As the Nuggets have found quickly themselves atop the Western Conference, winning nine of their last 13 games since a three-game losing streak in early December, an improved defense has been a key reason for their winning ways.
They have held opponents to 111 points or fewer (in regulation) in five of their last nine games, a feat they’d accomplished just six times in their first 25 games. This surge of game-winning defense has coincided with the return of Michael Porter Jr. to the lineup, who missed 13 games with a heel injury. As a player usually regarded as a defensive liability, what has MPJ done to shift the narrative and help lead the team to the top spot in the Western Conference?
What has changed between Michael Porter Jr. and Bruce Brown in the starting lineup?
While Michael Porter Jr. was sidelined, the Nuggets turned to 6’5 Bruce Brown to play small forward for them, and while he has famously been one of the most versatile players in the league during his career, his size downgrade from 6’11 Porter was still apparent. Brown is a more experienced and skilled defender than Porter, but his size mismatch still became an issue in matchups against teams with larger wing players.
Porter’s size and 7’0 wingspan help him cover far more ground than the smaller Brown, allowing him to synergize far better with Denver’s “drop coverage” defensive strategy. Drop coverage refers to the bigger defenders, typically Nikola Jokic in Denver’s case, dropping below screens and backpedaling with a ball-handler, rather than trying to switch or navigate around a screen.
The problem with this defense can be the momentum that a quicker player can get toward the basket, but lengthy players like Porter can be crucial in covering ground to help Jokic defend the rim.
Brown and Porter have both played the same position this year but serve completely different roles on the team and play very differently into Denver’s identity, giving them multiple ways to game plan around their defensive strategies. This versatility shows that General Manager Calvin Booth’s strategy of defense-first guards (Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Christian Braun) has worked and gives the team much more room to experiment and adapt.
Brown can stick on defenders who work on the perimeter while Porter helps in sagging off less potent offensive players to help the team defend the paint.
What improvements has MPJ shown?
While Denver’s scheme plays into their defensive improvements, Porter has also improved his ability as a defender overall. He has shown flashes of great clutch defense, even on smaller and faster players like Chris Paul in their overtime win on Christmas. Porter’s length and ability to catch up are especially apparent in this stop of Paul with the game in the balance:
Denver can feel much more comfortable switching Porter onto smaller players if he continues to show flashes like that, and that gives Denver more options in how they approach matchups. DNVR’s Harrison Wind also pointed out one of many great defensive plays by Porter in Thursday Night’s 31-point blowout of the Clippers, as he guards a much stronger and tougher player in Marcus Morris:
If Michael Porter Jr. can keep up the defensive improvements he has made this season into the playoffs, Denver’s perceived weak point of defense can become much less of a worry as the team carries championship aspirations through this season. While they still rank 23rd in defensive rating, the improvements, especially from Michael Porter Jr., have been clear and seem sustainable as the team continues to win.