Denver Nuggets: Is it time to take Nikola Jokic serious on defense?

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reacts after scoring during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center on 15 Nov. 2021. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reacts after scoring during the second half against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center on 15 Nov. 2021. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports) /

Nikola Jokic can have the same defensive impact for the Denver Nuggets as Marc Gasol for the Memphis Grizzlies.

If you had read that phrase three years ago, maybe even two years ago, you’d be laughed out of the building. But when you read it today, it’s not a like-for-like comparison, but it’s realistic.

Danny Leroux, speaking with Matt Moore on RealGM Radio earlier this month, said that it’s a testament to how far the Serbian big man has come. Nikola Jokic has moved from all-offense defensive liability to all-time offensive player and center on an elite defense.

It has also taken him a long time to shake of his reputation as a poor defender. When the league was fawning over his incendiary offense this past season and NBA award voters were deciding where to cast their ballots, his numbers came under the microscope.

Zach Kram, The Ringer wrote this article down the end of the 2020-21 season on how hard it is to read into NBA defenses. It starts off by explaining how Jokic excels at some metrics while in others he doesn’t.

It doesn’t flatly deny that Jokic isn’t solid on that end of the court, but starting off an article about the authenticity of defensive numbers but saying those exact defensive numbers make Nikola look good is questionable.

Kram says that if a few metrics believe someone is elite and some believe the opposite, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

It was part of a bigger narrative between Joel Embiid and Jokic, one that argued that the Philadelphia 76ers big was a more complete player, playing on both ends while the Denver Nuggets big was much better on offense, hoping it makes up for his shortcomings elsewhere.

I won’t go on any longer about 2020-21, Nikola Jokic is the rightful MVP. What he’s doing this season puts the previous to shame. While the Big Honey was good on defense last season, he’s now taking steps into elite company.

Denver Nuggets: Is Nikola Jokic seriously good on defense this season?

Sean Keeler, The Denver Post summarized Jokic’s impact well when writing about his defense:

"“Nikola Jokic plays Volkswagen Golf defense in a Lamborghini league. It’s efficient. It’s effective. But it’s not in your face. It’s not showy.“It doesn’t easily translate to a poster, the way that a Dikembe Mutombo or a Marcus Camby did. It just… works.”"

I don’t think it goes far enough – the Golf is a solid car. Sometimes you can do work to ’em, slap some black rims on there, pump up the engine (I’m extremely out of my depth talking about cars). It might even win you a few races down the stretch:

That game-winning block kept the Rockets to 94 points, an extremely low number regardless of the league’s offensive bubble popping.

The Denver Nuggets are holding opponents to 104.3 points per 100 possessions excluding garbage time according to Cleaning the Glass. That figure ranks them seventh in the league and a lot of the damage has been done with Nikola Jokic at the helm.

Using the same metric, when Jokic is on the court, opponents score 17.1 less points per 100 possessions than when he’s out.

He’s also more than a solid defender as he’s also a deterrent: when he’s on the court, opponents shoot 4.5 percent less shots at the rim than when he’s on the bench per Cleaning the Glass. For reference, DPoY Gobert’s number is at 4.9 percent while stalwart Draymond Green is at 4.7 percent.

This season’s improvement is a huge step up from his past as Jokic wasn’t nearly as effective with that number in the past.

Nikola Jokic is also high on basketball-reference’s defensive rating metric, a figure that looks at a player’s impact on the entire defense in their minutes, ranking second behind Gobert and ahead of Paul George with 96.2.

And the most important part of a defensive possession; getting the rebound, Nikola is near the top of the league in that category too, pulling down the third-most defensive rebounds this season.

But after all that, the most promising part of Jokic’s defense is his versatility. Usually when teams have a slower, ground-bound big man, they play a drop coverage on the pick-and-roll, inviting mid-range shots and hoping the perimeter player can stop a shot from 3-point range.

It’s a fine scheme to run in the regular season when there’s less game planning and cookie-cutter systems can waltz their way to 50-plus win seasons. But in the playoffs, a lot of these teams get exposed by teams that know how to beat the same coverage over and over.

Michael Malone has tasked Jokic with running all kinds of defensive looks including asking Jokic to get up and run with the smaller guards, something that would’ve been sacrilegious a few years ago.

On the above play, Jokic straddles the line between ball-handler and roll man as Aaron Gordon (who’s putting together a brilliant case for an All-Defense team) is able to recover to Luka Doncic. Jokic doesn’t overcommit to one of the threats and stops the play before a breakdown elsewhere leaves a 3-point shooter open.

In the clip below, Rubio has a clear lane to the rim, it’s just him and Jokic but decides to take a tough, fading mid-range shot.

In previous seasons, would ball handlers be licking their lips when they see Jokic as the only defender? Probably. Has his defensive reputation caught up to him? Maybe.

When Jokic is aggressive with ball handlers, it’s working:

Sprinkling in a few hard hedges (and keeping up with them *eyeball emoji*) will only help Denver’s defense as teams won’t expect the same coverage repeatedly.

Would the old Nikola stick with Darius Garland like he does in the clip below? Would it be a matter of skill or effort because right now, he has both in spades.

With Michael Porter Jr. out after re-aggravating his back injury, opposing teams don’t have a clear option to attack on defense and Jokic is proving that he isn’t a liability.

Jokic’s newfound versatility is part of the reason this Denver Nuggets team can pitch its tent on the defensive side of the ball. Instead of trying to outscore teams, they’re doing enough on that side of the ball and playing a stingy brand of defense.

Yes, part of their defensive play is that MPJ is out injured and opposing teams have fewer options to attack, but they’re doing it and Jokic is the man in the middle.

Additionally, this is all happening while he solidifies his spot as possibly the greatest offensive player in the entire league – he’s hardly resting on offense to save energy for defense.

A lot of the people complaining about Nikola Jokic’s defense are doing so because it doesn’t pass the eye test, he doesn’t look elite while out there. He wasn’t supposed to be good on D, he hasn’t in the past so why would he now?

When have Denver Nuggets fans ever cared about the eye test?

The Sombor Shuffle doesn’t pass the eye test. Scoring 24 points with 6 assists against the Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, in a half doesn’t pass the eye test. Coming back from down 3-1 in two consecutive playoff series doesn’t pass the eye test.

Nikola Jokic is good at defense now. If you don’t believe it, open your eyes.

Next. Is this the start of something for Bol Bol?. dark