Las Vegas Diaries: The Defensive Evolution Begins
By Christopher Dempsey
Friday night, after the Nuggets’ first summer league game, one of the team’s newest acquisitions, Bruce Brown, reminded everyone that getting to a space of playing consistent suffocating defense is a process.
He used himself as the example.
“As you know, rookie year, I was getting foul calls every two seconds,” Brown said. “But now they just let me be more physical, get into guys. And I kind of built that reputation from when I first got into the league.”
The Nuggets are undergoing a metamorphosis. The goal: To evolve from a team that had the 15th best defensive rating in the NBA (111.5) to at least jump inside the top 10. A move toward the top five in the league would be the ideal scenario. Last season’s NBA Finals were played between the teams with the top two defensive ratings in the league. Boston was No. 1 at 106.2, and Golden State was No. 2 at 106.6.
The Nuggets are in the cocoon stage.
Brown is part of the solution. Courtside, next to Nuggets coach Michael Malone, he watched intently as another piece of the Nuggets’ new defensive puzzle, wing Christian Braun, got after it on the court.
And for his first action as a professional, Braun dazzled. On ball, he was stout — took away space and did his level best to stay in front of the ball-handler; fought through screens. Off the ball, he was attentive — kept the court shrunk on the weak side without getting too disconnected from his man at the 3-point line; deflected so many passes; and recorded one steal, while nearly getting another.
Collin Gillespie, already on a two-way contract with the Nuggets, recorded four steals.
But as with Brown reminding those listening that he had to evolve from fouling too much to being physical without fouling, this is going to be a process. The Nuggets on the court in the first summer league game had moments of brilliance defensively — and they also had breakdowns that eventually cost them the game. The players we know will be on the team in the fall were a microcosm of that.
“We’ve got to step up on defense and defensive transition,” Braun said.
And they will. Because they want to.
That is the first, most important step. You have to want to play defense. You have to want to be physical and be detailed and be a pest and relish in repeatedly doing those things, game-in and game-out.
It won’t be perfect at the start of the regular season, just like it wasn’t perfect to start the summer league season. But in collecting players with a tough, defensive mindset like Brown and Braun, the Nuggets can emerge from that cocoon as a transformed team.