The problem with Nikola Jokic’s game? Let’s just say it isn’t offense

Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic has emerged as one of the most dominant players of his era, helping resurrect the relevance of centers in the modern NBA.

Following their 129-106 win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, the Nuggets have won 50 games, and their star center is once again in the middle of the league’s MVP discussion.

But while the 7-footer is an offensive savant whose elite playmaking has fueled the Nuggets’ rise to the best record (50-24) in the Western Conference, there are questions about his value on the less glamorous end of the floor, and whether his defensive play is good enough to help his team make a deep playoff run.

Those questions were amplified following an embarrassing road loss in San Antonio earlier this month. On March 10, Denver entered its road game against the Spurs as heavy favorites, and they left disappointed after San Antonio targeted Jokic’s rim protection to great effect.

After the game, a compilation of Spurs players making easy layups over Jokic went viral. In some clips, Jokic looked too slow, and in others he appeared apathetic as the younger players blew past him or went over him for easy buckets. Over and over again.

Supercuts of defensive fails often can be misleading without more context, but in this case the numbers back up Jokic’s weaknesses on the defensive end, and that’s an understatement.

San Antonio took 32 shots with Jokic as the closest defender, the highest such total for any defender in any single game this season, according to Second Spectrum, and it worked. Jokic allowed 43 points on those shots, the most allowed by any single defender in any game this season.

The headline of the game’s recap read: “Spurs overcome Jokic’s triple-double to top Nuggets 128-120.” While Keldon Johnson scored 23 points in the win, Jokic had 37 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

While conventional NBA stats and storylines continue to perpetuate an extreme offensive bias, perhaps no player’s reputation benefits more from it than Jokic. But that nightmare of a game for Denver epitomized the biggest issues with Jokic’s game, the wider perception of his overall play and the Nuggets’ title chances.

The box score might suggest Jokic was the best player in the game, but deeper looks into nerdier numbers reveal some major defensive limitations of the league’s two-time defending MVP.

Lack of defense in the paint

Jokic is not a very valuable defensive player in large part because he struggles as a rim protector. The Spurs beat the Nuggets that night because they exploited the softest spot in Denver’s defense on repeat: Jokic’s rim protection.

These two stats tell you everything you need to know about how well Jokic has protected the hoop for the Nuggets in 2022-23.

  • Per NBA Advanced Stats, 33 players have defended 300 shots at the rim this season. Jokic has allowed the highest field goal percentage (69.0%) on those attempts among this group.

  • Opponents have shot 54.2% on layups and dunks when Jokic is the contesting defender AND he heavily contests the shot, per Second Spectrum tracking. That ranks 64th among 65 players to heavily contest 250 layups and dunks this season. The only player worse? His teammate and backup, Thomas Bryant.

Big men win a disproportionate share of Defensive Player of the Year awards because they have the most important assignment in the sport: defending the bucket.

Like almost every team in the NBA, Denver relies on its starting center to defend shots, force misses and grab rebounds. Since March 8, Denver is 4-5 and its defense ranks 20th in the NBA in large part because it ranks 26th in the league in both points in the paint allowed and second-chance points allowed. As the playoffs approach, these red flags deep in the heart of Denver’s defense provide fuel for Denver’s biggest skeptics.

“Of course,” Jokic said, when asked if the Nuggets’ rebounding issues are a problem in last week’s loss to the New York Knicks. “Me first, and then everybody collectively, needs to do a better job of rebounding the ball, because even when we made a couple stops, we didn’t rebound and they just got easy ones.”

If it’s true that great defense starts in the paint, then it’s true the Nuggets are in trouble.

Jokic is one of five players who have contested more than 1,000 total shots this season, and only Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez (847) and Sacramento’s Domantas Sabonis (786) have defended more shots in the paint than Jokic has (686).

Despite the volume, Jokic’s inability to create missed shots in the paint is a big reason Denver’s overall defensive numbers are below average this season.

The Nuggets are allowing opponents to convert 69.6% of their contested shots in the restricted area this season — the worst such mark in the NBA. Jokic has contested more than twice as many such shots as any other member of his team in that area, and opponents are making 67.3% of those attempts. He’s not setting a great tone.

Defending drives

Jokic’s limitations on defense stem in part from physical limitations. By modern NBA standards, the man ESPN’s Randy Scott nicknamed “The Dad Bod God,” is a relatively slow player. He’s listed at 6-foot-11, 284 pounds, but his mobility has always been a question. On offense, he has overcome it, but in the pace-and-space era that lack of mobility is a defensive liability. Almost all of the league’s most effective big men are lighter, quicker and bouncier than he is — something that shows up when he attempts to guard attacking players who simply blow past him.

Again, the numbers are not kind:

  • 226 players have defended ball handlers on at least 200 drives this season (that’s almost half of the league), but among this massive group Jokic ranks 222nd in efficiency, allowing 1.16 points per chance.

For context, one of Jokic’s main competitors in the MVP race dominates this category. Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks first in this group, allowing 0.79 points per chance.

Along with Jokic, the other prime candidates for this year’s MVP race are both prominent members of teams with top defenses. Antetokounmpo, who won DPOY in 2020-21, is a huge part of Milwaukee’s attack. Joel Embiid is arguably the best defender on the Philadelphia 76ers, who currently own the NBA’s sixth-ranked defense.

Denver ranks 16th in defense, and that is a red flag as it prepares for the playoffs, whether or not it’s the conference’s No. 1 seed. No team in the 21st century has ranked that low in defensive efficiency and won the title. The Nuggets’ defensive woes have contributed to reasons they have lost in each of their past three postseason appearances.

In the bubble, Denver ranked 12th in defensive rating among the 16 playoff teams. In 2020-21, again the Nuggets ranked 12th of 16, and last season, they ranked dead last following their first-round loss against the Golden State Warriors.

In that three-year time frame, no postseason player has allowed more field goals (192) as a paint defender than Jokic.

Whether it’s stats like this or viral videos, word on Jokic’s defense is getting out and changing the narrative.

On March 9, Jokic was the runaway favorite to win the MVP — that day Caesars Sportsbook had him at -400 and Embiid at +425. But on March 16, following that Spurs loss and that supercut of his defensive woes, Jokic and Embiid were suddenly both listed at -105. Just over a week later, Embiid has emerged as the clear betting favorite (-225), and Jokic is now an underdog (+270).

As a team, the Nuggets remain one of the favorites to win this year’s title (+800); they still have the fourth-shortest odds in the whole league. If they play as well as they did Saturday night against Milwaukee — the Nuggets outscored the Bucks 57-48 in the paint — they could win it all, but this year’s playoff push will go only as far as Jokic can take them, on both ends of the court.

— ESPN Stats & Information’s Matt Williams contributed to this story.

2023-03-27 11:41:30