Here’s a shot for you that will be scorching hot or ordinarily warm depending on how closely you’ve been watching the Nuggets this season: Nikola Jokic is no longer a defensive inconvenience.
How can a player who Markieff Morris called “a 300 pound fat sloppy kid” be a good defender, who has the acceleration of a Toyota Prius, who looks like Patrick from “SpongeBob” found a pair of Jordans dumped in the sea? ? Those physical attributes hampered Jokic considerably early in his career, but he has found a way to maximize his limited tools and become a defensive advantage.
Assessing the defense can be tricky. There is no substitute for watching the games, so I will divide my argument for Jokic’s defense into three parts ordered by importance: the sight test argument, the statistical argument, and what those in the know have been saying about him.
The argument from the sight test
Jokic’s offensive highlights are a dime a dozen, but how about some defensive highlights? He has made three blocks to save games this season.
To be fair, those plays are the exception rather than the norm. Jokic has a knack for getting shots and passes, but he’s not the type of rim protector who can block shots at their highest point. His lateral quickness will also always limit his defensive ceiling. But he has discovered a way to improve his greatest weakness: the versatility of schemes in pick-and-roll defense.
Jokic has preferred to score at the screen level in recent years, rising to the top of the court to put pressure on the point guards. He is capable of affecting passing due to his lightning fast hands and the anticipation of what is to come. He has been one of the best centers in the league, generating deflections and steals while playing this style.
While Jokic has been solid for some time defending at the level during the regular season, the Nuggets have gotten into trouble when forced to make postseason adjustments. In last year’s playoffs, they tried to play him more in fall coverage, causing him to sink below screen level on pick-and-rolls and waiting in the paint for guards coming down the hill toward him.
The result? The Nuggets’ defensive rating in the playoffs was 11.2 points per 100 possessions, worse than during the regular season. For context, that’s the same as the gap between the NBA’s best defense and the No. 26 team this season.
Jokic had been a poor free fall defender because he didn’t provide much protection at the rim, he couldn’t keep up with guards coming downhill towards him, and he didn’t have decent proficiency when guards stopped to shoot. He has started to address those glaring weaknesses this season.
Watch him in pitching coverage during the crucial moment of the Nuggets’ win over the Thunder last week. He stayed below screen level, signaled to communicate a peeling change with teammate Austin Rivers and earned solid competition on Josh Giddey’s floating attempt to tie the game.
Here’s another example of that Thunder game where Jokic played multiple different covers within the same possession. He froze one ball screen, dropping below screen level, then bounced back and raised to level to protect a second ball screen before finally contesting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s shot and securing the rebound.
It may not sound like a big deal, but the ability to employ multiple different types of coverage on the same possession is a first for Jokic and the Nuggets. The versatility of the scheme is what wins in the playoffs. He keeps the big offensive players on their toes, and if Jokic can continue to improve as a defender, then he can provide an added boost that the Nuggets have lacked in their previous playoff outings.
The analytical argument
Public defensive metrics certainly have their flaws, but they give a general idea of the player’s performance. For Jokic, there is a strong consensus among all the major metrics that classify him as a high-level defender. These are some of the Jokic numbers:
The driving force behind these consistently high evaluations is that the Nuggets play much better defense with Jokic on the court vs. outside her. Via PBPStats, they defend like a top four defense with him on the court (defensive rating of 105.8), but they play like the worst defensive team in NBA history with him off the court (defensive rating of 116.7).
Jokic also doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being an elite defensive rebounder. His 11.5 defensive rebounds per game are tied with Gobert for the best mark in the league, and a much larger percentage of your boards are contested than their peers in the rankings.
what others are saying
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has been leading the fight for greater recognition of Jokic’s improved defense. He gave this evaluation earlier in the season. during one of his post-game press conferences.
“I think he’s underrated defensively. I really do… People put it on a million pick-and-rolls. We are much more versatile in the way we defend pick-and-rolls than in the past, giving a different look. And he really adjusted to that and was comfortable with it. I think he has been outstanding on the defensive side.
Draymond Green was one of Jokic’s biggest critics last season, smashing his defense during his time as a TNT guest analyst. Even Green has changed his tone in defending Jokic, as he recounted on his podcast, “The Draymond Green Show.”
“I went to Jokic’s defense. I’m like, if they’re ever going to be a good team, he’s the bottom line of defense. It has to be good defensively. And I showed four clips of him not turning like the short man, him not moving. … He came up to me the following year, said something like, ‘I saw what you said about my defense.’ He said, ‘You were right.’ He said, ‘I have improved.’ I said, ‘You’ve improved 100 percent. I’ve been watching you this year. ‘
The idea of Jokic as a better defender is also starting to gain traction among members of the media. Nekias Duncan of Basketball News noted Jokic’s upgrade as a downed defender earlier this season, and Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor it’s been all about Jokic as an improved defender.
Jokic certainly still has a handful of plays where he can look bad. But the days of classifying him as a far below average defender should be left in the rearview mirror. Look at those millions of pick-and-rolls Malone referred to and you’ll see that he’s doing a lot this year for the Nuggets defense.