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The biggest defensive problem in Denver isn’t Nikola Jokic

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Nikola Jokic has been used as a scapegoat for Denver’s defensive problems this year.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Another loss. Another missed opportunity. Another game showcasing Denver’s ultimate problem in the present and the future.

Nikola Jokic played a great game last night against the Miami Heat, putting up 34 points, 14 rebounds, and 3 assists in 48 minutes, playing BY FAR the most minutes of his career last night and maintaining effectiveness throughout the game. With free throws in the clutch, rainbow three pointers, and a rebound tip-in with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime, it’s clear that Denver would be nowhere near as good as they are now without their star center.

But just as Jokic scored and orchestrated offense as he normally does, the Heat came right back at him in the fourth quarter and both overtime periods. Attempting to force Jokic to play defense in space, both James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk had big games, scoring 31 and 30 points apiece on efficient shooting. This helped Miami keep pace with Jokic and the Nuggets, and in the end, Miami executed better and earned a hard-fought victory.

After the game, head coach Michael Malone gave his customary interview, saying that he was proud of the way his guys fought and that they should hold their heads high despite the loss, and he’s right. Denver, despite losing once again on the road in a must-win scenario, can hold their heads high tonight because they actually tried, unlike their dismal performance against the Memphis Grizzlies the previous game (my words, not his obviously).

Still, Malone had some candid words about the way the Heat attacked Jokic defensively in the end-of-game situations:

At this point, it’s clear that Malone treats Jokic as a liability in these defensive situations, and to a degree, he has a point. Jokic is slow, not at all quick in space, and not at all a leaper to defend the rim or contest perimeter shots. Normally, a player like that would be considered a liability.

Going back and watching the film though? Jokic wasn’t the problem defensively in my opinion. Just 12 of the 40 or so points Kelly Olynyk created through his scoring and passing were directly related to Jokic. There were a couple of perimeter jumpers Jokic was late to contest, as well as some erratic defense that left Olynyk or the receiver of his pass free to score. By my count, Olynyk’s points created were allowed by the following:

  • Mason Plumlee - 15 points
  • Nikola Jokic - 12 points
  • Torrey Craig - 4 points
  • Paul Millsap - 4 points
  • Wilson Chandler - 3 points
  • Jamal Murray - 2 points

The same can be said for James Johnson. Jokic didn’t exactly do an elite job covering Johnson, but he certainly was better than Millsap last night. By my count, Johnson’s 38 or so points created were allowed by the following:

  • Paul Millsap - 19 points
  • Nikola Jokic - 8 points
  • Will Barton - 6 points
  • Mason Plumlee - 3 points
  • Wilson Chandler - 2 points

Now, this isn’t meant to be a writer playing defense for the team’s biggest star. This is simply what happened last night. Millsap rotated off of Johnson a fair amount last night, and it cost the Nuggets points. Even when Millsap was defending Johnson though, the Miami forward powered around, above, and through Millsap. It wasn’t pretty, and it was the primary reason the Heat kept pace with the Nuggets throughout tonight’s game.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The point of all of this is, Nikola Jokic, while he has his defensive faults, isn’t the only problem. The Nuggets began to understand what Jokic was last year and that they had to account for some of his defensive issues going forward. Because of that, they brought in Paul Millsap, let go of Danilo Gallinari, and the two combined to help Denver form a solid defensive starting unit. The Murray - Gary Harris - Chandler - Millsap - Jokic lineup has allowed just a 105.0 defensive rating in 345 minutes of action this year. If that unit were a team, it would rank 11th in the NBA defensively.

With Jokic on the floor at all, the defensive rating jumps to 107.8, still not terrible in all honesty. That would rank 21st defensively, while his offensive rating of 112.2 when on the floor would rank 3rd. Consider that in juxtaposition with how the offense and defense perform with Jokic off the court:

  • The offensive rating decreases by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when he sits on the bench.
  • The defensive rating increases by 2.1 points per 100 possessions when he sits on the bench,

These two numbers aren’t a coincidence, because during the life of an NBA game, Jokic being on the floor helps the defense in most match-ups. This is because of three reasons:

  1. The Nuggets starters are generally better defenders than the bench players. An argument can be made that Devin Harris is better defensively than Murray, but Harris, Chandler, and Millsap are better defensively than Barton, Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles, and other possible subs. The starters with Plumlee at center instead of Jokic has only played 19 total minutes together, so it’s unwise to draw much information on just how much better Plumlee is on defense than Jokic, if at all.
  2. Jokic remains a smart defender. While he won’t block many shots, Jokic collects defensive rebounds at a high rate and collects steals at a high rate for a big man. Among the 35 centers that qualify for the minutes per game threshold, Jokic ranks 9th in defensive rebound percentage at 28.0% and 4th in steal percentage at 1.9%. While Jokic doesn’t provide a lot of rim protection, he constantly gets his hands in passing lanes and occasionally comes up with an important steal. His type of defense limits the amount of second chance opportunities the opposing team has, and while he gives up a high percentage on shots attempted against him, he at least partially makes up for it by limiting those extra chances.
  3. Jokic being a great offensive player and organizer on that end help keep transition opportunities at bay. The starters’ turnover rate is lower with Jokic on the floor than it is with Barton and Plumlee on the floor (the primary captains of defensive units this year). With Jokic off the floor at this time, the offense becomes more inefficient and leads to those fast break opportunities due to turnovers and long misses.

For this reason, it remains possible in my mind for the Nuggets to build at least a competent defense around Jokic. In order to do so though, Denver must stop making excuses that the defense is bad with Jokic on the floor. Last night, that wasn’t the case. Most nights, it isn’t the case. Net and defensive ratings would suggest that he’s a positive in all actuality, as would most catch-all defensive metrics. Not to mention, his offensive contribution far outweighs his defensive “liability” in nearly every case.

Still, Denver has some work to do to surround Jokic with more defensively competent players. Murray and Harris have flaws in the backcourt, and Barton is way more of a liability than Jokic defensively. Chandler and Millsap struggle to stick with quicker players, while Plumlee and Lyles just aren’t intelligent enough to anchor a defense. In order to become better, Denver must acquire more guard and wing defenders to surround Jokic and prevent penetration into the lane. Adding a rim protecting big man that can play next to Jokic and not turn the offense to mush would also be helpful.

Overall though, Michael Malone needs to start working some defensive magic. He’s had three years to figure out how to improve the team defensively around Jokic. Right now, the team is 25th in the NBA defensively, a minor improvement over the 29th ranked unit last year and in line with the 24th ranked unit the year before. While the offense has improved to a fringe top 5 unit the last two seasons, Malone has yet to make a tangible impact on the team’s defense, and a significant factor is his dependence on Will Barton. Barton is in every bad combination defensively this year among three-man combos. Not Nikola Jokic, Will Barton.

The Nuggets don’t play well defensively when Will Barton is on the floor.
NBA.com/stats

This is an issue, and it takes form during the beginning, middle, and end of games. Not enough people have singled out Barton for his defense this year, but given that he’s played the most minutes of any Nuggets player, it’s not hard to see where the problems begin.

If the Nuggets have an interest in improving their defense next year, they first must consider wing upgrades. That’s the position Denver needs to fill in the foreseeable future to improve. Denver doesn’t need Barton’s offense as much as is made out to be, especially if they can find a legitimate upgrade at backup point guard. Denver needs 6 foot 6 to 6 foot 9 guys that can keep their man away from the rim and switch frequently. Unfortunately, that’s just not the player Barton is, and overpaying for Barton’s offense off the bench isn’t going to solve those issues either.

Denver already has two young scoring guards in Murray and Harris that should eventually be able to run with the bench unit and be first or second options, so pairing them with defensive stalwarts, rather than defensive liabilities, should be a great place to start.

Nuggets fans shouldn’t immediately move to blame Michael Malone on this, but the clock is ticking for both him and the front office. At the beginning of the offseason, I recommended Denver go after two role players in free agency beyond the addition of Millsap: P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Each article can be found here and here, and the argument for each guy then is the same I will use now. Both were cheap acquisitions that are now starting and surrounding the core players of Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela in Houston. Both provide defense and a modicum of floor spacing, while allowing the core three to work their magic and generate one of the greatest offenses in NBA history while maintaining a top 10 defense.

Of course, the Nuggets front office didn’t do that. They brought in Paul Millsap and basically no one else, and it’s no surprise that the defensive personnel from last year struggled to change many things this year. Denver must shake things up personnel wise next year if they are going to become a better defensive team. It’s why it’s hard to blame Malone (yet) for lack of defensive improvement. How is anyone supposed to expect improvement if barely any reinforcements arrive?

To summarize: the biggest problem for Denver defensively isn’t Nikola Jokic. It’s the fact that they have made him a scapegoat of larger personnel problems and coaching decisions that are outside Jokic’s control.

Will the Nuggets do what’s necessary to build a functioning unit? Once the personnel is in place, can Malone use it in an effective way? I haven’t even mentioned the scheme that basically leaves weak side shooters wide open in basic pick and roll coverages. Even if Denver fixes everything else, is Jokic still going to be an issue?

All of these must be answered sooner or later. For now, focus on the fact that Jokic isn’t the entire problem, and that if the Nuggets somehow make the playoffs this year, it will be because everyone begins to realize that and adjusts accordingly (or a small miracle occurs).

Poll

What is Denver’s biggest issue defensively?

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    Jokic
    (56 votes)
  • 25%
    Barton
    (286 votes)
  • 23%
    Personnel in general
    (262 votes)
  • 45%
    Malone/scheme
    (513 votes)
1117 votes total Vote Now