Nikola Jokic has always been an advanced statistics darling.
This is what drew so much dissonance when he started breaking out four years ago. The eye test didn’t quite match the numbers Jokic was generating, and many people had concerns that he would never find the confluence of stats and eye test.
Well, he figured it out, and the most jarring reality has been his defensive growth.
A lot of discourse about Nikola Jokic's defense has disappeared this season, and for good reason. Jokic has turned himself into a really good defensive player in Denver's system, starting with incredible hands and positioning. pic.twitter.com/lE5WY9GSW9— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) February 7, 2020
Jokic’s +3.03 Defensive Real Plus-Minus and his +1.17 Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus place the Serbian center near the top of the NBA in both categories. These one number defensive metrics have always favored Jokic, but they never fully explained why. What folks saw of Jokic on the floor didn’t fully gel with such a positive impact.
Here’s why Jokic is great defensively:
This is perhaps the single most important reason Jokic is an elite defender. When other teams are attacking him, they don’t always get to where they want to go.
The goal of every offense is to generate open shots concentrated around the three-point line and the front of the rim. Offenses are getting really good at exploiting weaknesses of various schemes and players to maximize the points scored. The Houston Rockets are excellent at this, finding ways to manipulate the defense to create as many threes, layups, and free throws as possible.
But as offenses have grown smarter, so have defenses, Jokic chief among them. The Nuggets have designed a scheme to take advantage of Jokic’s basketball instincts to prevent shots at the rim. When Jokic is on the floor, the Nuggets allow 3.8 percent fewer shots at the rim than average. That ranks in the 93rd percentile among all NBA players, meaning Jokic is elite at preventing shots at the rim despite being unable to jump over a phone book.
By comparison, here’s how other rim protectors stack up preventing shots at the rim when they are on the floor:
- Joel Embiid - 100th percentile (Minus-7.9 percent)
- Bam Adebayo - 98th percentile (Minus-5.5 percent)
- Draymond Green - 95th percentile (Minus-4.7 percent)
- Kristaps Porzingis - 95th percentile (Minus-4.5 percent)
- Nikola Jokic - 93rd percentile (Minus-3.9 percent)
- Rudy Gobert - 92nd percentile (Minus-3.8 percent)
- Hassan Whiteside - 92nd percentile (Minus-3.6 percent)
- Marc Gasol - 88th percentile (Minus-3.2 percent)
- Brook Lopez - 75th percentile (Minus-1.8 percent)
The Nuggets know that Jokic won’t challenge teams at the rim like a standard rim protector, but they still protect the rim in other ways. They play Jokic in an aggressive pick and roll scheme that asks Jokic to cover a lot of ground while playing the passing lanes. It doesn’t always work, and the Nuggets occasionally give up an open dunk or three because of it, but largely, the scheme has worked because of what Jokic can do while on the perimeter. That leads right into the next key factor.
Elite positioning and hands
Nikola Jokic is tied for second among centers in total steals this season with 61 steals in 53 games. He averages 1.2 per game on the year, and he has accumulated at least one in 24 of the last 30 games. Andre Drummond is running away with the steals title at center, but Jokic is tied with an elite athlete in Adebayo while exceeding the numbers of mobile centers like Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson.
The easy answer for why he’s so good here: he has long arms and a quick mind. Jokic often baits passes knowing they are coming and then bats them out of the air or deflects a low bounce pass with his 7-foot-3 wingspan. I hate to use the phrase “deceptively quick” but that’s exactly who Jokic is: a deceptively quick defensive player.
Jokic knows that the best place to be is at the front of the rim for an offensive player, so he does whatever he can to force opposing players to NOT be at the front of the rim. Sometimes, they make semi-contested shots over his ground bound frame, but other times they miss due to his immovable presence and long arms forcing a shot to be juuuust a bit more difficult.
Instead of Hassan Whiteside getting all the way to the rim, he spins and takes a hook shot leaning away much further away from the hoop to the pressure put onto him by Jokic. It’s not a traditional way to protect the rim, and it’s definitely not the best way, but over the course of a full season, it evens out to make Jokic look pretty good. If he’s consistently in the right spot changing 3-foot shots into 6-foot shots, that changes the entire perspective of his defense.
Defensive Rebounding and Limiting Possessions
Better shot blockers and rim protectors often do a better job of minimizing the point value of the first shot, but the difference between Jokic and the high flying rim protecters: Jokic is ready to box out for the rebound because he never left the floor.
Here are the defensive rebounding ON-OFF numbers of the same nine rim protectors I listed above:
- Joel Embiid - 97th percentile (Minus-5.2 percent)
- Bam Adebayo - 77th percentile (Minus-1.9 percent)
- Draymond Green - 96th percentile (Minus-4.7 percent)
- Kristaps Porzingis - 78th percentile (Minus-2.2 percent)
- Nikola Jokic - 62nd percentile (Minus-0.9 percent)
- Rudy Gobert - 92nd percentile (Minus-3.8 percent)
- Hassan Whiteside - 80th percentile (Minus-2.2 percent)
- Marc Gasol - 45th percentile (Plus-0.4 percent)
- Brook Lopez - 48th percentile (Plus-0.1 percent)
Joel Embiid is clearly one of the most impactful players in the NBA defensively. Not only do the Philadelphia 76ers prevent shots at the rim at an elite clip, they also rebound at an elite clip when he’s out there. Jokic isn’t quite there with his rebounding, but the Nuggets are still snagging defensive rebounds at a high rate with him out there.
Another area where Jokic shines defensively: defending without fouling and allowing free throws. Here’s that same group of rim protectors measured by their opponent free throw rate when the player is on the floor versus off it:
- Joel Embiid - 85th percentile (Minus-2.5 percent)
- Bam Adebayo - 70th percentile (Minus-1.4 percent)
- Draymond Green - 24th percentile (Plus-2.1 percent)
- Kristaps Porzingis - 58th percentile (Minus-0.6 percent)
- Nikola Jokic - 82nd percentile (Minus-2.2 percent)
- Rudy Gobert - 99th percentile (Minus-6.3 percent)
- Hassan Whiteside - 91st percentile (Minus-3.1 percent)
- Marc Gasol - 100th percentile (Minus-6.4 percent)
- Brook Lopez - 96th percentile (Minus-4.6 percent)
Jokic can’t get into foul trouble. He’s too important for the Nuggets offense to deal with that on a consistent basis. It’s a great thing that Denver’s free throw rate allowed is so low with him on the floor. Even if he allows an extra two points here or there, players are more likely to score more points at the free throw line than they are over Jokic contesting shots around the paint.
Finally, turnovers. How great are these rim protectors at forcing the opposition into turnovers while on the floor?
- Joel Embiid - 23rd percentile (Minus-1.1 percent)
- Bam Adebayo - 21st percentile (Minus-1.1 percent)
- Draymond Green - 42nd percentile (Minus-0.2 percent)
- Kristaps Porzingis - 47th percentile (Minus-0.1 percent)
- Nikola Jokic - 85th percentile (Plus-1.7 percent)
- Rudy Gobert - 67th percentile (Plus-0.6 percent)
- Hassan Whiteside - 42nd percentile (Minus-0.2 percent)
- Marc Gasol - 83rd percentile (Plus-1.6 percent)
- Brook Lopez - 30th percentile (Minus-0.7 percent)
So, Jokic actually has the greatest impact among other rim protectors in terms of turnover rate. Teams turn the ball over 1.7% more frequently with Jokic on the floor than off, which may sound like a negligible number, but that extra possession could mean the difference at the end of games. Mobile bigs are generally the ones who impact this stat the most, but as I alluded to in the positioning section, it’s mobile bigs and Jokic now.
This is the part of defense that is rarely acknowledged. As I stated earlier, the Nuggets are elite at preventing shots at the rim when Jokic is on the floor. They force teams into turnovers with Jokic on the floor more frequently than any other team’s rim protector. They don’t send teams to the free throw line. They rebound misses at a solid level.
There is so much more to defense than just contesting shots. Jokic will always struggle in various schemes, most notably against mobile forwards that can pass like LeBron James, Luka Doncic, and probably Kevin Durant when he returns. But it’s clear that Jokic thrives in every other area, maximizing what he has to make life just a little bit harder for the opposition. The Nuggets are winning games on the margins defensively, knowing that they will give up some easy shots in the process but staying with it all the same.
So, the next time someone tells you that Nikola Jokic is bad defensively, tell them there’s more to rim protection than long arms and physicality. There’s more to harassing opponents than getting up in their grill and acting like a tough defender. Jokic doesn’t do either of those things, partly because he can’t, but also because it isn’t always necessary. When he’s driven to make those “loud” defensive stops, he mostly does. At the end of games, in key moments, or when he starts to get just a little angry.
Nikola Jokic has found a way to harness talents and mask weaknesses, turning himself into a splendid defender along the way.