MHS Roundtable: Will Denver’s defense improve in 2018-19?

Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) and Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) battle for a loose ball in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center.
Apr 9, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) and Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) battle for a loose ball in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As the Denver Nuggets embark on a season full of expectations, one question mark still remains for one of the up and coming teams in the Western Conference — defense.

Offensively, the Nuggets are one of the best teams in the NBA, but is that enough to combat their defensive struggles? The scribes at Mile High Sports gathered to discuss the topic in our defensive preview for the 2018-19 season.

What is the best-case scenario for Denver’s team defensive rating?

T.J. McBride: Denver’s best-case scenario really is not that great. Sure, the Nuggets young core could improve defensively, but they have a roster full of exploitable defenders, a coach who has yet to prove he can schematically create a strong defensive unit, and a slow-footed center in Nikola Jokic who will be unable to clean up mistakes made by his teammates on the perimeter. In addition to that, the Nuggets do not have even one wing player who has the size and strength combination to match up with the elite forwards in the NBA. While their offensive potential is unquantifiable, on defense there is not much upside currently visible. Still, things change rapidly in the NBA.

Dev Johnson: It’s no secret that the Nuggets were bad on defense last year. They ranked 27th in defensive rating during the 2017-18 NBA season at 108.8 and were still a few minutes from making the post season. The best-case scenario is not for them to instantly be one of the best defensive teams, but middle of the pack. If the Nuggets could get down to about 107.1 they would have been in 17th place and with their offense they would be a sure-fire bet as a playoff team. They did not make any offseason moves whatsoever at making the team better on the defensive end of the court. They may have actually gotten worse on that end of the floor after trading away Wilson Chandler to Philadelphia, but with retaining Torrey Craig, Denver at least has a guy capable of feeling that void.

Brandon Ewing: Last season the Nuggets finished 27th in defensive rating in the NBA, but found a way to finish in the top six in offensive rating. This has been a steady theme for the Nuggets since 2012-13, which coincidently, is the last season the Nuggets made the playoffs. Throughout the last five seasons, not once have the Nuggets finished inside the top 20 in defensive rating, when was the last time they did finish in the top 20? in 2012-2013, when they finished 11th.

There’s no secret that defense wins championships and the proof is in the pudding as to what the Nuggets have to do in order to be successful. The last time this franchise made the postseason they weren’t just a solid offensive team, but they were strong defensively as well. If the Nuggets want to take that next step and be a playoff team it all starts on the defensive end of the floor. It’s not a huge step up, but if Denver can get inside top 20 in terms of defensive rating, they will almost assuredly be rewarded with a playoff berth.

What is the best defensive lineup for Denver to play?

T.J. McBride: If there is one lineup that may be able to defend at a high level, it would be Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic. With that five-man pairing, everyone is over 6-foot-4 and all of them — outside of Jokic — are switchable defenders. Harris can beat up point guards at the point of attack, Millsap can be the roving defender who makes up for the mistakes of the perimeter defenders, Craig can take the toughest perimeter assignment, and Barton can cause chaos off-ball. While this unit may not be devastating on defense, they will force turnovers and make things more difficult for the opposition.

Dev Johnson: This is a tough one because you still would have to have a lineup that can score the ball as well. There is a defensive lineup for Denver that would make things difficult for opposing teams, but they wouldn’t be able to score as much. For the best lineup that implements enough offense to compete while also being able to defend would be something like Gary Harris, Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic. That group would be unique and positionless with all five players able to bring the ball up the court, shoot, or facilitate. It would generate enough offense and still have some of the better defenders on the Nuggets sharing the court.

Brandon Ewing: The Nuggets best defensive lineup will include a couple of bench players. We’ll get to this question later in the roundtable, but Denver’s best defender is Paul Millsap and he certainly needs to be on the floor in any defensive-based lineup. With Millsap at the four, Nikola Jokic is the best option at the five in terms of spacing the floor and defensive upside. Mason Plumlee is by far the Nuggets best defensive center, but Jokic is a much better fit next to Millsap. At the three would be defensive specialist Torrey Craig, who can shut down the opponents best player on a nightly basis. Here’s where it gets tricky and a little unconventional, but I believe a lineup of Malik Beasley at the two and Gary Harris at point guard could be the Nuggets best option here. With Beasley, you get a player whose showcased defensive tenacity during his limited minutes each of the last two seasons and Harris is one of the best defenders on the Nuggets roster. A defensive lineup of Harris, Beasley, Craig, Millsap, and Jokic would give the Nuggets a better chance on defense while staying deadly on offense as well.

What’re the odds the Nuggets are a bottom-five defense next season?

T.J. McBride: I will put the number at 70 percent. Denver was already the 27th ranked defense last year and now the Western Conference is even tougher. In addition to that, Wilson Chandler was one of the better defenders on the roster last year and he now resides in Philadelphia after being traded. Call me crazy, but my faith in Denver improving on defense is quite low.

Dev Johnson: A 65 percent chance. They finished the last two years inside of the bottom five and in the year prior they were right outside of the bottom five. Also, losing Chandler will be a shift for the team as he was their second-best defender. Losing a player who had the size and quickness to guard four positions will hurt the Nuggets defense overall. If there is any real possibility of things turning around, there will have to be schematic changes made from the beginning of the season. Malone was regarded as a defensive coach coming into Denver and since his arrival, there has not been much improvement. With Denver being a team that is on the cusp of making the playoffs — with this being the year that many feel they truly turn things around — it starts on the defensive end of the ball. There is no room for error.

Brandon Ewing: I’d buy into the idea that the Nuggets won’t be in the bottom five defensively next season. We know the team is built around offense and the addition of Isaiah Thomas only makes that statement more true, but with the playoffs in sight, I see no way in which the Nuggets won’t buckle down defensively next season.

Just two seasons removed from being the second-worst defensive team in the league, the Nuggets made strides last season even if it was just moving up four spots. The biggest thing that hurt Denver last season was the injury to Millsap and that put a huge hole on the defensive end of the floor. If the Nuggets are able to get a fully heathy season from Millsap, than I believe Denver could grow into an average defensive team. If the team as a whole buys into what Michael Malone and his staff are selling, than defense could be where we see the greatest growth from the Nuggets next season.

Who is the Nuggets best defender other than Paul Millsap?

T.J. McBride: While Torrey Craig could be mentioned here, the correct answer would be Gary Harris. He is a on-ball defensive terror who is quickly growing as an off-ball menace.

This is the year that Harris should take a defensive leap as well. With Millsap set to return healthy, the Nuggets should be able to play a more aggressive brand of defense which plays perfectly into Harris’ skill set. If Malone elects to let Harris play further up the floor and with more of an emphasis on creating turnovers, this could be a huge year for Harris defensively.

Dev Johnson: This is a tough decision, but it is Gary Harris. He is a bit undersized to guard small forwards, but Harris forces forwards into tough looks and plays with a ton of heart. He defends both guard positions and is tasked with going up against some of the best players in the league on a nightly basis. Harris has a knack for getting his hands on the ball and deflecting passes while also causing chaos in the passing lanes. With more wins come more recognition and, if Denver does make the playoffs with 50 wins or so, I expect Harris to fight for a place on an All-Defense team.

Brandon Ewing: A little unconventional here, but I’ll go with Nuggets rookie Jarred Vanderbilt. Players like Plumlee, Harris, and Craig were in contention, but I think Vanderbilt gives the Nuggets something they’ve solely been lacking. Even though we haven’t seen Vanderbilt defend at the NBA level, his upside projects him not only to be fantastic defensively, but by far the Nuggets best defender on the roster. Injury concerns is what allowed him to slide to the Nuggets at pick 41 on draft night, and his high motor was just too great for Denver to pass on at that spot.

With Vanderbilt, the Nuggets have a player whose game is based around his rebounding and defensive ability. Considering Vanderbilt isn’t much of a scorer at this stage of his career, he makes most of his impact on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no telling how many minutes Vanderbilt will get this season, but he’ll certainly make his impact known when it comes to defending whenever those minutes may come.

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