For Nuggets to make the playoffs, they need to find leaders and a defensive edge

If confidence is born out of continuity and structure, consider the Denver Nuggets ahead of schedule.

Entering Year 4 with coach Mike Malone, the Nuggets are largely relying on organic development rather than re-wiring an operation that has been painstakingly close to the playoffs the last two seasons.

“It’s not like it was Day 1 in training camp, introducing a whole new system, philosophy and terminology,” Malone said recently. “I think we’re definitely ahead of where we’ve been.”

Part of that self-assurance stems from knowing that this year’s starters — Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Paul Millsap — were all part of last year’s disappointment. Malone is hoping that last year’s shared experience of losing at Minnesota on the final day of the regular season drives his team to snap their five-year playoff drought.

“We have to understand, it’s never about who we’re playing,” he said before Friday’s preseason finale in Chicago. “Hold ourselves to a higher standard, make sure we’re playing the way that we want to play and if you truly have playoff aspirations, that’ll be dictated by your everyday actions. How badly do you want it? It can’t be just talk. You have to be willing to do it every single day. Hopefully our guys have learned from the last couple of years.”

The words urgency and expectations have become commonplace around the Nuggets these days.

Fortunately, the Nuggets know exactly what they have, who they are and what was lacking in last season’s 46-win campaign. They are an elite offensive team, unselfish and dangerous from the 3-point line, that was short-circuited by their defense.

This year’s preseason focus was on improving a defense that ranked among the league’s most porous in numerous categories. Malone is fond of saying that the Nuggets ranked last in 3-point defense at 37.8 percent, and given the league’s philosophical shift toward the 3-point line, he recognizes that’s not adequate for a postseason contender. They also gave up the most points off turnovers of any team in the league at 18.7. Defense starts with offense, and the Nuggets must take better care of the ball to avoid being exposed in transition scenarios.

The early — though incomplete — returns are somewhat positive. Only one team (Australia’s Perth Wildcats) shot better than 35 percent from 3-point range against the Nuggets this preseason, and it’s not hard to believe that the Nuggets may have overlooked that exhibition. There were also some gaudy turnover numbers (25 against the Lakers) that illustrate a work in progress.

Malone’s philosophy?

“I think it’s five guys on the team, on the floor, buying in, being committed, caring, having great discipline whether it be game plan or personnel,” he said, “and for us, I think the biggest area of growth is going to be on that end.”

With Millsap healthy after missing 44 games last season due to wrist surgery, the defense should get a significant frontcourt anchor. His rim protection — highlighted by three dynamic blocks in one quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers last week — is integral while playing alongside Jokic, whose defensive shortcomings leave a gap in the frontcourt. But that breach can be mitigated if Murray and Harris get into their opponents and stop the point of attack like they did Friday against the Chicago Bulls (seven combined steals).

Aside from the defense, the other lingering, less tangible matter remains the team’s leadership. It’s not the Nuggets’ fault that they’re young — in fact, their core is one of the most intriguing across the entire NBA. But the concern remains that the Nuggets are devoid of prominent voices, and at this point, they can only hope one of Jokic, Harris or Murray develops into someone who demands the attention of a locker room. They’re not there yet, but the Nuggets are trying to help.

“In practice (Thursday) we did a few drills where the coaches didn’t say a word,” Malone said. “We put the onus and responsibility solely on the players to talk. We have a quiet team by nature and so we’re trying to find as many creative ways as we can to force them to talk, force them to communicate because after all they’re on the floor together.”

It’s a fascinating experiment as the Nuggets try to expedite the process. With the regular season starting Wednesday, they can only hope their experience does the same for their postseason hopes.

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