Last season, the Golden State Warriors dominated both ends of the court. Their offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) was easily tops in the league, while their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was second, just a hair behind the San Antonio Spurs.
While the Dubs’ dominance is well-documented, what’s lesser known is just how good the Denver Nuggets’ offense was.
For reasons still unknown, the Nuggets began last season with Jusuf Nurkic as their starting center. This pushed budding superstar Nikola Jokic to the bench for some games, and to the power forward position for others, and neither experiment worked.
Halfway through December, Nurkic was sent to the pine, and Jokic was anointed as Denver’s centerpiece. Around the same time, up-and-coming shooting guard Gary Harris returned from injury, and it was game on for Denver.
From the midway point of December until the end of the season – a time that spanned 57 games – the Nuggets had the best offense in the league. Their offensive rating of 113.3 was not only better than the Warriors’ mark during that same span, but better than the Warriors’ full season mark.
In other words, Denver’s offense was truly elite.
Warriors D hasn’t yet hit their stride
The Warriors’ defense should be better this year. Stephen Curry looks to have made improvements, Kevin Durant is familiar with the system, and the bench defense is greatly improved. And yet, so far, they’ve fallen flat.
Simply put, the vaunted Warriors’ defense that has been a staple of the Dubs’ identity since the Mark Jackson days has been absent thus far this year. The seamless rotations and swarming help defense have been replaced by laziness, lack of awareness, and casual swiping.
After being a runner-up last year, Golden State’s defensive rating has been 23rd in the league this season, as they’ve given up 5 points per 100 possessions more than in their championship campaign.
And yet, they’ve started to show signs of life. Against the Spurs on Thursday, and the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, the Dubs looked engaged and energetic on defense, as they rotated almost telepathically, and attacked defenders at every opportunity.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and it goes without saying that Steve Kerr, Ron Adams, and Draymond Green are pretty unhappy with the defensive product. But they’re turning the ship around, and the Nuggets represent an opportunity for the Dubs’ defense to grow a little more.
So, about that Nuggets offense
After last year’s stellar offensive run, the Nuggets were primed to take another step forward this year. Jokic – still only 22 – figured to have developed his game further, which is a terrifying thought for opposing defenses. Young slingers Harris and Jamal Murray were in position to improve their games, and provide Jokic with the kind of spacing that makes him so dangerous as a playmaker.
And, of course, they added four-time All-Star Paul Millsap to the fold. Millsap – a savvy scorer from the post, with a half-decent jumper – figured to fit right in with Denver’s free-flowing, space-centric offense.
And yet, the early returns have not been good. Denver’s offense looked nothing short of paltry in the opening week: the movement was clunky and uncoordinated, no one looked comfortable or confident, and the shots simply weren’t falling. An offense that had so recently looked unstoppable, suddenly looked decidedly pedestrian.
In their last few games, Denver has started to find the accelerator, but still, their offensive rating sits outside of the top-10, in the same tier as the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons. For a team that was piling on points with the Warriors and Houston Rockets last year, that company simply isn’t good enough.
But with every game, Murray and Harris have looked more comfortable, and their shots have started to fall. Millsap is beginning to look familiar with his new team’s offense, and Jokic’s superstardom is ripe for him to pick.
Denver’s offense has not been elite, but it will be, and they’re starting to get there. Golden State’s defense has not been elite either, but it will be, and they’re starting to get there.
And tonight, one of them will get a step closer.