Here’s a shot for you that will be scorching hot or ordinarily tepid 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 sloppy 300-pound fat kid” be a good defender, who has the acceleration of a Toyota Prius, who looks like Patrick from “SpongeBob SquarePants” found a pair of Jordans dumped in the ocean? ? Those physical attributes hampered Jokic considerably early in his career, but he has found a way to maximize his limited tools and build himself into a defensive advantage.
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Assessing defense can be tricky. There’s no substitute for watching the games, so I’ll break my argument for Jokic’s defense into three parts in order of importance: the eye test argument, the statistical argument, and what those in the know have been saying about him.
The Sight Test Argument
Jokic’s offensive highlights are a dime a dozen, but how about some defensive highlights? He has made three game-saving blocks this season.
Nikola Jokic has 3 game winning blocks in 2023. pic.twitter.com/mCWtPKQ5y2
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) December 29, 2023
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 peak. His lateral quickness is also always going to limit his defensive ceiling. But he has figured out a way to improve on his biggest weakness: scheme versatility in pick-and-roll defense.
Jokic has preferred to score at the screen level in recent years, getting up the floor to pressure point guards. He is able to affect passes due to his lightning quick hands and anticipation of what is coming. 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 run into trouble when they’ve been forced to make adjustments in the postseason. In last year’s playoffs, they tried to play him more in drop coverage, sinking him below screen level on pick-and-rolls and waiting in the paint for guards coming at him downhill.
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 best defense in the NBA and the No. 26 team this season.
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Jokic had been a poor drop defender because he didn’t provide much protection at the rim, couldn’t keep up with guards moving downhill toward him, and didn’t have decent proficiency when guards stopped to shoot. He has begun to address those glaring weaknesses this season.
Catch him on pitch coverage during the pivotal moment of the Nuggets’ win over the Thunder last week. He stayed below screen level, signaled to communicate a paring change with teammate Austin Rivers and got solid competition on Josh Giddey’s floating attempt to tie the game.
Here’s another example from that Thunder game where Jokic played multiple different covers within the same possession. He froze a ball screen, falling below screen level, then recovered and climbed to level to guard a second ball screen before finally contesting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s shot and securing the rebound.
It may not seem like a big deal, but the ability to use 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 big offensive players on their toes, and if Jokic can continue to improve as a defender, then he can provide an extra boost the Nuggets have lacked in their previous playoff outings.
The analytical argument
Public defensive metrics certainly have their flaws, but they do give a general idea of player performance. For Jokic, there is a strong consensus among all the major metrics that classify him as a top-tier defender. Here are some of Jokic’s numbers:
- 96th Percentile in Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM)
- Trailing only Rudy Gobert in the RAPTOR defensive metric of 538
- 7th best defensive player in Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM)
- 13th highest defensively in the BBall Index’s LEBRON metric
- Behind only Draymond Green in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM)
The driver behind these consistently high ratings is that the Nuggets play much better defense with Jokic on the floor vs. outside her. Through PBPStats, they defend like a top-four defense with him on the floor (105.8 defensive rating), but play like the worst defensive team in NBA history with him off the floor (105.8 defensive rating). 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 best in the league, and they are contesting for a much higher percentage of his rebounds than his peers in the standings.
what others are saying
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has been leading the fight for more recognition of Jokic’s improved defense. He gave this assessment earlier in the season during one of his postgame news 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 how we defend pick-and-rolls than in the past, giving it a different look. And he really adjusted to that and was comfortable with it. I think he’s been outstanding on the defensive end.”
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Draymond Green was one of Jokic’s biggest critics last season, ripping apart his defense during his time as a guest analyst for TNT. Even Green has changed his tune in defense of 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 the defense. He has to be good defensively. And I showed four clips of him not turning as the short man, him not moving. … He came up to me the following year, he was like, ‘I saw what you said about my defense.’ He said, ‘You were right.’ He said: ‘I have improved’. I told him, ‘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. Basketball News’ Nekias Duncan noted Jokic’s improvement as a defender earlier this season, and Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor has been all over 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 well-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.