With another season in the books, and likely another MVP, Denver’s greatest athlete of all time has wrapped up another all-time great season. He carried a depleted, and incomplete roster to a 48 win season. Obviously, the Nuggets were missing two of their three max contract players in Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., but they also had role players miss a lot of time as well. P.J. Dozier was supposed to be an important piece to the Nuggets’ rotation and really carve a role out for himself. He was one of the most important defenders on the team. Unfortunately P.J. tore his ACL in late November, and didn’t play another game for the team. He was ultimately traded. Zeke Nnaji was putting together a nice season for himself, but he got hurt in February and didn’t return until the last game of the season (besides one game in March, but it was one game and then he continued to miss time).
With these conditions, a step back would have made sense to a certain degree. However, Nikola Jokic did the exact opposite — he just got better. He put together a better season than he did last season. That’s saying something too, because last year he put together what was arguably the best offensive season from a center ever. There were some things we learned about Nikola this season, and chief among them is that he’s that guy. He is a player who can win. No one player can win a title by themselves, but Jokic is the best floor raiser in the NBA. With Jamal Murray and Michael Porter coming back next season healthy, this should give fans hope.
The Warriors series started with two very, very rough games to watch if you were a Nuggets fan. Nikola was really the only player on the Nuggets fighting. Throughout the series, however, more players started battling with him. He lead by example, and it showed with Aaron Gordon improving, Bones Hyland and Monte Morris getting better. They all did those things on their own, but Nikola Jokic set the example for them. Nikola Jokic continued to raise his game in the playoffs. He is a winner. He may have lost this series, but he fought like hell. Additionally the difference between a 4-1 defeat, and Denver being up 3-2 is 10 points. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. likely change a big deal of that series. At the end of the day, he is a franchise guy. Franchise guys most of the time cap out at a certain point, but Nikola hasn’t. He’s gotten better every season of his career and this season was no exception. Let’s get into some of the areas he improved.
Nikola Jokic has often had Jamal Murray playing with him. The two of them, as you’re all probably aware, have a wonderful two-man game that they go into in the crunch time of games, or whenever the Nuggets need a bucket period. It would oftentimes create good looks for Nikola that he could post up out of or create for himself out of. Besides that though, his buckets were self-created a lot of the time. Post ups, three pointers, etc. He would get his through his own means alone.
He was able to do a lot of this due to the spacing with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on the floor. It opened a lot of that space up for him, and let him operate without defenders leaving those two open.
Take this possession for example. The Nuggets are running a 4-out 1-in isolation for Nikola Jokic in the post. While he still has 4 sets of eyes on him, the Warriors can’t help much off of their men. The only negative shooter that was in this lineup was Aaron Gordon, and if Draymond Green were to help off of him it would open an easy cut for Gordon. So, they resign to letting Kevon Looney be Jokic’s sole defender. Given the opportunity, Jokic makes a very easy shot for him.
With proper spacing it makes his job a lot easier and simpler. However without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. there wasn’t that spacing there. Teams could help with more vigor off of his teammates. Malone, Jokic, and the team had to get more creative with how to get Jokic good looks at the hoop. In the 2020-2021 season only 48.4% of Jokic’s 2 point field goals were assisted. This season, that took a jump by nearly nine percent to 56.5% of those same 2 point field goals. He had actions run for him and was just more active off-ball.
Here you can see him make a pass and do a sort of give and go with JaMychal Green. He notices DeAndre Jordan — who played awful, awful defense be it — fall asleep so he just runs by him for the open layup off of a Jamychal Green pass. It’s something he did when he could, but it wasn’t the most prolific way he did get better looks.
Bones Hyland was a big addition for many reasons, but for the sake of this example, we will focus on one thing with him. He can throw a dang entry pass. Such a simple task is one that not many guards that Denver has brought through their doors over the past several seasons. He and Monte Morris are pretty solid at this though, and it let Joker improve on getting better positioning in the post. He got better at utilizing his arms and shoulder and legs to get where he wants in the post. He also got better at getting into positions as the roll man, specifically with Bones. Bones operates the pick and roll like a veteran. He regularly snakes and slithers through defenders. Through this he is able to create looks for either him or his roll man with ease. Here are a couple examples.
He also got very creative with screens, both coming off of them and setting them. In the following possession he sets a soft screen where he would typically set a hard screen and immediately curls which catches Steven Adams off guard. With this he creates a window that Aaron Gordon finds and it opens a layup to which he scores an and-1.
Drop Coverage and Defense on Drives
Nikola Jokic still is not a good defender in isolations on quick guards, but that’s never going to be his role on defense. He is supposed to be getting in passing lanes and a deterrent on a drive for the most part. He got better at containing guys in drop coverage and if they tried to drive on him when he sagged off for the most part. There were still defensive lapses for him throughout the season, and you can draw a lot of that up to the load he had to carry on the other end of the floor. However, he mostly moved his feet a lot better this season than seasons previous, and he still had the signature ability to steal passes and loose handles with his quick hands.
You can see a couple of possessions that provide examples of what I mean below.
All in all, he has really improved this season in ways on both sides of the floor. He proved to us again that he is a winner, and he is a top player in the league. He has an argument to be the best player, and he carried a team that was incredibly underwhelming outside of him to a great season. He is about to become only the 12th player in NBA history to win multiple MVPs. Denver, celebrate Jokic while you can because eventually all athletes retire, and you all should watch him while you still can.