably to fill the playmaking void left by Murray’s injury, but it was clear from the beginning that the Nuggets didn’t trust Morris’ on-ball defense against high level guards. Instead, Gordon was tasked with defending a wide variety of primary playmakers, from the Luka Dončić types he was originally tasked with defending to the De’Aaron Fox types that were too dynamic for Morris to handle. Finding a capable point-of-attack defender will go a long way when defending most teams.

Next, NBA teams can never have too many capable wing defenders, and the Nuggets have always had too few. An injury to PJ Dozier at the beginning of last season ruined Denver’s depth at the position, and Gordon is more of a forward than a wing. The Nuggets will have to adjust accordingly, and that may mean sweeping changes to the entire position group. Will Barton is in the final year of a two-year deal, and all three of Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes, and Davon Reed are free agents. Denver did not have enough long, athletic defenders among that quartet to challenge the Warriors defensively, and if there’s one area general manager Calvin Booth must address before next season, it’s that one. To have any chance of navigating the Western Conference playoff field, the Nuggets must solidify their defense on the wing.

Finally, the Nuggets have never been a traditional rim protection team with Jokić as their defensive anchor, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve their paint defense. Michael Porter Jr. wasn’t a fantastic defender by any means, but one area where he showed the most growth was weak side rim protection, which isn’t surprising as a 6’10” long and athletic forward. With Gordon often defending at the point-of-attack, he wasn’t in the paint either, generally leaving the trio of Morris, Barton, and Jeff Green to rotate from the weak side to alter shots. The Nuggets can do better than that, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to upgrade their defense at backup center. Neither DeMarcus Cousins nor JaMychal Green inspired confidence as defensive anchors last year, and the Nuggets could use someone more mobile to cover ground defensively.

Above all of the personnel upgrades though, the Nuggets could use a mentality shift defensively. Whether it be due to injuries, energy conservation, or a simple change in scheme, the Nuggets played their least aggressive brand of defense since the 2017-18 season when they ranked 23rd in defensive rating.

To be a championship caliber team, Denver’s defense must become a top ten unit at worst. Health and improved personnel will get the Nuggets halfway there. The rest must come from a willingness to take the defensive end of the floor seriously. Elite defense is often bred from elite buy-in and trust, and the best defenses are the ones that sell out knowing that their teammates will make the proper rotations behind them. The Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics do that, and both are in the 2022 NBA Finals as a result.

A healthy Jokić, Murray, and Porter are clearly enough to help the Nuggets keep pace with every contender. If the Nuggets are serious about championship aspirations though, defense will be the key. Gordon was the first step toward solidifying the defensive end, but it became clear this season that Gordon can’t be the only step. The Nuggets weren’t good enough defensively last season, and they probably won’t be good enough next season with their current personnel.

Let’s see what general manager and new lead decision maker Calvin Booth can do to change that.

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