This season I’ll be writing a weekly deep dive on the Denver Nuggets that I’ve named DENVER NUGGETS DETAILS. The weekly series will contain lots of different sections, some of which will make an appearance every week, others will rotate.
In this inaugural edition, I took a look at one of the most pressing issues facing the Nuggets this season: Nikola Jokic’s defense. Like with all things regarding Jokic, his defense isn’t always what it appears. Widely regarded as a miserable defender, Jokic ranked 16th among centers in defensive RPM and had a positive defensive box plus-minus and defensive win shares. The Nuggets also defended better with him on the court than with him on the bench, hinting that perhaps he wasn’t the main culprit to Denver’s defensive woes last season.
On the other hand, Jokic clearly isn’t an elite defender. Whatever the advanced stats see in him, five minutes of watching game film reveals a center that is slow-footed and out of position far too often to be a rim protector. Let’s take a closer look at Jokic’s defense in this week’s spotlight.
Last season the Nuggets played pretty conservatively with Jokic on the defensive end. The over-arching rule that applied to him was to drop back in coverage to make sure that he wasn’t blown by out around the perimeter. This was true when he was guarding his man in transition and it was true of most pick and rolls (PnR). Jokic would sink down into the paint and play goalie, almost to the point of conceding mid-range shots and floaters. In the first three clips below, all of which show side PnR, Jokic sinks so far below the level of the screen that players can walk into uncontensted pull-up jumpers. In the fourth clip, you can see how Jokic steps out a bit further but backpedals all the way to the basket, essentially conceding a layup.
This season Michael Malone is challenging Jokic quite a bit more on that end of the floor. For PNRs near or attacking the center of the court, Denver’s bigs are showing at or slightly below the level of the screen to contain the ball handler long enough for the guard to recover. On side PnR, the bigs are stepping out even further and cutting off the sideline and/or giving an all-out blitz to trap the ball. In both cases, the big is required to do three things: anticipate the screen quickly, contain the ball until the guard recovers (or longer if they can trap on the sideline), and recover promptly.
In the clip below, Kenneth Faried demonstrates both types of PnR coverage, one for screens leading the ball to the center of the floor and one for screens leading the ball to the sides.
Jokic has some built in disadvantages as a PnR defender. His feet are slow, he can’t jump over a phone book, and he seems to have an inherent lack of focus - basketball A.D.D. On the flip side he’s got great hands, long arms, and great feel for the game, even on the defensive end. With that physical (and mental) profile, the key for Jokic is discipline on the defensive end. He can’t fall behind on the play and he can’t quit before the possession is over.
Through two preseason games, the results have been a mixed bag. Let’s start with the first step: anticipating the screen. So much of PnR defense is timing and that timing begins the moment the screener takes a step toward the ball. Unfortunately, Jokic gets caught on his heels a lot. In the clip below Jokic commits two sins, one at the beginning and one at the end of the play. He’s late to recognize that he’s being put into the PnR so he starts out trailing the play. Fortunately, Kevin Durant fumbles the ball and isn’t able to blow past him for the dunk but upon recovery, Jokic lingers on the show for a second too long. Once Millsap recovers onto the ball, Jokic has to sprint back to his man. Instead, he foolishly (and perhaps lazily) jumps into the passing lane as if to go for a steal.
Not every team has the personnel to run a 4-5 PnR with elite floor spacing the way the Warriors can, but plays like this highlight how small the margin for error is for Jokic. Teams are going to spread the floor and test him this season and he has to improve his timing.
While his anticipation and recovery can improve, his biggest challenge will come in the middle of the action when he’s trying to contain the ball handler. In both games he had great possessions and he had bad possessions containing the ball in the center of the court. Once again, the devil is in the details. In the first clip, Jokic gets up on the screen and starts out in decent position to make a play defensively but almost immediately reaches for the ball, allowing Steph Curry to turn the corner on him. In the second clip Jokic’s timing is pretty good but he still gets beat around his outside shoulder.
It wasn’t all bad for Jokic. There were some real positive defensive plays from him over the course of the first two games, but since no teams will fear his rim protection or get intimidated by him in the restricted area he’ll have to remain focused and disciplined on every possession while he works to improve his speed and athleticism.
The Nuggets seem to have a lot of defensive possessions like the one below where a player in help side will rotate so far off of a spot-up shooter in the corner that they can’t possibly recover. Gary Harris is the most common culprit. What is the point of him being in the restricted area? There’s no one nearby to defend!
You’ll also notice that Mason Plumlee dropped on that side PnR. He did it three possessions in a row to begin the 4th quarter against the Lakers and it was the only three possessions that I recall a big dropping like that on the sides.
The Nuggets’ defensive effort has been great over the first two preseason games but the execution is still a work in progress, even for veterans like Paul Millsap. Millsap does a great job containing the side PnR early in the possession but then fails to locate Durant at the top of the key until it’s too late.
I loved this play from Monte Morris. Watch how he anticipates his rotation toward the center of the floor and how quickly he closes the gap from the corner to the free throw line. He begins his rotation before the roll guy does! Unfortunately, neither Tyler Lydon and Juancho Hernangomez were as quick or as accurate with their reads. Both guys recovered to the center of the court, leaving not one but two wide open shooters on the perimeter.
Mason had a pair of plays with poor containment in the 3rd quarter of the game against the Lakers. The risk of playing up so high on side PnR is that if the big gets beat, the defense is really in a bind.
That’s the team’s rebound deficit after two games which is sort of a bizarre trend for a team that ranked in the top five of the league in both offensive rebound percentage and defensive rebound percentage last season. Rebounding was a big strength for the Nuggets last year and they have above average rebounders at every position including the guard spots. You would think that the addition of Paul Millsap would only help to solidify those numbers but so far that hasn’t been the case. Jokic appears to be the one who’s rebound numbers are off. He had just 2 in Monday’s game after posting just 6 the game before. It’s almost certainly the result of a tiny, two-game sample size but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Every week I’ll award game balls to whichever player(s) I feel were the MVP of that week’s games. The preseason game balls won’t count toward the regular season but might as well get into the swing of things!
Paul Millsap | DEN @ GSW | 22 pts, 11 rebs
Millsap knows how to make an entrance. His Nuggets debut was a tour de force in outside shooting, post ups, and defense. Millsap nearly out shot the entire Warriors team, making 4 of 6 three point attempts.
Gary Harris | DEN @ LAL | 25 points, 8-11 from the field
One question I had about last season was whether or not Harris really was a 40% three-point shooter. Making 40% of your threes is tough to do in the NBA but Harris was one of very few starting shooting guards to do just that, making 42% of his 4.5 attempts per game. He shot 5-7 from behind the arc against the Lakers including one really deep three on a kickout from his buddy, Nikola Jokic. So far, so good.