Malone: Defense the Key to Unlocking a Playoff-Caliber Nuggets Season

On Monday night, Nuggets coach Michael Malone will address the entire team for the first time at their inaugural season dinner. Hours earlier, on Monday morning, he gave assembled media at the Pepsi Center for Nuggets Media Day a rough draft of what his message would be.

“Defense, defense, defense,” Malone said.

As the Nuggets get set to begin a four-day training camp on Tuesday on the University of Colorado campus, they know big improvements on defense will equal a big season if all of the other variables remain the same from a year ago.

“You go back to Dec. 12 last year, we all know we had the No. 1 offense in the NBA,” Malone said. “The challenge is one word: defense. Will our team commit? Will our team buy-in? Will our team hold each other accountable every single night?

“If we make some major growth on that end of the floor, if we’re able to close out and win close games, I feel we can make a significant jump from last season.”

To that end, Malone is counting on a combination of new personnel, improvement from existing players, and some schematic alterations to help take the Nuggets from being near the bottom of the league in defense last season, to something much higher this time around.

The addition of Paul Millsap should be a big help. The marquee free agent signee ranks high in one subset of the NBA’s newest statistical categories – hustle stats. According to the NBA, he tied for third in contested 3-point attempts per game (4.4) last season; and was in the top 10 in contested threes per 36 minutes and total contested 3-pointers.

It means he is very capable of guarding in space and getting out to stretch four shooters on the perimeter, an area the Nuggets need to shore up. In addition, Malone says he’s asked more out of players who have profiled as solid defenders in the past – such as Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler – and even from those who haven’t, such as Nikola Jokić.

Finally, the coaching staff spent the summer looking at ways to improve from and Xs and Os standpoint. This season, they’ll unleash players more, allow them to take more chances and be aggressive. And they’ll simplify defensive coverages, so that there will be less thinking and more reacting and playing fast.

“If we can keep our offense where it was and improve that end of the floor, I’m excited about the outcomes,” Malone said.

Making the playoffs is the ultimate outcome. It has been four seasons since the Nuggets were last in the postseason. They aren’t running from those expectations; they’re embracing them.

“It sounds cliché, but our expectation is to be better,” Nuggets president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly said. “If we’re better, then it’s going to be a heck of a season and…it’s going to be a bit longer of a season.

“We’re not afraid of the challenge. We play a unique brand of basketball. We’re going to be a tough out. I wouldn’t want to play against us.”

Forward Kenneth Faried was even more to the point.

“I see a bunch of guys ready to play,” Faried said. “To me, this should be an exciting year. Hopefully we get a lot of fans back this year because last year we were right there on the cusp of the playoffs. To me this year is, if we don’t make the playoffs it’s a waste of a year.”

And if making the playoffs means guarding better, Faried took it to heart. In the summer he worked out with some of the NBA’s biggest stars – Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Chris Paul – and accepted the challenge of defending them in order to improve.

“Getting out there really trying to guard them,” Faried said. “You try to go by me, like we’re in an NBA game, and I’m going to guard you.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv or @chrisadempsey on Twitter.

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