Here’s a take for you that will either be scorchingly hot or unremarkably tepid based on how closely you’ve been watching the Nuggets this season: Nikola Jokic is no longer a defensive minus.
How can a player who Markieff Morris called “a 300 pound sloppy fat boy,” who has the acceleration of a Toyota Prius, who looks like if Patrick from “SpongeBob” found a pair of Jordans thrown into the sea, be a good defender? Those physical attributes did hamper Jokic considerably earlier in his career, but he’s found a way to maximize his limited tools and become a plus defensively.
Evaluating defense can be a tricky thing. There’s no substitute for actually watching the games, so I’ll divide my argument for Jokic’s defense into three parts ordered by importance: the eye test argument, the statistical argument and what those in the know have been saying about him.
The eye test argument
Jokic offensive highlights are a dime a dozen, but how about some defensive highlights? He’s made three game-saving blocks this season.
In fairness, those plays are the exception rather than the norm. Jokic does have a knack for getting a piece of shots and passes, but he isn’t the type of bouncy rim protector who can block shots at their highest point. His lateral quickness is also always going to limit his ceiling defensively. But he’s figured out a way to improve his greatest weakness: scheme versatility in pick-and-roll defense.
Jokic has preferred to guard at the level of the screen the past few years, coming up high on the floor to pressure guards. He’s able to affect passes because of his lightning-quick hands and anticipation of what’s coming. He’s been one of the best centers in the league at generating deflections and steals while playing this style.
While Jokic has been solid for some time guarding at the level during the regular season, the Nuggets have run into trouble when they have been forced to make adjustments in the postseason. They tried playing him more in drop coverage in last year’s playoffs, having him sink below the level of the screen on pick-and-rolls and wait in the paint for guards coming at him downhill.
The result? The Nuggets’ defensive rating in the playoffs was a massive 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.
Jokic had been a poor drop defender because he didn't provide much rim protection, he couldn’t stay in front of guards moving downhill toward him and he didn’t get decent contests when guards pulled up to shoot. He’s started to address those glaring weaknesses this season.
Watch him in drop coverage during crunch time of the Nuggets’ win over the Thunder last week. He stayed below the level of the screen, pointed to communicate a peel switch with teammate Austin Rivers and got a solid contest on Josh Giddey’s floater attempt to tie the game.
Here’s another example from that Thunder game where Jokic played multiple different coverages within the same possession. He iced a ball screen, dropping below the level of the screen, then recovered and came up to the level to guard a second ball screen before ultimately contesting Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s shot and securing the rebound.
That might not seem like a big deal, but the ability to employ multiple different types of coverage in the same possession is a new wrinkle for Jokic and the Nuggets. Scheme versatility is what wins in the playoffs. It keeps great offensive players on their toes, and if Jokic can continue to improve as a drop defender then it can provide some extra oomph that the Nuggets have lacked in their previous playoff exits.
The analytics argument
Public defensive metrics certainly have their flaws, but they do give a general ballpark of player performance. For Jokic, there is a strong consensus among all of the major metrics grading him out as a top-level defender. Here are some of Jokic’s numbers:
- 96th percentile in Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM)
- Behind only Rudy Gobert in 538’s RAPTOR defensive metric
- Seventh-highest defensive player in Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM)
- 13th-highest defensively in BBall Index’ LEBRON metric
- Behind only Draymond Green in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM)
The driver behind these consistently high evaluations is that the Nuggets play a lot better defensively with Jokic on the court vs. off it. Via PBPStats, they defend like a top-four defense with him on the court (105.8 defensive rating), but play like the worst defensive team in NBA history with him off the floor (116.7 defensive rating).
Jokic also doesn’t get quite the credit he deserves for being an elite defensive rebounder. His 11.5 defensive rebounds per game are in a dead heat with Gobert for best mark in the league, and a much higher percentage of his boards are contested than his peers on the leaderboard.
What others are saying
Nuggets coach Michael Malone has been leading the charge for more recognition of Jokic’s improved defense. He gave this evaluation earlier in the season during one of his postgame news conferences.
“I think he’s underrated defensively. I really do. … People put him in a million pick-and-rolls. We’re much more versatile in how we guard pick-and-rolls than we’ve been in the past, giving different looks. And he’s really adjusted to that and gotten comfortable with that. I think he’s been outstanding on the defensive end.”
Draymond Green was one of Jokic’s biggest critics last season, ripping his defense during his time as a TNT guest analyst. Even Green has changed his tune on Jokic’s defense, as he related on his podcast, “The Draymond Green Show.”
“I went at Jokic’s defense. I’m like, if they’re ever going to be a good team, he’s the backline of the defense. He has to be good defensively. And I showed four clips of him not rotating over as the low man, him not moving. … He came up to me the following year, he said something along the lines of, ‘I saw what you said about my defense.’ He said, ‘You were right.’ He said, ‘I’ve gotten better.’ I said, ‘You’ve 100 percent gotten better. I’ve been watching you this year.’”
The idea of Jokic as a better defender is starting to pick up steam among media members as well. Basketball News’ Nekias Duncan pointed out Jokic’s improvement as a drop defender earlier this season, and the 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 put in the rearview mirror. Watch those million pick-and-rolls that Malone referenced and you’ll see that he’s doing a lot this year for that Nuggets defense.