Looking at the 2022 Conference Finals, one thing is clear: defense is more crucial than ever if a team wants to win an NBA championship. With an offense-first big man in Nikola Jokic, will the Denver Nuggets be able to win on the biggest stage?
Offense ground to a halt in the Eastern Conference Finals as an injury-riddled Miami Heat struggled to score against the league’s best defense, the Boston Celtics. In the seven-game series, the Heat posted a 106.6 offensive rating, a figure that would’ve placed them 26th in the regular season.
Despite Jimmy Butler’s heroics in the last three games, Miami couldn’t produce efficient offense, and the two teams were forced into taking tough shot after tough shot.
Jayson Tatum took home the league’s inaugural Larry Bird trophy, an award for the Eastern Conference Finals MVP, after having a stellar series. Tatum averaged 25 points per game alongside 5.6 assists and a 62 percent true shooting mark.
Jayson did commit 4.7 turnovers a night but his efficient offense kept Boston afloat.
The offensive game plan was simple for Boston, find whichever player Duncan Robinson or Max Strus were guarding and attack him. Strus’ defense was fine but Erik Spoelstra couldn’t risk playing Robinson too much and his minute load dropped from 25.9 in the regular season to just 12.2 in the playoffs, with zero starts.
This is an evolution of something the Golden State Warriors began with their dynasty. By playing small ball, sliding Draymond Green down to the center spot, they could play with five players behind the arc and force slow-footed big men out onto the perimeter where they’re less comfortable.
The theory isn’t that all big men can’t stick in the NBA, the idea is that if you force a big to switch out to the perimeter, it’s much easier to generate shots. We’ve seen this time and time again since Steph Curry started putting big men on an island.
Ime Udoka couldn’t exploit the same slow bigs once Spoelstra took Dewayne Dedmon out of the series so the next-worst defender was one of the shooters.
The four teams remaining in the Conference Finals were all able to roll out extremely versatile defensive lineups with little-to-no holes.
For the Celtics, they have the Defensive Player of the Year in Marcus Smart at the one, the Js on the wings, then a combination of Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams at the big spots. Grant is quick enough to hang with wings on a switch, Horford has shown the ability to hedge hard and get out on the smaller guards, while Rob Williams might be the best help defender in the league.
Miami has the combination of Bam Adebayo and P.J. Tucker, both with the ability to guard smaller players and muck up offenses. It also helps to have Jimmy Butler bothering wings as well.
The Warriors obviously have Draymond Green, the architect of modern switching defense, but a plethora of hard-nosed role players like Gary Payton II, Andrew Wiggins, and Kevon Looney also add to their defense.
And finally, the Dallas Mavericks aren’t the most versatile unit, but Maxi Kleber plugs a lot of holes in a defense filled with swarming perimeter defenders.
So, what does this have to do with the Denver Nuggets?
Six months ago, I wrote an article about Nikola Jokic’s defense and if it’s time to take him seriously.
At the time, Matt Moore joined Danny Leroux on RealGM Radio to praise the Serbian on how far he had come on the defensive side of the ball. He had grown from defensive liability on an elite offense to a passable defender on an elite offense.
I’m sure Nuggets fans remember the half-court take fouls Jokic used to commit instead of running back on defense…
Jokic was so bad on defense that the front office thought it’d be best to pair him with a traditional rim protector like Mason Plumlee to make up for his issues on that side of the ball.
But since Nikola’s rise to the league’s elite, the Nuggets front office has done an excellent job at pairing him with defenders that make up for his issues on that end.
At first, it was the signing of Paul Millsap, one of the smartest defenders in the league, at the power forward position. Next, it was the trade for Aaron Gordon, another smart defender that can hold his own against most positions.
This past season, the Nuggets had the 15th ranked defense according to Cleaning the Glass, 11th the season before, and 16th in 2019-20. When Jokic was on the court in 2021-22, the Nuggets held opponents to 8.2 fewer points per 100 possessions, an elite mark among all big men, and his -10.8 percent opponent free throw rate is the best mark in the league using Cleaning the Glass’ non-garbage time metric.
On top of the stats, Jokic passed the eye test. He wasn’t the “sloppy fat boy” who wasn’t putting in maximum effort, he was hedging hard on ball handlers and if they went away from the screen and into the Big Honey, he’d stick with them, sprinting next to their hips before recovering to the rim.
These past two seasons have been a combination of offensive excellence as well as extreme defensive effort from the Serbian. It’s no wonder that he’s winning the most prestigious individual accolades.
Unfortunately, with all the injuries to Denver’s roster, we haven’t had the opportunity to see if he can hold up in a playoff setting.
Pairing Jokic with a great defender can only do so much. At the end of the day, if a ball-handler wants to attack a specific player, they’ll do so. In the Eastern Conference Finals, it sometimes took two or three screens until Tatum found the matchup he wanted to attack.
In the second round of the playoffs last season against the Phoenix Suns last season, Chris Paul put on a clinic against Michael Porter Jr. Every time down the court, he’d call for a screen with MPJ’s man and then create openings in the defense.
In these NBA Finals, both head coaches are going to have to ask themselves if it’s worth playing defensive holes like Jordan Poole or Payton Pritchard, essentially gifting the other team an option on offense.
Unlike Poole and Pritchard, Jokic is essential to everything the Denver Nuggets do so Michael Malone won’t have the luxury of simply changing his rotation. If Jokic isn’t on the court, Denver doesn’t have an offense, so the adjustment isn’t to get rid of him.
Can the Denver Nuggets hold up on in the playoffs with Nikola Jokic as their big man?
The short answer is yes, I believe so.
Nikola Jokic is at the peak of his powers and these past two seasons have shown how much effort he’s willing to put in on that side of the ball. However, you’re never going to be able to run a switching, malleable defense with Jokic out there so the front office and Malone need to build accordingly.
Brook Lopez plays mostly drop coverages on pick-and-rolls and the Milwaukee Bucks are happy keeping him close to the rim if his man is behind the arc. They’ve brought in players like Eric Bledsoe, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton, who are excellent at sticking with their man, meaning Lopez isn’t caught out as often.
Oh, and it helps to have Giannis Antetokounmpo roaming around on defense, helping on all five positions, and generally being amazing.
The Boston Celtics funnel ball handlers into the defensive duo of Rob Williams and Al Horford. Yes, they invite mid-range jump shots, but Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and Derrick White are elite defenders from behind, and the latter is even building a highlight reel of come-from-behind blocks.
The Philadelphia 76ers have copied this to an extent with rangy defenders like Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle. Before them, Ben Simmons was playing this role well, funneling offensive players into Joel Embiid at the rim.
What have the Denver Nuggets got? Jokic has grown as a rim protector but unlike Embiid, Williams, Horford, Lopez, and more, he’s not a plug-and-play defense all on his own.
So, new GM Calvin Booth needs to finish what Tim Connelly started and surround Jokic with complementary pieces as they have with Aaron Gordon. One of the major issues here is that MPJ and Jamal Murray have to be on the court. They’re part of the Nuggets’ best lineup but neither are above-average defenders and both are coming off very serious injuries.
Hypothetically speaking, let’s say Denver were able to swap AG out for Giannis or Draymond Green, two of the best help defenders and Defensive Player of the Year winners. If they face Chris Paul in the playoffs again, he’s still going to come down the court, look for MPJ’s man, try and get a switch then put him in the blender. There’s nothing a great help man can do outside of doubling and letting a great passer make an easy decision.
The only other adjustment you can make is to hope your players grow on the defensive end.
Yes, I could spend another few words here talking about the importance of bringing in a defensive wing this offseason to play in between Murray and MPJ, but the core issues of defense will still be there.
Jokic has proven that you can win in the regular season with an offense-first big man, when fully healthy, the Nuggets have had success in the playoffs. He’s the most talented offensive big in the world right now and he’s giving Denver more than enough to work with on the other end.