Here’s a shot for you that will be either scorching or extraordinarily lukewarm, depending on how closely you’ve watched the Nuggets this season: Nikola Jokic is no longer a defensive minus.
How can a good defender be a player whom Markieff Morris called a “300-pound sloppy fat man” who has the acceleration of a Toyota Prius and who looks like Patrick from “SpongeBob” has found a couple of Jordanians thrown into the sea? Jokic’s physical attributes had hampered his career earlier, but he found a way to maximize his limited tools and become a plus in defense.
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Defending defense can be a tricky thing. There is no substitute for actually watching the games, so I will divide my argument in Jokic’s defense into three parts arranged in order of importance: the eye test argument, the statistical argument, and what those who know about it said about it.
Eye test argument
A funny offensive highlight is a dime, but what about a defensive highlight? He made three blocks to save the game this season.
Frankly, these games are the exception rather than the norm. Jokic has a talent for shots and passes, but he is not the type of bouncy rim protector that can block shots at their highest point. Its lateral speed also always limits its defensive ceiling. But he came up with a way to improve his biggest weakness: the versatility of a pick-and-roll defense scheme.
For the past few years, Jokic had preferred screen-level surveillance, standing high on the floor in front of pressure guards. He is able to influence passes thanks to his lightning-fast hands and expectations of what is to come. He was one of the best centers in the league in generating diversions and thefts while playing this style.
While the Jokic has been solidly guarding the level during the base season for some time, the Nuggets got into trouble when they were forced to make adjustments in the post-season. In last year’s playoffs, they tried to play with him more in drop coverage, letting him fall below the level of the pick-and-roll screen and wait in paint for the guards to come down the hill.
Result? The Nuggets’ playoff defense rating was 11.2 points per 100 possessions worse than during the base season. For context, it’s the same as the difference between the best defense in the NBA and team number 26 this season.
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Jokic was a bad fall defender because he didn’t provide much protection for the rim, he couldn’t keep up with the guards moving down the hill to him, and he didn’t get a decent match when the guards stopped and fired. He has begun to address those glaring weaknesses this season.
Check it out in short news during the Nuggets’ crisis time over Thunder last week. He stayed below screen, pointing to communicating with his teammate Austin Rivers to communicate with the peel switch, and getting a solid match for Josh Giddey’s attempt at a draw.
Here is another example from the game Thunder, where Jokic played several different covers in the same possession. He froze the orifice with the ball, dropped below the orifice level, then recovered and ascended to the level to guard the second orifice with the ball before finally colliding with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s shot and securing the rebound.
This may not seem like a big deal, but the ability to use multiple different types of cover with the same ownership is a new wrinkle for Jokic and the Nuggets. The versatility of the scheme is what wins the playoffs. It keeps great offensive players alert, and if the Jokic can continue to improve as a fall defender, then it can provide some extra flair that the Nuggets lacked in their previous playoffs.
Public defense metrics certainly have their flaws, but they provide a general ball of player performance. For Jokic, there is a strong consensus among all the major metrics that rate him as a top-level defender. Here are some of Jokic’s numbers:
The reason for these consistently high ratings is that the Nuggets play much better on the defensive with Jokic on the field than off. Through PBPStats, he defends him on the field as the top four (105.8 defense ratings), but they play as the worst defense team in NBA history with him off the field (116.7 defense ratings).
Jokic also doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for being an elite defensive rebound. His 11.5 defensive rebounds per game are in line with Gobert for the best mark in the league and a much higher percentage of his boards are disputed than his peers in the rankings.
What others say
Nuggets coach Michael Malone led the attack to greater recognition of Jokic’s improved defense. He gave this assessment earlier in the season during one of his post-match press conferences.
“I think he’s underestimated on the defensive.” really yes. … People put it in a million pieces. We are much more versatile in how we guard pick-and-roll than we have been in the past, and we give it different looks. And he really adapted and got well. I think he was excellent on the defensive. ”
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Draymond Green was one of Jokic’s biggest critics last season and tore his defenses during his time as a guest analyst at TNT. Even Green changed his tune to Jokic’s defense, as he stated in his podcast “The Draymond Green Show.”
“I went to Jokic’s defense.” I wonder if they will ever be a good team, he is the mainstay of defense. He must be good on the defensive. And I showed four shots of him not turning like the low man, nor moving. … The following year he came to me and said something to the effect: ‘I saw what you said about my defense.’ He said, “You were right.” He said, “I’ve improved.” I said, ‘You’ve improved by 100 percent. I’ve been watching you this year. “
Jokic’s idea as a better defender is beginning to gain strength even among members of the media. Basketball News’s Nekias Duncan pointed to Jokic’s improvement as a fall defender earlier this season, and Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor was an improved defender throughout Jokic.
Jokic definitely has a few more games where he can look bad. But the times when he was classified as a considerably below-average defender should be put in the rearview mirror. Take a look at the millions of moves Malone mentioned, and you’ll see he’s doing a lot to defend the Nuggets this year.