Bradford Doolittle and I have spent much of the first two months of the NBA season talking about surprises, both positive and negative, around the league. One thing we haven't touched on, however, has been the unlikely defensive dominance of the Denver Nuggets.
Given the Nuggets' lethal fast break and the fact that the team boasts two of the NBA's five leading scorers in Allen Iverson (26.3 ppg) and Carmelo Anthony (25.7 ppg), it's not natural to think of them amongst the league's elite defenses. Thanks largely to Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Camby, Denver was ninth in the league in defense in 2006-07. This year, however, the Nuggets have ranked second in the league in Defensive Rating most of the season. Right now, they are running fourth, though the gap between second-ranked Detroit and fifth-ranked Houston is small enough that they, Denver and New Orleans may as well be tied. (In case you haven't been paying attention, the Boston Celtics boast the league's best defense thus far, by a wide margin.)
Despite all of their success, fans and writers who don't look at defense on a per-possession basis may have completely missed what Denver has done over the last two months.
In no small part thanks to the efforts of my colleagues here at Basketball Prospectus on the college side, progress has been made in educating the public to the importance of possessions. Per-100 Possession Offensive and Defensive Ratings are more common in the media now than ever before. At the professional level, they appear on WNBA box scores, on ESPN.com (albeit Insider only) and on NBA.com's Power Rankings. Still, all too frequently when a writer wants to rate a team's defense, he does so on the basis of points per game. Another alternative is opponent field-goal percentage, which is better but still doesn't tell the whole story.
Consider the Nuggets. They rank 25th in the league in points allowed per game (103.6), but most everyone is savvy enough to realize that has more to do with their league-leading pace than their defense. Using opponent field-goal percentage takes pace out of the equation and gets Denver (.444) up to seventh, but still only slightly above a Washington team (.446, ninth) that is actually below average on defense. While field-goal percentage is the most important single component of defense statistically, there are ways to build a great defense without allowing a low percentage from the field.
The Nuggets have built their defense in unorthodox fashion. As observed by Dan Rosenbaum in an interesting recent Boston Globe story on the NBA's improved tracking of statistics, the Nuggets have few players known for their defense beyond Camby. Nonetheless, Denver leads the league in both steals (9.8) and blocks (6.8) per game. Those numbers are inflated slightly by the team's fast pace, but on a per-possession basis the Nuggets rank second in both categories. This combination is pretty rare; in terms of per-game numbers, just Atlanta and Houston join Denver in the top 10 in both blocks and steals.
On top of that, the Nuggets also have the even more unusual ability to get steals and blocks without committing fouls in the process. The propensity to take risks and foul to generate a steal or block a shot is a big reason why those two stats aren't always positive defensive indicators (though at the player level, as apparently at the team level, the combination of both steals and blocks is very often a good sign of an impact defender).
Denver gets steals, per-possession, at a rate that is 19.9% better than league average. Dating back to 1977-78, there have been 34 NBA teams that have stolen the ball at least that well relative to their league. Just eight of them were above-average in terms of keeping opponents off the free-throw line, which the Nuggets do 5.2% better than league average. Surprisingly, a strong majority of the 72 teams that have blocked shots more frequently than the Nuggets do relative to league average (28.0% better) have been above-average at avoiding free throws, but nobody has combined all three skills quite like Denver has this year.
What the Nuggets are doing on defense, then, can be said to be relatively unprecedented.
Leading the way are two players who rack up either blocks or steals while avoiding foul trouble. One of them is Camby. He leads the league with 3.7 blocks per game, but what might be more impressive is his dominance of one of my favorite little-used stats, blocks per foul. Having more blocks than fouls is, generally speaking, a feat; only Camby and Chicago's Ben Wallace (1.02) meet this threshold. Camby is way out at 1.29, which would be one of the 20 best marks in NBA history.
The other individual force is Iverson, who quietly is having an even more remarkable season in terms of steals when fouls are considered in the mix. Iverson's 2.4 steals per game rank him third in the league, and the mark isn't quite as impressive as the 2.8 he averaged in 2001-02 in Philadelphia, but he almost never is called for fouls. His 1.3 fouls per 40 minutes are fewest in the league. As a result, his steal-to-foul ratio is 1.85, which would rank him second in NBA history behind Don Buse's 2.18 mark in 1976-77.
Now, Iverson has occasionally been trotted out as exhibit A of steals being overrated, even by this particular columnist, but they seem to be helping Denver's defense this season. While he might benefit from some marginal defensive subs like Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith, the Nuggets have allowed 5.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with Iverson on the floor this season. By this measure, which I grant is also vulnerable to the small sample size two months into the season, Camby (-8.3) has been far and away the team's most valuable defender, while Kenyon Martin (-5.3) and Yakhouba Diawara (-4.6) have also been key on defense.
Given all this, the success enjoyed by Denver on defense starts to make sense. The basic formula is simple: Camby anchors the middle, Iverson plays the passing lanes and six players average at least one steal if we round up Eduardo Najera (0.97).
There are critics who acknowledge the Nuggets' impressive Defensive Rating but are still hesitant to term them elite on defense, apparently feeling that Denver can be scored upon when it counts. There actually might be some logic to that; when close games become decided by execution, steals are harder to come by and defending without fouling is less important as the officiating becomes more lax.
That said, the Nuggets have put together a defense that has carried them to the top of the Northwest Division despite an offense that has not been as potent as advertised. They've done it in a unique way. You'd never know it if you didn't first look at their defense on a per-possession basis.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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