For the second straight season, the Golden State Warriors have not defended to their standards in the regular season. They have the most efficient offense we’ve ever seen, but rank 16th on defense. The other three teams that rank in the top 10 on both ends are in the Eastern Conference.
The Nuggets are barely in the top 10 defense, but that is a big step forward. Entering this season, Denver was one of just two teams — the Sacramento Kings were the other — that had ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency each of the last five seasons. And only three teams have improved more defensively from last season.
An improvement of 2.1 points per 100 possessions may not seem that big. But as a whole, the league has scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions this season, up from 107.7 last season. So the Nuggets went from allowing 2.2 more points per 100 possessions than the league average to allowing 1.6 fewer than the league average.
Improvement has come in a few different areas. The Nuggets have gone from 26th to 17th in effective field goal percentage, from 11th to fifth in defensive rebounding percentage, and from 22nd to 15th in opponent turnover rate.
Shooting is the most important thing on both ends of the floor, so the drop in opponent effective field goal percentage is the biggest key to the step forward the Nuggets have taken. And where the Nuggets have improved the most is in their opponents’ shooting from beyond the arc.
The Nuggets (37.8 percent) ranked last in opponent 3-point percentage last season, the third straight year in which they ranked in the bottom four. This season, they rank fifth in opponent 3-point percentage, and no team has seen a bigger improvement.
The Nuggets have actually seen one of the league’s biggest increases in the percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come from 3-point range. But there’s a bigger correlation between overall defensive efficiency and opponent 3-point percentage than there is between efficiency and 3-pointers attempted/field goal attempts.
Opponent 3-point percentage can be noisy data. There’s some luck involved and it can be more about the player shooting the 3-pointer than the team defending it. But there are ways that the defensive scheme and effort can make an impact. And the Nuggets’ defense has been able to make more of an impact this season.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Nuggets have contested a greater percentage of their opponents 3-point attempts than they did last season. Also, 28 percent of their opponents’ 3-point attempts have been off the dribble, up from 25 percent last season. With the league shooting 37 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and just 33 percent on off-the-dribble threes, forcing more of the latter can made a difference.
Denver opponents have taken 29 percent of their 3-point attempts (the league’s highest rate) from the corners, where league-wide 3-point percentage is higher (38.3 percent) than it is from above the break (34.8 percent). They almost lost in Memphis in late January when their pick-and-roll defense allowed Justin Holiday to drain a wide-open, weak-side corner 3-pointer for the lead in the final minute.
But the Nuggets rank second in opponent 3-point percentage (32.5 percent) on those above-the break 3-pointers, which still account for more than 70 percent of the total threes that their opponents have taken.
The Nuggets’ defense has had its ups and downs this season. They ranked fourth defensively (104.1 points per 100 possessions) over the first nine weeks (through Dec. 16), but then ranked 27th (114.0) over the next eight (Dec. 17 – Feb. 10). They’ve turned things back around, though, having allowed just 97.7 points per 100 possessions over their five-game winning streak, their best five-game stretch of defense since late November.
Health has made a difference. The Nuggets have been without Gary Harris for 25 games this season. Paul Millsap was also out for most of December, when that defensive slide began. The Nuggets have allowed just 102.0 points per 100 possessions in 632 minutes with Harris, Millsap and Nikola Jokic on the floor together, even though most of those minutes have come against the opponents’ starters.
Harris is still coming off the bench, but improved health has been a factor in the Nuggets’ five-game winning streak. Their opponents have shot just 43-for-165 (26.1 percent) from 3-point range over the five games, improving the Nuggets to 28-5 when their opponent has shot worse than the league average (35.4 percent) from 3-point range. They’re 23-0 when their opponent has made less than 30 percent of its 3-pointers, something that happened just 13 times all of last season.
The Nuggets’ improved 3-point defense has shown up most in big moments. They’re a league-best 24-10 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, in part because they’ve allowed the fewest points per 100 possessions (95.6) with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Their opponents have shot just 15-for-70 (21 percent – the league’s second lowest opponent mark) on clutch 3-pointers (that Holiday three noted above was the exception to the rule, apparently).
The winning streak (which includes two clutch wins) has pushed the Nuggets back into the top 10 in defensive efficiency, a benchmark for teams hoping to make noise in the postseason. Of the 44 teams to reach The Finals in the 23 seasons for which we have play-by-play data…
- 34 (including 19 of the 22 champions) have ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency in the regular season.
- 36 (including 20 of the 22 champions) have ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in the regular season.
- 23 (including 14 of the 22 champions) have ranked in top 10 on both ends of the floor in the regular season.
- The four-worst ranked defensive teams — the 2017-18 Cavs (29th), the ’00-01 Lakers (22nd), the ’16-17 Cavs (21st) and the ’97-98 Jazz (20th) — were all teams that had been to The Finals the year before. Three of the four lost in The Finals.
It’s been 10 years since the Nuggets won a playoff series and six years since they made the postseason. They’re still a few steps away (with the Warriors’ dynasty being a major road block) from even thinking about The Finals. But climbing from the bottom 10 to the top 10 on defense is a step already taken.