- Missing three starters in Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton, the Nuggets’ strong season is hitting some major adversity. Will Denver be able to hold up defensively without so many key players?
For some reason, the Nuggets are no stranger to the injury bug. Denver, which missed the playoffs by one game, had to play over half their contests without starting forward Paul Millsap last season. To add injury to injury, do-it-all guard Gary Harris also missed a chunk of time down the stretch. A couple months into the current NBA season, the Nuggets already find themselves in a similar predicament. After losing sparkplug Will Barton two games into the year, Millsap and Harris are again on the injured list, with both not expected to return until January. That leaves Denver—and its top-five defense—in a precarious position.
There’s no sympathy in the NBA—except from writers who picked your team to make the NBA Finals. The Nuggets will have to make do without 60% of their starting lineup. It helps that Denver has already piled up 18 wins through its first 27 games, including victories over the Warriors, Raptors, Celtics and Lakers. One of the surprising catalysts of the Nugs’ solid start was their defense, a unit that’s improved from 23rd to fourth from last year.
The sticking point in Denver has always been Nikola Jokic, the offensive savant whose efficacy on the other end of the floor is a cause for concern. Jokic, through his team’s first 27 games, seems to have improved that aspect of his game. You won’t mistake Jokic for a rim protector or lockdown defender, but coach Mike Malone has seemed to help his center by keeping him engaged. For the most part, the Nuggets have Jokic trap hard or even switch on pick-and-rolls. Jokic makes a concerted effort to move his feet, while everyone around him rotates madly to cover the rest of the floor. This scheme has brought Denver some measure of success, and Jokic is doing his part by accepting difficult matchups, and showing more gumption in other areas—like closeouts—as well.
But can that be sustained without Millsap and Harris? Both are key cogs to the Nugs’ defensive identity. Millsap often guards the opponent’s most-used pick-and-roll partner, saving Jokic from numerous actions. He also guards stretchy types when teams play smaller. Both Millsap and Harris are great team defenders, and their attention on the rest of the floor when forced to rotate to cover for others is arguably the biggest factor in Denver’s defensive success.
For the Nuggets, there are some reasons to believe they can survive without so many starters. For one, Denver’s defensive rating with Jokic on the floor full-stop is 103.8. The team’s defensive rating with Jokic when he’s playing without Millsap and Harris is 100.7 is 130 minutes—actually a slightly better mark than with all three on. But Malone’s options aren’t simple.
Jokic and backup center Mason Plumlee have played well together, producing an 83.5 defensive efficiency. But Denver’s offense takes a hit when they share the floor. The Jokic-Trey Lyles pair has been bad on both ends of the court. Yet if Malone starts Plumlee, then he has no backup center, and he’ll be forced into some awkward rotations.
The pressure is going to fall on the whole roster to make up for the injuries. Lyles, Plumlee, Monte Morris, maybe Malik Beasley—a lot of guys are going to have to step up for the Nuggets to stay on their current pace. But this one-month to six-week stretch could serve as something as a referendum on Jokic. If his defense has legitimately improved, then this is a huge opportunity for him to go out and prove it without the benefit of a safety net. The numbers look great for Jokic when the rotation is mostly intact, but how will he perform in the midst of chaos?
I really believe Jokic has been something of a fringe MVP candidate this season. (Okay, maybe I think he at least deserves a couple votes at the bottom of the ballot.) He’s the best and most important player on a team with a top-five defense and top-10 offense. As of Dec. 10, he was second only to Anthony Davis in real plus-minus. He’s a triple double threat every night, averaging 17.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. But there still seems to be some skepticism around his game, his defense, and if he can move the needle in a potential playoff series.
Obviously, December and January ultimately mean little come the postseason. And before worrying about Jokic in a series, the Nuggets need to first actually make the playoffs. But the next six weeks, the majority of which will be spent without two incredibly important starters, will be a clear opportunity for Jokic to show off his value. If Denver maintains its defensive tenacity, then Jokic absolutely deserves more of the credit—a significant improvement for someone who’s long been considered a minus on that end of the floor.
It’s rare for players to prove much at this stage of the regular season. Jokic still needs to shine on the NBA’s biggest stage before he makes a truly resonant statement. But if he keeps the Nuggets rolling, particularly defensively, without their second and third-best players, he can start to change the perception of what he—and his team—are capable of.