Nuggets Defensive Shortcomings Continue to Haunt Them

I have written about how the Denver Nuggets have a low defensive IQ.  There have too many breakdowns in communication and positioning that should not be happening at this point in the season.  In their hard fought 124-118 overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder there was a perfect example of that.  On a key play in the game where Denver needed a stop, they had two players fail to think and communicate.  The result undermined very solid defense by their teammates.

With the Nuggets down two and under 40 seconds left Russell Westbrook, who had 38 points on 15-28 shooting ran a pick and roll on the right side of the floor with Serge Ibaka.  Arron Afflalo was covering Westbrook and Kosta Koufos was checking Ibaka.

Ibaka sets a very strong screen and Westbrook does a fine job of directing Afflalo into it.  Koufos does a solid job of hedging.

Koufos forces Westbrook back into the middle of the lane, the other Nuggets all collapse into the lane to force Westbrook to pass, all except for Al Harrington who smartly remains in place to deny a pass to Kevin Durant who had already gone nova.  Miller sags off of James Harden and forces Westbrook to pass.

Lawson, who had been covering Daequan Cook and dropped down to the left block when Westbrook drove into the paint, closed out on Harden.  Miller reacts and rotates to the corner to challenge a potential pass to Cook.

So far, so good, Denver has stopped a pick and roll and rotated.  However, for some reason Afflao and Koufos have both decided to stay with Ibaka.  Westbrook is wide open at the top of the circle.   Harden gets past Lawson after a shot fake and Westbrook is ready for a pass back.

Westbrook, who if you recall is one of the two Thunder players who is making shots, catches the ball at the free throw line and drains a jumper to put the Thunder up by two possessions with only 27 seconds remaining.


In my mind the blame falls on Afflalo, however, it is certainly possible that he could have thought that he and Koufos switched and Westbrook was Koufos’ responsibility.  Regardless, how two players covered Ibaka while Westbrook was wide open is the kind of mind-numbingly poor decision making on defense that has been haunting the Nuggets.  It also goes to show how one mistake can undermine solid defense by the rest of the team.

It also displays the lack of communication that is necessary to play successful team defense.  Afflalo clearly saw both he and Koufos were covering Ibaka.  It was clear they were not on the same page.  If he thought they had switched, why did he not instruct Koufos to return to Westbrook.  If they were playing hedge and recover, as Koufos clearly was, he should have told Afflalo to return to Westbrook because he was back in position to cover Ibaka.

Denver cannot continue to struggle on both ends of the floor in close games.  Hopefully the return of Danilo Gallinari will help on the offensive end, but at this point their defensive shortcomings are not going to be resolved via personnel.

The good news, if there is any, is Denver had stopped Westbrook on the pick and roll and rotated to handle any threat on the weakside.  However, as long as they fail to make simple adjustments, such as cover the red hot point guard, or box out, they will continue to exit the court in defeat.

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  • Andrew

    Very nice work, Jeremy. I agree with you. Denver does have a low defensive IQ, this play is a good example, and that is directly reflective of coaching.

    If one or two guys are continually messing up on defense, then maybe it is just those players. If the entire team has defensive lapses, and the team as a whole is considered to have a low defensive IQ, that’s bad coaching. Period.

  • Golden Fan

    This is a fact and a law: Individual defensive lapses goes on the players while Team defensive lapses goes on the coach. It’s he or should I say George Karl who supposed to make the correct defensive gameplan. They would have practiced defense rigorously. Karl should have guided the players what to do on how to rotate and contain. The team already has the players capable of defending. The players have the toughness and the length to defend. They looked confuse on defense because the coach did not teach them how. This is hands down George Karl’s fault. Every losses depresses me because of this. Bad team defense just breaks my heart.

  • Kalen

    Awesome, this is great stuff Jeremy. Seeing it visually with commentary guiding us through the breakdown is very helpful in understanding just how awful Denver’s defense is at times.

    • ParkHillNative

      Fully agree. This is one of the things I come here for, even as I also try to keep up with all the discussion at Denver Stiffs.

  • jc

    im actually proud of the nuggs not defensively but as a team it took 2players to score 91 points 2 key starters out rudy out and not to mention the horrible officiating at the end

  • jc

    i have supported GK for years now but truth is its hard to want another coach but i have to say i do the years the nuggs were legit contenders and all the first round exits were hard to watch and just letting this team fall apart the nuggets have lost 15 games 12 which were under 5 point games in the last 2:00 this teams defensive lapses are terrible to what there is good coaching canidates out there like larry brown or jeff van gundy defensive minded up tempo coaches are what this team needs im sorry to say this but something needs to be done

  • gk4prez

    Even on that breakdown, look at the last slide. Koufos and Afflalo were still not on the same page, they both rushed to try and defend Westbrick. Westbrick could have just as easily passed the ball to Ibaka for a dunk because nobody was left to guard him.

    Go one slide up from the last slide and look at how easily harden was able to get by Lawson, he could have pulled up and drawn Koufos even farther away from the rim, which would have left Afflalo sealed on Ibaka’s back for another easy pass at the rim for a dunk.

    Harden wasn’t hitting anything from outside, he was 1-7 on his 3 attempts and 2-12 overall, so why did Lawsome get so far up on him and allow him to go right by him?

  • jc

    idk this teams biggest defensive problem is allowing open 3s

  • Bryan

    Do you remember when Chauncey came to Denver? One of his comments was that he had to get Karl to draw up inbounds plays. If the coach is unconcerned about details or doing the little things, it should come as no surprise that the players don’t either.

    I mean I’ve seen high school coaches use defensive substitutions more frequently than Karl does. At the end of the fourth, they needed OKC to miss and to get the rebound. Kofous who dominated the boards in the first half sits on the bench. Birdman whose stick like physique allows him to get bullied under the basket, and who has a propensity to try and out jump guys instead of box out stays in. And the pg gets the rebound.

    I guess you should be stoked though, Jeremy. I believe the Nuggets are now a lottery team. And they didn’t even have to drive fans away by signaling that they were intentionally tanking!

    It’s just too bad Denver will never get the no 1 pick in Stern’s rigged lottery. And even if they did, and got an amazing player, it should be beyond obvious by now that Denver is never going to win a championship with Karl at the helm.

  • ny nugs fan

    my favorite play of the game was watching faried send westbrick’s dunk into the first row; that being said, i couldn’t help but wonder down the stretch when westbrick was making those monster dunks down the lane if faried sitting on the bench was the right decision; those westbrick dunks were huge to the outcome of the game

    although the nugs lost i actually like our chances in a 7 game series against okc; for me, their scariest player was eric maynor… being the turnoverless playmaker he was and westbrick not being a true playmaker at the point is going to haunt that team eventually

  • Go On With That

    The nuggets need a new coach and can’t do anything about it. A good coach is worth about five points every game if he has his players in the right position. Karl leaves Miller in the game too long and when he get’s tired, here comes the bad passes and missed open jumpers. Why wouldn’t you put Brewer back in the game and then you have three players than can hold Durant if they switch. Denver also switch to often off the pick-and-roll even when they don’t have too which causes a huge mismatch (Durant on Ty) inside. Why can’t the coach see that and correct their poor pick-and-roll defense. I like George but he adds nothing to this team and that’s shameful. Chauncey coached this team from the floor when he was here. I doubt if we make the playoffs.