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The Defense of Nikola Jokic’s Defense

Casuals rarely get past the eye test. Critics try to label it as his one flaw. But ask anyone around the NBA, and they will tell you: Jokic is much better than people realize. “We’re just trying to change the narrative that he doesn’t play defense,” says Jamal Murray.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Nikola Jokic’s defense is a lot of things. Polarizing, unattractive, faulty, sufficient, clever, and, for timely stretches against top-tier competition during these playoffs, a significant reason the Denver Nuggets keep winning basketball games. Despite already winning back-to-back regular-season Most Valuable Player awards, his defense was a contentious talking point in this year’s MVP debate, and it fueled a good chunk of the skepticism that surrounded Denver’s status as a bona fide championship contender.

Most criticisms of his defense waded too deep in Achilles’ heel territory, largely thanks to last season’s playoff loss against the Warriors, when the Nuggets allowed a whopping 122.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. Misconceptions also arise from his appearance: Jokic lacks certain qualities (e.g., jump-out-the-gym athleticism) that are commonly associated with the best defenders in basketball.

He doesn’t swat shots into the fourth row like Jaren Jackson Jr. or single-handedly bury sets in a tomb like Draymond Green. There aren’t any breathtaking sequences out on an island in which he shuts down someone a foot smaller than he is. Denver regularly tweaks its defensive coverages (more on that later), but it isn’t the most adaptable group we’ve ever seen. And countless Nuggets possessions this season have ended with Jokic making business decisions at the basket. His faults are transparent.

But there’s more charm than people realize, too. It’s found in the fact that—just like his singular offensive production—so little about Jokic’s defensive approach is archetypal. Sound positioning, preemptive reads, and constant communication from the back line are harder to track than direct confrontations at the rim, but they’re just as, if not more, important. For a variety of reasons, including effort, execution, size, and intelligence, Jokic’s overall contributions on that end—as someone whose team has been better on defense when he’s on the court in every year of his career except one—are more positive than not.

“I think you have to get past the eye test with Nikola. Nikola does it differently,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone says. “Is he going to go above the rim and block a shot or pin something to the backboard? He is not going to do that, and stop expecting him to do that. But if you really know what you’re looking at, which a lot of people don’t, you take a real sense of, ‘OK, this guy is a good defensive player, and he is doing it with an IQ and an awareness that a lot of people just don’t have.’”

It’s justifiable now, just one win away from Jokic’s first NBA championship, for fans to correct the record and amend what has long been—for the best basketball player in the world—an exhausting, unwarranted portrayal. Jokic is neither one-dimensional nor a cross to bear when his team needs a stop.

“As a group, we know what we can do on defense,” Jamal Murray says. “We’re just trying to change the narrative that he doesn’t play defense.”

Over the past six weeks, Jokic has held up against some of the NBA’s most lethal scorers: Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Jimmy Butler. He’s withstood elite shooters, dynamic pick-and-roll playmakers, and aggressive big men who’ve desperately attempted to get him in foul trouble. All tried to exploit Jokic’s perceived weaknesses, and some had blips of success. None, for four quarters in any game, turned him into a liability.

In 747 minutes, Denver’s defensive rating in the playoffs with Jokic on the court is 111.8. That number would sit just outside a top-five mark when applied to the regular season. In Round 2 against the Suns—an offensive juggernaut with two All-Universe shotmakers that was expected to dust Denver’s defense—the Nuggets allowed 109.3 points per 100 possessions when Jokic manned the middle. Placed in context, that number is barely better than what the last-place Hornets could muster this season.

His resistance around the basket has been better, too. Before the playoffs started, opponents made 69.6 percent of their shots in the restricted area when Jokic was the closest defender. In the postseason, that number has dropped to 59.7 percent.

All of these figures are noisy, full of possessions that have little to do with good or bad decisions made by any one player. But for Jokic, someone whose ostensible shortcomings were forecast all year long as a costly burden, they’re telling.

For meaningful stretches during the biggest nights of his NBA career, particularly in Games 3 and 4 against the Miami Heat in these Finals, he’s been nothing short of brilliant. “They shot 34 percent in the restricted area [in Game 3],” Malone says. “Nikola was a big part of that. Nikola contested 21 shots. He had two blocks. He is doing a lot for us to get to this stage in the Finals and then for us to have a great defensive performance [in Game 3]. His fingerprints were all over that game.”

In Game 4, Jokic became the fifth player (since blocks became a recorded stat) in Finals history to finish with three blocks, three steals, and 10 defensive rebounds. Those numbers are cool, but far more impressive was how and when they unfolded, including two straight plays late in the first half that created back-to-back transition opportunities and dramatically swung the momentum in Denver’s favor:

There’s nothing new about this type of engagement from Jokic. The only difference is the stage. Steals have been common throughout his entire career, and during this playoff run—in which the only player who has more deflections is Butler—Jokic’s timing has been phenomenal. “He’s got the best hands in the league,” Ish Smith says. “So guys go for that pocket pass, he’s got his hands there. Guys go up for shots, he’s stripping down.”

His teammates and coaches love to talk about how nimble Jokic is in tight spaces and how his ability to get in position a beat early makes him so much more effective than people think. “He positions himself better than anybody defensively,” Smith says. “He’s almost like a safety who can see everything and just read the play before everybody.”

Those quick feet are useful in another way. I’m not sure how to confirm this stat, but, anecdotally speaking, Jokic leads the NBA in kicked-ball violations by about 9,000. That’s no coincidence. They’re calculated and part of his arsenal.

“They’re intentional, yes,” Smith says, smiling. “That’s what he wants because, like, kick ball, you got to take the ball back out! If that pocket pass gets there, now maybe somebody comes in from the weak side, and they get a lob. So getting that kick ball, you gotta take it back on the side, reset to 14 seconds, and now you gotta try that offense again or try something different.”

Watch Jokic pump his fist after this play (one of several kicked balls he was called for—or got away with—in Game 4):

If there’s one area where most people expected Jokic to struggle during this playoff run, it’s in the pick-and-roll, against offenses that will obsessively bring him into the action. According to Second Spectrum, Jokic has been in a playoff-high 40.5 pick-and-rolls per game. That’s eight more than any other player. (It was 33.9 per game during the regular season.)

On actions that result in a shot or a pass that leads to a shot, Jokic-defended pick-and-rolls produce just 102.2 points per 100 direct plays. For comparison, in these playoffs, Jaren Jackson Jr. was at 102.6, Anthony Davis was at 106.5, and Draymond Green was at 107.9. “He is an elite defender in the pick-and-roll,” Murray says.

When Jokic drops, opponents have generated a paltry 105.6 points per 100 possessions. For reference, Joel Embiid helped hold opponents to 107.9 points per 100 possessions when deployed in the same coverage before the Sixers were eliminated in Round 2. Jokic is less of a brick wall and more of a miniature golf windmill that can change speeds, reverse direction, and know when to stop so the ball can’t slip by and plop into the cup.

Overall, he has not been burned against dribble handoffs—a taxing action all centers have to navigate. Playoff opponents have scored just 0.89 points per direct play when Jokic’s man initiates a DHO. Much like the pick-and-roll, a lot goes into that number. So much praise is due to his teammates and the ways they help, recover, and contest shots. But Jokic does his part, almost never out of place.

“He’s constantly making guys make decisions whenever they get into the paint,” Butler says.

Through four Finals games, Butler is averaging 17.5 pick-and-rolls with whomever Jokic is guarding. That’s significantly more than any other defender the Heat star has gone at in these playoffs (the next highest is Brook Lopez, at 9.6 screens per game). On these plays, Miami is manufacturing only 0.94 points per possession and 0.88 points per direct play.

Butler has knocked down a few pull-up jumpers over Jokic’s drop. He has also found Bam Adebayo and Cody Zeller in the pocket on empty corner rolls. But by and large, there hasn’t been enough traction on these plays to label them a success. Denver knows it will win this series if Miami has to bank on 2-pointers.

“He’s always contesting every shot. He keeps everything in front of him,” Smith says. “You’re not gonna beat him by going by him. You’re gonna hit a tough shot over the top of him.”

And in the rare instances when the ball does get behind Jokic, he makes good things happen:

“He’s cerebral about his defensive approach. He gets the right space that he needs. Plays with an arm’s distance, kind of plays the game within the game,” Aaron Gordon says. “[He] makes the [offense] think about what they have to do. That’s all you really want to do as a defender: make the opposition think about what they want to do. And it kind of takes them out of rhythm.”

Jokic’s depth varies when he guards pick-and-rolls. “It is unique,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says. “I think that’s what you expect at the final level, that there’s not going to be absolutes. … But they’re a very good defense because of their changing coverages.”

Depending on a host of factors, he’ll either drop down or come high up on the floor and force the ball handler to make a pass.

“It kind of depends on what our game plan is that evening or what he feels, what he sees, if he’s in foul trouble or not, if the guy guarding the primary ball handler is in position enough to get back or if he’s not,” DeAndre Jordan says. “Nikola is very smart. We trust his reads as a team, as a unit out there. … He doesn’t give you the same thing every time, which is great.”

The Nuggets have been comfortable asking their leader to function in unexpected ways, too. “We got into, in the Lakers series, Nikola switching onto LeBron at times,” Malone says. “When you first hear that, it doesn’t [sound great]. There is no way you are going to switch Nikola onto LeBron. But he actually did a pretty good job at times.” (According to Second Spectrum, Jokic switched onto LeBron 11 times in the conference finals; the Lakers scored three total points on those plays.)

“I think his defense is underrated,” Malone continued. “And I think his maturation in the eight years, I think that’s been a big part of it as well. Him understanding that ‘I have to be the best defensive player I can be to help this team become the best team that they can be.’ He doesn’t shy away from that responsibility.”

When I asked Jokic how he’d assess his own defense throughout this playoff run, he began his answer with a one-liner. “I think I need to get a trophy, my friend. I don’t know what it is. I’m joking, I’m joking.” Then, he ceded credit to his teammates.

“It’s not just me,” Jokic says. “When we are collectively really good, then I’m really good too. But when we are collectively not good, I’m not really good.” As one cog in a machine, everyone else’s responsibilities matter. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Gordon, and others have all done a good enough job stunting, digging, fanning out to shooters, switching on the perimeter, being early as a low man, and helping in other ways that limit Jokic’s vulnerability.

When Jokic is in a drop, the Nuggets will sometimes still shrink the floor and keep defenders in the gap to reduce offensive spacing. When Jokic is up, blitzing a ball handler or trying to stop downhill penetration before it can start, his teammates have to rotate on a string behind the play. Sometimes they do. And sometimes they allow an open 3 or are beaten by the pass. It’s a more demanding scheme, but it is necessary against certain threats.

Here’s an example from Game 1, where Max Strus comes off a pin-down set by Butler that creates just enough separation between him and Caldwell-Pope, forcing Jokic up a bit higher than he wants to be and allowing a pocket pass to Adebayo. Gordon has to slide off Butler to contest the floater, and Miami scores on a putback:

Jokic talks about not being a good defender when his team isn’t playing good defense because the margins are slimmer for him than they are for other defenders; all five Nuggets have to vibrate on the same frequency or it doesn’t work.

Nobody is confusing Jokic for Giannis Antetokounmpo or Evan Mobley, incredibly mobile big men who routinely clean up mistakes and all but guarantee top-shelf defense from whatever unit they’re in.

Jokic and the Nuggets have at times been in peril when he’s drawn out of the paint, up to touch on a ball screen. In these playoffs, Denver has been gashed for 1.22 points per possession when he’s forced to scramble more than he’d like. Anthony Davis had a field day against Jokic regardless of how Denver played him. And since deep drops against Durant and Devin Booker would always be a recipe for volcanic eruptions, the Nuggets bumped Jokic higher up the floor and then had teammates pinch in off the corners. The lesser of two evils.

Phoenix eventually responded by lifting shooters (like Terrence Ross and Landry Shamet) on the weak side, and even when Denver did a pretty good job executing its game plan, the Suns had some success leveraging the Nuggets’ aggression against them.

But overall, few defenders, if any, maximize what their body is able to do better than Jokic. For someone who’s often misidentified as rigid, Jokic displays a degree of flexibility most centers can’t replicate.

“I think the media kind of just ran with this theory that he’s not a good defensive player based on, probably, I guess, he’s not blocking shots? I’m not even sure,” Jeff Green says. “I think defensively, he is definitely one of the best defenders out there.”

Jokic regularly knows what plays the opponent will run and communicates them to teammates in real time. He’s also probably the best rebounder alive, clearing space in the paint and manufacturing fruitful bull rushes the other way. Denver spews lava (at a 1.24-points-per-possession temperature) when Jokic pushes off a miss.

“His outlet passes from a defensive rebound are very, very elite,” Butler says. “As much as everybody looks at what he does on the offensive side of the ball, he’s a hellified defender as well.”

The playoffs are all about small samples and your ability to survive or destroy matchups that can either be beneficial or ruinous. There’s a world where Jokic might’ve struggled against Golden State rather than sweeping Los Angeles, facing small-ball lineups and spaced-out floors, with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson repeatedly stringing him out to the 3-point line. And there’s an alternate universe where the Celtics make the Finals, go five out, and make a ton of 3s with Al Horford at center.

There’s also a reality where Jokic endures regardless of the opponent, with KCP, Brown, Gordon, Christian Braun, and Murray locked in on Malone’s defensive game plan. All hypotheticals aside, this run, against four quality offenses, is enough to reorient a part of Jokic’s reputation that tilted too far in one direction.

Back in November, I wrote this about Jokic: “The only box left to check will come in the playoffs, when his (underrated and misunderstood) defense will be tested by teams that wrap half their game plan around trying to exhaust and expose him in space. But so long as his top teammates are healthy, that strategy is likely to be a shallow one.”

Denver is one win away from proving that true. Jokic is not the best defender in the NBA or even on his own team. He has several shortcomings that would be more glaring if not for his complete and total brilliance as an offensive machine.

But after watching this postseason, anyone who still believes he makes positive contributions on only one side of the ball genuinely might need to pay closer attention.