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Has Denver Found the Right Balance to Make a Finals Run?

Nikola Jokic can light up the scoreboard, no matter which of his costars is healthy. But this offseason, Denver’s front office focused on finally putting a top defense around the two-time MVP in the hopes of taking the leap in the title race.

It was a September morning in the NBA bubble at Disney World, and Denver Nuggets GM Calvin Booth was eating breakfast with Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets had dug themselves into a 3-1 hole against the Los Angeles Clippers, but Booth noticed the Serbian big man just “had this calm about him.”

He wasn’t down on himself, or looking ahead to the offseason. “You can tell when someone still feels like they’re totally immersed in the moment, willing to just see what happens one moment to the next,” Booth recalled recently. “That’s the energy he was giving off.”

Booth left the restaurant thinking, “We might have a chance.” “If your on-the-court leader, best player, is projecting that,” Booth said, “everyone else might pick up on that.”

Jokic, the affable and all-seeing passing hub of the Nuggets’ egalitarian offense, is competitive but tranquil. In a league where long-term harmony is scarce, Jokic’s nature has made the Nuggets’ locker room a consistently pleasant place. But being pleasant wasn’t going to win them Game 5.

As the first half wound down, the Nuggets were down 16. Jokic missed a wide-open 3. Underneath the rim, a rebound battle between then-Nugget Paul Millsap and Marcus Morris escalated into a shoving match. Morris, L.A.’s enforcer,   came chin to chin with Millsap  who met his eyes. “He kind of stood his ground, and the series turned from there,” Booth said. Millsap scored 14 points in the third quarter. Jamal Murray tapped into gutsy shot-making. After years of striving, the Nuggets had finally found a balance between Jokic’s high-octane offense and a defensive edge. For the second time in the same playoff run, the Nuggets overcame a 3-1 deficit, earning a spot in the Western Conference finals.

Ever since 2017-18, when they missed out on the playoffs after losing in overtime on the last day of the season, the Nuggets have bounced between lethargy and determination, a team capable of falling into deep holes and mounting great comebacks. Last season, the offense was tied for sixth best in the NBA, even with Murray and Michael Porter Jr. sidelined. But their defense slipped to 15th. Now that Murray and Porter are back, the Nuggets can make the NBA Finals. First, they’ll have to rediscover the edge they cultivated in the bubble.

“Our goal this year is to be a top-five defense,” head coach Michael Malone said when training camp opened. “There’s a direct correlation between defending at a high level and winning.”

During the tail end of the 2020-21 season, the Nuggets were simmering. Jokic had his first MVP season. Murray was averaging a career-high 21.2 points. Porter, after missing his rookie season with a back injury, emerged as a scintillating scorer, and a midseason trade added Aaron Gordon’s explosive dunks. The quartet  outscored  opponents by 18.2 points per 100 possessions in 117 minutes.

All that forward progress was interrupted when Murray tore his ACL six weeks before the playoffs. Still, hope sprang eternal the next season. Maybe Porter could make the leap. Maybe Gordon could fill the scoring hole. Maybe Murray could return before the playoffs began, to a team made stronger by having to operate in his absence. But nine games in, Porter suffered another back injury, which ended his season. In December, a COVID-19 outbreak ravaged the roster. Even Malone had to miss games.

To stop the bleeding, the Nuggets signed DeMarcus Cousins, who gave up a lot defensively, but his size, soft scoring touch, and passing ability allowed his teammates to seamlessly alternate between him and Jokic. The signing plugged a temporary hole, but a season in survival mode reinforced bad habits, like sluggish defense, tardiness, and a lack of focus. In March, Malone benched the starters in a depressing loss to the Celtics. The toughness they showed in the bubble had been lost.

In the first round of the playoffs, Steph Curry put Jokic and Co. into a blender and sliced them up in five games. “We have players whose strengths are more offense than defense,” Booth said he thought while watching. “We probably need to shift the scales.”

On the Nuggets’ off days during the playoffs, Malone and Booth watched the Celtics sweep the Nets and noticed Bruce Brown, a 6-foot-4 point center, diving into the open space and defending all five positions. Brown’s defense on Jayson Tatum, in Malone’s eyes, was among the best he’d ever seen. Booth noticed his offensive upside, including that Brown shot 40 percent from beyond the arc last season. Brown checked off all the boxes on Booth’s checklist ahead of his first offseason after taking over the lead decision-maker role from former president of basketball operations Tim Connelly: size, toughness, and versatility. But at the time, the Nuggets thought he would be out of their price range, and Brown thought he’d be heading back to Brooklyn. During the offseason, Nets brass visited Brown in Miami, where he was training. “It made it sound like they really wanted me back,” Brown said, “and then they never called me during free agency.”

On the second day of free agency, Malone urged Jeff Green—Brown’s former teammate in Brooklyn—to call him. Brown was mesmerized by the fit, the way his game could flow seamlessly into the constellation of cutters and shooters revolving around Jokic. “My play style, playing with superstars in the past,” Brown said, “I know exactly where to be, when to be there.”

Green also recruited DeAndre Jordan, another former Net, to anchor the defense on the second unit and be a locker room presence.

The Nuggets asked around the league about Brown and heard, according to Booth, that he was “very competitive, but he’ll be lighthearted too.” Booth likes the mix. “You have a lot of guys like that in the locker room and he kind of fits in well in that sense,” he said. “He can crack a joke, but he’s a killer, too, competitively.” Jordan strikes a similar balance, known for being one of the nicest guys in the league.

Brown, Jordan, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who arrived via trade this offseason from the Wizards) are defenders by trade—passionate and prideful, to be sure, but exceedingly professional. They’ll bring Denver up a notch, and they’ll fit the locker room culture. And then there’s Bones Hyland, last year’s lone silver lining. As a rookie, Hyland gave the Nuggets a snarling, flexing, trash-talking presence they’ve never had. “He’s an agitator,” says Booth. “He lets you know when he’s giving you a basket.”

His emergence bolstered the Nuggets’ perimeter depth, giving them the breathing room to trade Will Barton and Monte Morris—two key rotation pieces who had been with the Nuggets for eight and five years, respectively—for Ish Smith and Caldwell-Pope.

Through most of the Jokic era, the voice trying to break them out of lethargic spells has belonged to the person who can’t get on the court and do anything about it. “Yeah,” Malone quipped, “me.”

“No, I’ll tell you what,” he continued. “Guys like DeAndre Jordan, [Caldwell-Pope], Bruce, Ish, some of the new players, have really surprised me in that regard.”

Assistant coach Ryan Saunders, hired this summer to be Denver’s defensive coordinator, believes modern defenses “have to have guys who can react to what happens on the floor. I like to say, ‘We’d love if the game could be played in a black-and-white area, but unfortunately it’s played in a gray area.’”

So the Nuggets will employ multiple coverages—switching, dropping, trapping—based on the situation, and try to talk their way through it.

“We have enough firepower,” Booth said, “so now it’s just more about trying to figure out how do we stay in the game? How do we defend other elite teams when they’re giving us their best punch?”

The NBA’s best punch will await them Friday, when they travel to Golden State for a playoff rematch, but they already got a preview in their final preseason game last week against the Warriors.

On the Nuggets’ first defensive possession, they switched Brown, Gordon, and Caldwell-Pope on Curry pick-and-rolls, trapping when the Warriors tried to involve Jokic. In the playoffs, Curry   scored 33 points, shooting 46 percent from the 3-point line, when defended by Jokic. The reigning MVP has improved his defense, shed weight, run harder, and improved his positioning, but the Warriors run action after action, designed to put nearly any defender—let alone a ground-bound 7-footer—into a frenzy. Kevon Looney immediately initiated a dribble handoff with Klay Thompson, but Caldwell-Pope followed Thompson’s movements and denied the pass long enough for Jokic to catch up, forcing Looney to kick the ball to Draymond Green.

This is the beauty of continuity. After years of tinkering with the right scheme and personnel to build around Jokic’s flaws, the Nuggets are nailing the specifics, flanking him with a screen-navigating specialist and avoiding putting Jokic in drop coverage.

But the Warriors are relentless when they find a sore spot. Green passed the ball right back to Looney, and Thompson pushed off Caldwell-Pope, who fell. Jokic fought over Looney’s screen and got a hand in Thompson’s face, but he nailed the 3. It’s a familiar story for the Warriors’ opponents: 21 seconds of good defense falling to great offense.

The NBA’s best defensive teams feature multiple top-flight defenders, with the talent, IQ, and athleticism to erase missed rotations and breakdowns. Denver, despite all of its improvements, can afford few mistakes or lapses in efforts. But they opened the season against the Jazz on Wednesday leaving shooters wide open, getting outraced in transition, and out-rebounded 27-11 in the first half. They entered the second half nursing a 22-point deficit. By the time their defense woke up, Utah was in too strong a rhythm to be stopped.

The Nuggets have the stamina and problem-solving skills to chip away at their defensive limitations. As Brown put it, “when we know what the hell we’re doing, we’re really good.” The Nuggets are a sleeping giant. They just need to wake up.

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