One of the only times the Nuggets have actually stopped Donovan Mitchell in their first-round series so far came at the end of their Game 4 loss on Sunday. The Jazz star dribbled around a Rudy Gobert screen and attacked the big man guarding Gobert, just like he had a million times before. The difference on this possession was that he was attacking Paul Millsap rather than Nikola Jokic. Instead of getting smoked off the dribble, Millsap stayed with him on his drive and sent Mitchell’s shot flying out of bounds:
Unfortunately for Denver, Millsap decided to stare down Mitchell afterward like he was LeBron James blocking Steph Curry in the 2016 NBA Finals. It was a fairly ridiculous thing to do to a player averaging 39.5 points on 56.3 percent shooting in the series. On cue, Mitchell knocked down a 3 over Millsap on the very next possession to effectively end the game.
Embarrassment aside, the Nuggets can still learn a valuable lesson from what happened. Their only chance against the Jazz is to hide Jokic and put better pick-and-roll defenders on Gobert to give them more options when defending Mitchell on those plays. That lesson has even bigger implications for their future.
It will be hard for the Nuggets to come back after falling behind 3-1 and watching Mitchell morph into a Salt Lake version of Damian Lillard. The level of confidence running through his veins at this point should be illegal in all 50 states.
Denver coach Mike Malone created a monster by leaving his worst defender on the opposing team’s primary scorer. There are no right decisions for Jokic when guarding the two-man game between Mitchell and Gobert. He’s not fast enough to extend out to the perimeter, and can’t protect the rim well enough when dropping back in the paint. Jokic may have changed his body during the hiatus, but he still has severe limitations on defense.
Mike Conley flipped the balance of the series when he returned in Game 3 after missing the first two games for the birth of his son. The Jazz shot 49.5 percent from the field in two games without Conley and 54.1 percent in two games with him. Not only is he an All-Star-caliber point guard, but Utah can now start three elite 3-point shooters (Conley, Royce O’Neale, and Joe Ingles) around Mitchell and Gobert. A pick-and-roll between those two against Jokic will always create an open shot somewhere. The Jazz now have the players to make them.
The numbers, per Synergy Sports, don’t even look real. Jokic is second in the playoffs among all players in possessions per game (14.8) defending a pick-and-roll screener, and no. 31 in the average number of points per possession (1.373) allowed on those plays. That’s higher than JJ Redick’s average on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers (1.348) this season.
Malone has to take Jokic off Gobert in Game 5 like he did down the stretch in Game 4. He might as well give his big man a blindfold and a cigarette if he doesn’t. Other coaches have made similar adjustments in these playoffs. Clippers coach Doc Rivers took Ivica Zubac off Kristaps Porzingis to switch the pick-and-roll with Luka Doncic. Jazz coach Quin Snyder put Gobert on Millsap in Game 2 to do the same with Jokic and Jamal Murray, although he went back to that matchup following Conley’s return.
The move wouldn’t solve all of Denver’s problems in the series. But it would at least give the team a chance. Putting a better perimeter defender on Gobert would let them switch his screens for Mitchell and keep their other three defenders at home on Utah’s shooters. That was the defensive strategy that Houston deployed to suffocate Mitchell in each of the past two postseasons. He’s in the 91st percentile of pick-and-roll scorers in this season’s playoffs after being in the 14th percentile last season. He has improved a lot in the past season, but Denver isn’t challenging him enough to find out just how much.
To be sure, the Nuggets will never be able to guard Utah as effectively as Houston with Jokic on the floor. The Rockets going full small ball was as much about defense as offense because it allows them to play five perimeter defenders the entire game. The Jazz will still target Jokic in the pick-and-roll regardless of who he is guarding, but the Nuggets will have better chances if Jokic is on a more limited spot-up shooter like Royce O’Neale or a defensive-minded role player like rookie Juwan Morgan instead of Gobert, one of the best roll men in the NBA. The French center is averaging 19.3 points per game on 75 percent shooting in the series after never averaging more than 13 points per game in the playoffs before.
The Nuggets should always put Jokic on the least threatening opposing frontcourt player. The team’s defensive strategy doesn’t matter as much in an 82-game season, when offenses don’t make as many adjustments to attack mismatches in particular games. But the playoffs are all about adjustments. Jokic is in the 12th percentile of big men when defending the pick-and-roll after ranking in the 76th percentile in the regular season. It’s time for Malone to make some changes.
The Nuggets made it to Game 7 of the second round last season, but their success was a bit of a mirage. Denver faced two teams (San Antonio and Portland) that didn’t have the personnel to spread the floor with shooters and attack Jokic in space. The Spurs ran a more traditional offense built around isolations for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, while the Blazers started two nonshooting wings (Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu) whom the Nuggets could help off. Their future playoff opponents will look more like the Jazz. It’s possible they come back in this series given their offensive firepower. But in the next round they would still be facing either the Mavs or Clippers, both of whom could attack Jokic just as easily.
The two most important players on a team built around Jokic are the frontcourt players next to him. The fifth-year center will have to get better on defense, especially when it comes to making rotations and executing his role within a broader scheme. But there’s only so much that he will be able to do.
Denver can learn from how Dallas built around Dirk Nowitzki, another all-time-great offensive 7-footer with defensive issues. It’s no coincidence that the only NBA title Dirk won came when he was playing with Tyson Chandler, a Defensive Player of the Year, and Shawn Marion, a Hall of Fame–caliber defender. Marion and Chandler had the versatility to handle the toughest defensive assignments regardless of position, as well as the length, quickness, and defensive IQ to cover for Dirk on the helpside.
The ideal frontcourt partner for Jokic would be a player who could defend all five positions and annually be in the running for DPOY—a player who could switch the pick-and-roll between Gobert and Mitchell, and defend big men like Anthony Davis in the paint and forwards like Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter. The good news for the Nuggets is that one of the only players in the NBA who checks all those boxes will be on the trade market soon.
Ben Simmons will be a perennial All-Defensive Team selection through the next decade. He could also be the perfect defensive partner for Jokic. The two would be even more fun to watch on offense. Jokic isn’t a ball-dominant player and is more of an offensive threat from the perimeter than Joel Embiid. Imagine the room that Simmons would have to attack off the dribble with Jokic popping out to the 3-point line, or how Jokic could find Simmons as a cutter from the high post, or how they could push the ball together in Denver’s Mile High altitude.
Philadelphia will have to move on from either Simmons or Joel Embiid eventually. Their current team will need nothing short of a miracle to win a championship. And the Sixers won’t be able to get back any good players for Al Horford or Tobias Harris given their oversized contracts. The 76ers will likely keep losing in the first or second round until one of their stars gets frustrated and demands a trade.
That’s where Denver comes in. There’s no better trade target out there for Philadelphia than either Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. Murray has become a legitimate star in his own right, dropping 50 points in Game 4 and averaging 28.6 points on 52.5 percent shooting and 6.6 assists per game against Utah. And Porter, 22, has as much potential as any player in the NBA. Supersized wings with his ability to shoot and score off the dribble don’t come around often. Both would be much better offensive compliments for Embiid than Simmons. A healthy and engaged Embiid could also do more than Jokic to protect Murray or Porter, neither of whom projects as a stopper, on defense.
The 76ers would probably demand both in any potential deal. But the Nuggets should be able to hold the line at just one. It almost doesn’t matter which one they give up. Jokic can make it work with either. He’s that good on offense. That’s why they are building around him in the first place.
To return to the Dirk analogy, Jokic, Porter, and Murray are like the early 2000s Mavs with Dirk, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley. That group was unstoppable, but never got enough stops when it mattered in the playoffs. Dallas owner Mark Cuban has said that letting Nash walk was the biggest mistake of his NBA tenure. But letting Chandler leave in 2011 was a far bigger one. The whole point of having a player as gifted as Dirk is that he doesn’t need someone like Nash to thrive. His presence alone guarantees an elite offense. The goal should be to leverage that skill to build a great defense around him instead of adding more players who can score but not defend. The Mavs had the no. 1 rated offense in the NBA four times in the Dirk era. Their only championship came when they were more balanced, with the no. 8 offense and no. 8 defense.
The Nuggets will never win a title playing so many offensive-minded players around Jokic. They may not even win many playoff series given how stacked the West is. Denver has to find three or four elite defenders to protect their franchise player. Trading Murray or Porter to make that happen would be difficult. But it has to be done.