How Nikola Jokic Has Transformed Denver’s Defense

I have to confess, I wish I could have seen the Denver Nuggets on Christmas day.

Before the season, they were projected to be an up-tempo team with one of the most unique players in league history as their engine. In hindsight, the NBA’s omission is even more glaring because fans were cheated out of watching the best team in the Western Conference.

You read that correctly. As of December 26th, the Nuggets currently own the West’s best record at 21-10. They have a slight edge in winning percentage over the Golden State Warriors, a team the Nuggets beat earlier this season. We have enough of a sample size to determine who’s real and who was the beneficiary of a hot start.

D in Denver

Until now, offense has defined the Nuggets. They’ve been a buzzsaw of well-timed cuts and awe-inspiring transition sets, all at a break-neck pace. They ranked fourth in offensive rating during the 2016-17 campaign, sixth last season and currently sit eighth. Unfortunately, their offensive efficiency was virtually wiped out by a laughably-bad defense.

Despite having top-six attacks over the last two seasons, they ranked 29th and 23rd respectively in defensive rating. A playoff berth was snatched from their fingertips on the last night of the 2017-18 season, but it probably wouldn’t have come down to that if they could’ve stopped … anyone.

The tide has finally turned this year. Though the personnel mostly remains the same, they’ve made the jump from 23rd to seventh in defensive rating. So how has it happened?

The praise should begin with their star center, Nikola Jokic.

More (aggressive) is less

To say that Jokic has been a polarizing figure among NBA Twitter would be a massive understatement. In some cases, the praise he’s received since bursting onto the scene has been too much; But his detractors have also been laughably harsh.

The criticism throughout his career has centered around his inability to anchor a defense. The tools he uses to navigate fast breaks like a guard have never really translated on the other end. Teams have been able to isolate him in space before using his lack of lateral quickness against him.

In previous years, the Nuggets went with “drop” coverage in pick-and-roll to spare him. The apparent goal was to keep him near the basket so he 1) couldn’t get exposed on the perimeter and 2) could utilize his talents as one of the NBA’s premier defensive rebounders. After all, forcing a miss means nothing if second (and third) opportunities are created shortly after.

The primary goal of “drop” coverage is to concede pull-ups. That’s fine if teams are settling for DeRozanian long-twos. But it’s not when you’re playing teams like the Warriors or the Portland Trail Blazers.

Pull-up artists like Stephen Curry only need a sliver of space to get their shots off. Against “drop” coverage, all they need to do is run their defender into a pick. With the “big” playing back, there’s virtually no chance for the shot to get contested. Take this Steph three from last season:

The Warriors make a point to seek out Jokic on this possession. Zaza Pachulia is a lot of things, but one thing you can’t take away is his ability to free his teammates with screens. He completely washes out Will Barton here. With Jokic roughly seven feet away from Curry, the human flamethrower is able to cash in an easy triple.

This season, the Nuggets have committed to a more aggressive style of defense. They’re playing Jokic higher in pick-and-roll, sometimes allowing him to trap ball-handlers. It’s a higher risk style of defense, but it oddly suits him.

Though he isn’t a guy who can live on switches, he’s smart and has insanely quick hands for a guy his size. And since Jokic isn’t a rim protector, the Nuggets instead leverage his size on the perimeter, making him serve as a wall of sorts. He may be slow, but the math is the math: It’s hard for six-foot-something point guards to see over or drive around a slightly pudgy seven footer 30 feet from the basket.

Here, you can see Jokic at work. Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton attempt to hook up in pick-and-roll. Booker goes to his left, but Jokic hedges hard, so Booker can’t turn the corner. As Booker retreats, Jokic quickly swipes at the ball and knocks it loose. Jamal Murray is able to scoop it up and find Barton for a transition bucket.

This clip starts a little later, so you’ll miss the initial hedge by Jokic, but watch how this possession unfolds:

The JJ Barea-Dirk Nowitzki pick-and-roll/pop has been carving up teams since George W. was in office. It gets stifled here. Though Nowitzki is technically open on the slip, Barea simply doesn’t have an angle to make the pass because of Jokic’s positioning and the threat of his hands.

After the kickout pass is made to Dorian Finney-Smith, a drive ensues, and the Mavericks try to get some Hammer action going in the corner. However, a rotation from Jokic slams the window shut and the pass turns into a bucket on the other end.

Jokic is one of five bigs averaging at least 1.5 steals this season (including Andre Drummond (1.5), Thaddeus Young (1.5), Anthony Davis (1.7), and Draymond Green (1.9)). Jokic is both the biggest and least athletic on that list.

The Nuggets have allowed 104.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court this season. That’s the stingiest mark of his career as a starter and a number that’s two points lower than last season. While Jokic deserves credit for improving and mostly executing his role, it’s also important to note that there’s at least some randomness involved.

The downside to playing the kind of trap/hedge-heavy defense Denver is trotting out is that it leaves them susceptible to corner skips. As of now, the Nuggets are allowing the most corner three attempts in the league at 9.1. Opponents are only shooting 35.5 percent on those looks. With a little bit of shooting regression, those numbers for Jokic could look a little worse.

On the flip side, the Nuggets have been without two of their three best defenders for large chunks of the season: Paul Millsap and Gary Harris. Harris is an underrated on-ball defender, while Millsap is still one of the smartest help defenders in the league. Both are wildly important to what Denver wants to do.

For now, the Nuggets have kept their defensive train on the track. The utilization of Jokic has helped him transform from hopeless negative to clear positive. He shouldn’t be confused for a DPOY candidate, but his growth is a major reason why the Nuggets have the West’s best record.