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Nikola Jokic Is the NBA’s Offensive Riddle, and the Nuggets’ Defensive Enigma

Denver’s rocky start has shown just how hard it can be to build around a big man who can’t anchor a defense. The team is figuring out its star dynamic bit by bit, but they have other issues that need to be addressed.

Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There has never been a big man quite like Nikola Jokic. He has the skill set of a next-generation center in the body of a player from the 1950s. It’s not easy to build a team around him. Center is the most important defensive position on the floor, and his defense is way behind his offense. Jokic doesn’t move his feet well on the perimeter, and he doesn’t protect the rim either. After the Nuggets made him a full-time starter in mid-December last year, their team took on his strengths and weaknesses. They had the no. 1 rated offense in the NBA, and the no. 30 rated defense.

The center determines a team’s defensive identity. A massive shot blocker like Rudy Gobert can drop back and wall off the paint, so the Jazz guards fight over ball screens and force opposing ball handlers to score over his outstretched arms. When the Warriors go small with Draymond Green at the 5, they switch screens and extend out on the perimeter, leaving Draymond on an island against the ball handler. Jokic isn’t effective at either style. No matter how he tries to defend the pick-and-roll, there’s a way to attack him. The Nuggets are playing better defense with Jokic on the floor this season, but their future depends on whether they can solve the riddle of a defenseless center.

Jokic’s individual defensive numbers are terrible. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he is in the 19th percentile of NBA players when guarding the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, and in the 11th percentile against the roll man. He doesn’t have the speed to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter. Even DeMarre Carroll, a 31-year-old coming off multiple knee injuries who can’t turn the corner on most players, can get around Jokic:

He’s not much better at dropping back. Jokic is in the bottom five for starting centers in block percentage (1.8 percent) as well as field goal percentage allowed as the primary defender (67.6 percent). He has a hard time cutting off smaller players, even in confined spaces where they have less room to maneuver. In this sequence, Jokic keeps retreating along the baseline against Kyle Lowry, allowing Lowry to turn him around completely and creating an easy lob for Lucas Nogueira:

The typical defensive dynamic is flipped in Denver. Instead of Jokic covering for the mistakes of his teammates, his teammates cover for his. If the center can’t protect the rim and guard in space, he needs to play with someone at power forward who can.

Paul Millsap, whom the Nuggets signed to a three-year, $90 million contract this offseason, is the perfect frontcourt partner for Jokic. Despite being almost half a foot shorter, Millsap has a much higher block percentage (2.5 percent), and he holds offensive players to 45.8 percent shooting. He is an excellent individual defender who also covers a lot of ground on the help side. Watch as Millsap rotates over to protect the rim against DeMar DeRozan after DeMar gets around Jokic. In the same instance, Millsap was also able to close off a passing lane to the corner:

A good example of Millsap’s defensive versatility came in Denver’s 95-94 win over Miami last week. Jokic struggled to guard Hassan Whiteside in the first half, and the Nuggets defense had to collapse on the Heat center, creating open 3-pointers for Miami’s perimeter players. In the second half, Mike Malone switched defensive assignments upfront, putting Millsap on Whiteside and hiding Jokic on Okaro White, a defensive-minded 4 without the offensive game to punish the mismatch. Denver’s defense tightened and Miami’s 3-point shooting dried up. The Nuggets gave up only 36 points in the second half after allowing 58 in the first.

A generation ago, the easiest way to hide a 7-foot sieve would be to slot him at power forward next to a dominant interior defender at center. That was the formula the Mavs used to win a championship in 2011 with a frontcourt of Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. The problem these days is there aren’t many traditional big men left at power forward for guys like Dirk and Jokic to guard. There’s not much they can do against a faster player who can take them off the dribble at the 3-point line. The only way to protect them now is to play them at center alongside four long and athletic players whose defensive activity can make up for their lack of mobility.

The success of the Nuggets defense depends in large part on who is playing next to Jokic. They have a defensive rating of 101.5 in the 244 minutes he has played with Millsap this season. That number balloons up to 109.5 in the 54 minutes that Jokic has played with Mason Plumlee, a traditional center. The sample size is pretty small, but it’s a repeat of the trend from last season. Denver had a defensive rating of 108.1 in the 175 minutes that Jokic and Plumlee played together, and a defensive rating of 109.3 in the 83 minutes he was paired with Jusuf Nurkic, another center without the speed to guard on the perimeter.

Malone is still trying to find a frontcourt partner for Jokic when Millsap is out of the game. The pairing of Jokic and Kenneth Faried has worked much better than it did last season, when the two had a defensive rating of 110.1 in 479 minutes together. That number is down to 96.8 in 61 minutes this season. Faried isn’t much of a shot blocker either, but he’s at least athletic enough to cover a lot of space when he’s engaged on defense. The other option is to go small around Jokic, with a combo forward at the 4, either Wilson Chandler or Juancho Hernangomez, who has been out most of the season with mononucleosis. Both players are long and active defenders who can provide another perimeter threat on offense. It would be an interesting look against opposing second units without as much size to attack them in the lane.

Few big men come into the league being able to play great defense. Karl-Anthony Towns was widely regarded as a generational defensive prospect, and he’s struggled on that side of the ball in his first few years. Towns at least has the athletic ability to erase some of his own mistakes. Jokic has no margin for error. He has to be perfectly positioned every time because he’s not fast enough to rotate over if he’s a step late. Even Millsap can only help him so much against an offense that spreads the floor with four or five 3-point shooters. No one can cover for Jokic when he’s left on an island on defense. There’s nowhere to hide when you are the biggest player on the floor.

The Nuggets Are Waiting on Their Young Point Guards

Point guard is one of the toughest positions in the NBA for young players to learn. Denver used no. 7 overall picks on point guards in 2015 (Emmanuel Mudiay) and 2016 (Jamal Murray), and they still aren’t sure what they have in either player. They gave Mudiay control of the offense as a rookie, but he was benched after the emergence of Jokic. Mudiay’s poor outside shooting made him a bad fit with a center who had the ball in his hands for most of the game. Murray took over as the starter this season, and he hasn’t been much better.

The biggest problem for both guys is learning how to balance between being aggressive and forcing the action. The Nuggets’ young point guards tend to be careless with the ball, dribbling themselves into trouble and trying passes that aren’t there. Neither is making enough good decisions when they are on the floor. Mudiay has a 1.62:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Murray is even worse at 1.42:1. Malone sounded off about them before Denver’s game against the Nets on Tuesday:

The most important thing for all our point guards is valuing the ball. And the reason I say that, right now we are 29th in points allowed off turnovers. We’re giving our opponent 21.2 points a night off our mistakes. That’s absurd. How are you going beat anyone when you’re giving opponents 20 plus a night? So I think it starts with (our point guards). And obviously, everybody else is involved. Nikola and Paul, who we play through a lot, they need to value the ball at a higher level, but it starts with our point guards.

Most point guards taken in the lottery start their careers on rebuilding teams that can afford to let them play through their mistakes. Mudiay is 21 and Murray is 20, and Denver needs them to grow up fast. Interestingly enough, considering their reputations, Mudiay is actually shooting better from 3 (48.3 percent on 2.4 attempts per game, buttressed by a 4-for-4 outing against the Thunder Thursday night) than the slumping Murray (26 percent on 4.2 attempts per game). The problem for Mudiay is that he’s shooting at a lower percentage from 2 (40.5 percent) than 3. At times it seems as if he’s trying to shoot his way back into the starting lineup rather than taking what the defense gives him.

Malone is unlikely to make any changes, though, as long as Murray has the best net rating (plus-3.9) of any player in the rotation. Murray has a lot of fans around the league, and he was rumored to be the centerpiece of a possible summer trade for Kyrie Irving. Sticking with Murray, though, may mean giving up on Mudiay, who had an outstanding 21-point game in their win over Oklahoma City. Mudiay will be up for an extension on his rookie contract before the start of next season. He could be a really good player by the time he’s in his mid-20s, but he could also be on his second or third NBA team by that point. There are a lot of unknowns with Mudiay. For every negative play he makes, he will have one that makes you wonder how good he could be in his prime:

The Mason Plumlee Problem

Denver thought it was clearing a logjam when it traded Jusuf Nurkic for Mason Plumlee last season. Instead, it may have just caused another one. Jokic and Nurkic could not play together, and there weren’t enough minutes at center to keep them both happy. Now the same thing is happening again. Plumlee was Portland’s starting center, and he hasn’t been any more effective playing with Jokic than Nurkic. Even worse, Plumlee hasn’t shown he can effectively anchor a lineup as the sole center on the floor. The Nuggets have a net rating of minus-4.1 when Plumlee is in the game, the worst of any of the frontcourt players in their rotation.

Plumlee is a skilled and athletic big man who can do a lot of things well, but neither the Nuggets nor the Blazers have been able to put good lineups around him. He is a below-average shooter who can’t score outside of the paint, and his below-average wingspan (6-foot-11) makes it hard for him to protect the rim without fouling. Portland’s defensive rating went from 111 with Plumlee to 103.7 with Nurkic. Denver has a defensive rating of 108.6 with Plumlee on the floor and 101.8 with him off it this season.

The Nuggets gave Plumlee a three-year, $41 million contract this offseason, and they may be better without him. There’s no reason to play a 7-footer who can’t space the floor if he also can’t defend, especially given the number of power forwards Denver has on its roster. If the Nuggets are going to get killed at the rim on defense either way, they might as well have as their backup 5 a more athletic shooter who gives them a different look on offense when Jokic is out. Plumlee’s greatest strength is as a passer, but does Denver need a poor man’s version of Jokic when it already has the real thing?

Will the Nuggets Make a Trade?

Denver has been stockpiling power forwards. It has eight guys on its roster who can play the position, and that doesn’t even count Jokic and Plumlee, one of whom plays the 4 when they are in the game together. Kenneth Faried, the longtime starter at the position who was moved to the bench last season, has already said he wants to be traded. The Nuggets acquired two stretch 4s on draft night (Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon), and they are buried so deep on the depth chart they might as well not even exist.

The Nuggets were rumored to be one of the main teams pursuing Eric Bledsoe before he was traded to the Bucks. It’s hard to say who will be available at the trade deadline, but Denver will likely be one of the more aggressive teams on the market. They spent a lot of money in the offseason to get back in the playoffs, and they have multiple young players they can dangle to other teams. The race for the last few playoff spots in the Western Conference will be tough, and the Nuggets have the pieces to load up further. Don’t be surprised if they pull the trigger on a deal in the next few months.