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Enver or Denver? Is There a D?

A long time ago, I posted a poll asking what you Citizens thought of Denver's defense.  My timing was bad - it was a subject on my mind, but with months before the next Clippers-Nuggets game, I had no real reason to post anything about it.  Well, I was patient, and now the Clippers and the Nuggets are playing again.  

In case you did not look it up, at the time I asked the question, the Nuggets were second in the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession).  And today they are fifth in the league.  All season long, they have been in a top 5 defensive team.

It is telling that the poll results have them all over the map.  14% of you correctly identified them as top 5, but more than half (56%) felt like they were a below average defensive team, with one more person putting them in the bottom 5 than had them in the top 5!

The misconception is due in large part to the pace of their games and by an ensuing false assumption.  The Nuggets play at the highest pace in the league - they run a lot, their own possessions are short, and as a result, their games feature more possessions than any other team in the league.  That's right, more than Golden State and more than Phoenix.  Denver averages 97.7 possessions per game; the Warriors are second with 97.1; the Clippers average 91.2, which is 12th in the league.  Those possessions simply give both teams more chances to score, and only 3 teams allow more points per game than the Nuggets.  But you don't have to be immersed in advanced stats to see that points allowed per possession is a better measure of a team's actual defense than points allowed per game.  That just makes sense.

Still, I fancy myself a non-idiot when it comes to things basketball-related, and just don't see Denver as a top tier defensive team.  So to me at least, it's counter-intuitive beyond the simplistic "but they give up a lot of points."  I mean, I understand that they force a lot of turnovers.  I understand that they have quick and active hands and get their hands on a lot of balls (watch for that tonight).  And obviously they've got Camby defending the rim.  But a lot of those deflections are coming from players out of position, cheating into passing lanes and gambling for steals, which more often results in easy buckets for the opponent.  Furthermore, other than Camby and maybe Kenyon Martin, you wouldn't really characterize any other Nuggets regulars as good individual defenders.  Certainly the face players, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, have generally deserved reputations as poor defenders.  So what's going on here?  

I've come to the conclusion that the stats don't lie - but neither do they tell the whole story.  The Nuggets DO get a lot of deflections, and MDsr will tell you that deflections are the mark of a very good defensive team.  And Marcus Camby can erase a LOT of mistakes gambling for steals - he leads the league in blocked shots by a wide margin, and for every block there are two or three more challenges at the rim that might save a bucket.  I've become convinced that a top tier shot-blocker (and Camby's the best) is an incredible asset, and in fact enables the gambling defensive strategy that they employ in Denver.  (This all bodes well for the 08-09 Clippers, with TWO top 10 shot blockers on the back line.)

My own bias against Denver stems at least in part from my high school playing days.  Coach LaBelle told me not to reach.  He told me that was bad defense.  So I don't reach.  I move my feet, and stay in front of the guy, but I don't reach.  That's how I was taught to play the game.  And it turns out, I was probably taught wrong.  Or more to the point, reaching in is not ALWAYS bad, despite what Coach LaBelle said.

But there's another factor at play here.  Think of it this way.  Denver is a top 5 defensive club.  Denver has the third and fourth highest scorers in the NBA.  And of course the same way we have to factor in the pace to get a real measure of their defensive ability, we have to factor OUT pace to see how good they really are on offense.  But their 12th in the league.  So if they are first quartile in defense, and second quartile in offense, with not one but TWO brilliant individual scorers - well, that sounds like a formula for a stellar NBA record.  For instance, Golden State is 6th in offensive efficiency but a truly bad 23rd in defensive efficiency - but the Warriors currently have a better record than the Nuggets.  So what gives?  It's pretty obvious the Nuggets are underachieving when you compare their record to their statistics.

The Nuggets are wildly inconsistent.  And I'm not the only one who thinks so.  Back in January after a bad loss to the Lakers, Kelly Dwyer wrote the post that I had been thinking about writing.

And of course this explains another factor in my skewed perception of Denver.  Which, frankly, is that my perception is skewed.  Skewed by the games that I actually SEE them play.  I don't watch the Nuggets 82 games a year.  Honestly, I'm not a fan of Anthony or Iverson (which you may have noticed over the years), and I don't watch them much, despite the fact that they are on national TV a lot.  Here are some of the games I've seen this season:

I've seen four Nuggets games in their entirety this season (and bits and pieces of others, to be sure) and they've been atrocious on defensive in three of them.  So in my experience, they're bad defensively, and the game where they played great on that end is the exception.  Dwyer states it the other way, which based on the data is what in fact must be happening:
The answer here lies in the games that a lot of fans don't see, the contests that aren't on national TV....  This is easily the most inconsistent defensive team in the NBA. It's not even close. They go from dominant, to downright sieve-like.

(Pop culture note: I'm not the only blogger with a thing for Joe Jackson.  I was saddened by the Taco Bell commercial - Joe Jackson shilling Gorditas; KD blogged about it the same day he was talking about the Nugs D.  Me and KD - simpatico.)

I have one other theory on the Nuggets defense - and it would be easy enough to prove or disprove with a little data, but frankly I don't feel like doing the research right now.

You may be aware the Denver is sometimes called 'The Mile High City'.  I was surprised recently to find out that this has nothing to do with the number of slutty flight attendants who live there, but rather is related to the town's elevation, which, as it happens is, like, I dunno, a mile or something above sea level.  Denver's home record is 22-7, while their road record is 12-16.  That's a big disparity.  The altitude is a real factor for visiting teams, and it's not unreasonable to think that pressure defensive tactics in particular might be more effective against a winded team.  A half-step slow to go meet that pass?  That's a steal and a dunk for Carmelo in Denver, when it might well have been a lane to the basket closer to the ground.

So, biases and perceptions and sexy stews aside, Denver is a good defensive team.  Their inconsistency may yet keep them out of the playoffs in the West, but Yao's surgery has probably opened the door wide enough.  We'll see which team shows up tonight, but I'm not optimistic playing them a mile high.