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Nikola Jokic looks like a different defender this year... Why that’s great news for the Nuggets' pick-and-roll defense

Harrison Wind Avatar
October 20, 2018

Nikola Jokic has never been afraid to give an honest assessment of his defense. Even after some of the Nuggets’ worst defensive performances over the past few seasons, Jokic will poke fun at his play on that end of the floor, joking at times in front of his locker with the assembled media that he doesn’t need to play defense since the Nuggets got the win, especially if Denver was able to put 120 or 130 points next to its name on the scoreboard.

After the Nuggets’ opening night victory over the Clippers, Jokic again gave his biggest flaw a genuine evaluation.

“I actually think I played good defense the other night,” Jokic told Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

This time, Jokic wasn’t kidding around. Denver put on one of its best defensive performances of the Malone era Wednesday, and Jokic was at the center of it. The Nuggets held the Clippers under 100 points in their opener, something Denver only did on two occasions after last season’s All-Star break, and kept Los Angeles to under 40 percent shooting from the field and under 30 percent shooting from three. The Nuggets also flaunted their aggressive pick-and-roll scheme, which stood the test of four quarters. The Nuggets charted 22 deflections against the Clippers and only gave up six uncontested shots. Jokic, according to internal team data, contested 18 of the 20 shots he faced.

“You were terrific the other night,” Malone told Jokic. “You can do that every single night.”

If Jokic has indeed turned a corner as a defender, Denver is in business. With two-plus years of elite offense centered around Jokic to look back on, the Nuggets aren’t concerned with their shotmaking. But Denver’s defense? That’s another story.

The Nuggets were inconsistent on defense last year for a third-straight season. Over Denver’s first 15 games, the Nuggets were 9-6 with league’s 18th-best defense and surrendered just 104.7 points per 100 possessions. Then came the fateful November night at Staples Center where Millsap went down with a left wrist injury that required surgery and forced the 33-year-old to miss Denver’s next 44 games. Including Nov. 19, the night when Millsap got injured and only played 13 minutes, the Nuggets fielded the 27th-ranked defense in the league and gave up 109.3 points per 100 possessions over their next 45 games.

So Denver recalibrated its defense this summer back to the aggressive style it implemented with Millsap a year ago. When Millsap went down, Denver still brought its bigs up to the level of the ball when defending pick-and-rolls at times, but without its defensive traffic cop, the Nuggets weren’t able to keep up that kind of defensive consistency. Denver’s hoping that a healthy Millsap will allow them to play that style for the full 82-game regular season.

One game down and the results are overwhelmingly positive. While Millsap can be counted on to be an elite defensive force night in and night out, Jokic is still a wildcard, but after spending his summer focusing on his footspeed, the 7-footer looks quicker when both tracking his defender up to the level of the ball and retreating back to his man. Malone has also preached to Jokic that he can’t play upright and has to get in a stance to be an impactful defender. That way he’ll be able to navigate the floor with more speed. So far, it’s worked.

Up and at the level of the ball is where Jokic prefers to play and feels most comfortable. When he’s hung back at times over the past few years and sagged off his man when defending the pick-and-roll, Jokic has been a sitting duck for the league’s premier playmaking guards like James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard, whose eyes light up when they see the lumbering center as the only obstacle between them and a bucket.

“He was this big guy who had these rockets coming at him,” Malone said. “He felt he was at a disadvantage. He wasn’t comfortable in that.”

When devising a more aggressive pick-and-roll scheme a year ago that would make Jokic more comfortable, Malone recalled his days as a Cleveland Cavaliers assistant where he coached Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who like Jokic wasn’t the quickest big man in the league. Like Jokic, Ilgauskas also felt more comfortable playing up the floor.

It was just one game, but Jokic looked at ease when he was on the move and not stationed to the paint.

“I really don’t think about it. I just try to stop it,” Jokic said of defending in the pick-and-roll. “I try to do whatever coaches tell us to do. I just trust all of them. They know basketball and will help us a lot, so I’m just trying to do what’s good for the team. It’s not just me. It’s all five guys.”

“He’s making more of a conscious effort of trying to be up in the pick-and-rolls, trying to be in the right places, talking more,” Millsap said. “He’s taking it upon himself to do that. As teammates, we’re pushing him and motivating him to be a good defender.”

Jokic even had a couple sequences Wednesday when he hedged and effectively defended more than one pick-and-roll on a given possession.

More constant movement from Jokic keeps him engaged in case he needs to quickly leave his man and get out to a shooter, or rotate to another big one or two passes away. With Jokic on the floor Wednesday, Denver only surrendered 101.5 points per 100 possessions. Last season, that number read 108.3.

It helps that Jokic played Wednesday alongside Millsap, who’s now fully healthy. One player can’t reverse a five-year trend of subpar defense by himself, but Millsap’s intangibles can uplift Denver’s defense more than most.

The Nuggets and Jokic are a quiet team by nature and a lack of communication has hurt them on defense in the past. Millsap might not be a ‘rah-rah’ leader in the locker room, but he’s a profound presence on the court, acting as Denver’s defensive captain pointing out oncoming screens to Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton, like a traffic cop directing cars through a crowded LoDo intersection on a Saturday night.

“The main thing with us is communicating,” said Barton. “I feel like we can be a good defensive team if we talk more.”

The veteran is one of the best help-side defenders in the league and is always one to keep his head on a swivel so he can see both ball and man. When Danilo Gallinari catches the ball in the mid-post with under 10 seconds on the shot clock midway through the third quarter, Millsap knows he’s going to shoot it. So the 33-year-old keeps a close eye on Gallinari, making sure he’s in range to come over for the block.

When Gallinari puts the ball on the floor, Millsap gradually drifts towards the baseline and turns his shot away at the rim.

Millsap’s defensive chops also allow him to thwart 3-on-1 opportunities that opposing teams should turn into a score every time down the court. Against the Clippers, the Nuggets surrendered just 79.4 points per 100 possessions in the 30 minutes that Millsap was on the floor.

With Jokic, Millsap, Barton, Harris and Murray connected at the hip, the Nuggets held the Clippers to 17-48 (35.4 percent) shooting in the 29 minutes their starting lineup was on the floor. The sky is the limit for that group too.

Harris has an elite basketball IQ, the ability to anticipate opposing guard’s movements before they happen and quick hands — all necessary characteristics of premier perimeter defenders. The Nuggets’ starting shooting guard held the trio of Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley to a combined 2-10 shooting when he was their primary defender, per Second Spectrum data.

Barton can be a positive force on that end of the floor when he’s engaged, and Murray is still young and relatively inexperienced but his effort level and hustle could eventually turn him into a plus on that end of the floor. Together, that five can piece together defensive possessions stocked full of perfectly executed pick-and-roll coverages and precise rotations.

“Our guys carried over into our first regular season game everything we’ve been harping on,” Malone said. “And I thought they played extremely hard. … We’ve got to carry it over and do even better tomorrow night.”

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