A Look at the Nuggets' Massively Improved Defense
Shortly before the season, I wrote an article examining the Denver Nuggets’ potent offense and discussing why they’re a team to watch this season. Despite their wins and losses both coming in spurts, at 14-7, it’s safe to say this was a fair evaluation. But what’s surprised everyone thus far is that their defense—which was 23rd last year (109.9)—now finds itself at 3rd (103.2). Having not undergone major acquisitions or losses in player personnel, what’s the big reason for the newfound success?
Building a great defense around one-way superstar Nikola Jokic is no easy task, but Mike Malone’s managed to do it. In an era where dropping the big in the PNR is very popular (Jazz with Gobert, Boston with Horford, Thunder with Adams) you’d think that Nuggets would just fall in line with that right? Especially with a slow-footed big in Jokic, you’d think you’d want him to stay in the paint where he can be exploited less easily. But Malone has decided to change the scheme entirely, realizing that something had to change from last year.
Hedging the PNR is a coverage where the big defender quickly lunges at the ballhandler as they come off the screen before returning to their man. It can also be called Show, and a more aggressive version of it turns into Blitzing.
Hedging can be very effective when done well, but has clear disadvantages as well, and like any PNR coverage, requires off-ball rotations to be sharp. It also puts pressure on the on-ball defender to buy his teammate time to return to his man. Hedging can be exploited by a popping big or a hard roll.
First we’ll look at defending Kyrie and Horford in the PNR:
Jokic demonstrates the ideal hedge here. Even though Horford pops, Jokic lunges at Kyrie in a way that forces him to take a retreat dribble. In this time, Murray is able to return to Kyrie and Jokic to Horford. That retreat dribble is the whole goal of a hedge. Also great that this didn’t require any rotations that would put the defense out of whack.
Now here’s a great example of not only a great hedge from Jokic, but great help defense from his teammates:
As Jokic hedges, Len rolls hard to the rim, which as I stated above is a strong counter. But Harris and Millsap both do a good job of sinking in to deter Young from hitting the roll man, and he instead swings it to the wing. Even though Spellman is known as a shooter, Millsap sunk close enough to both help and return to his man quickly.
Here’s another late against the Grizzlies:
Notice how here it’s only a quick little jab before getting back to Gasol. Bonus here that Jokic forced him into a contested long two. The defense will take that any day.
Now here are some examples where there is still work to be done. First, another against the Grizzlies:
In this clip, not enough pressure is put on the ball by either Jokic or Monte Morris, and Shelden Mack is able to easily find Gasol for the roll and easy dunk. That pressure is key (arms up, sprinting back) as it can really discourage the ball handler from making that pass. Plus there’s late/little help from Lyles on the baseline as Gasol rolls..
Lastly, here’s one with Plumlee hedging to show how much this isn’t exclusive to Jokic:
Notice how the Hawks put two Nuggets’ bigs in the PNR here, which makes it especially difficult on Lyles who isn’t used to defending that way. Nonetheless, both commit to the ball without taking away the pass and Carter slips it into Poythress who makes a nice play on the short roll.
While it isn’t the only difference in scheme, it’s definitely been one of the most noticeable changes for the Nuggets, and it’s clearly been working. Credit to Malone and his team for being able to pull it off so far.