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The NBA Still Hasn’t Found an Answer for Nikola Jokic

Forcing one of the best passers in history to shoot isn’t as simple as it seems. Two MVPs and a title later, Jokic is still steamrolling everyone, no matter what opponents throw at him. “He cooks every defense regardless,” says Peyton Watson.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Not to reduce one of basketball’s most complex dilemmas into an either-or fallacy, but when it comes to defending Nikola Jokic, NBA coaches have two choices. They can either go with a double-team and let this generation’s greatest passer find an open teammate or watch him, a historically dominant scorer, go to work against single coverage. Neither is great; both, usually, are a path to their own demise.

The debate fell under a microscope during the 2023 Finals, when, after Jokic’s 41-point, four-assist performance in Game 2, Erik Spoelstra was asked about trying to make Jokic score instead of pass. The question appeared to give Miami’s head coach acid reflux. “This guy is an incredible player,” he said. “Twice in two seasons he’s been the best player on this planet.” Spoelstra rubbed his brow. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, make him a scorer.’ That’s not how they play. They have so many different actions that get you compromised.”

In the end, Jokic overwhelmed the Heat, winning Finals MVP and a championship. But the question also helped frame Spoelstra’s strategy while clarifying a game plan—make Jokic a scorer—that’s become increasingly popular against Denver this season (for teams that can afford to try it).

“We’ve had a lot of nights where teams are guarding him straight up,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said last month. “And that’s a decision you have to make every night: Are you gonna make Nikola beat you one-on-one, or are you gonna take him away and force other guys to beat you?”

Denver is 28-13—third in the Western Conference—but just 6-7 this season when Jokic attempts at least 20 shots. This is a reductive way to analyze a basketball team, but the Nuggets are halfway through their title defense and have an offense that continues to shred whatever is in its way when Jokic is on the court, so no schematic question is more germane to the 2024 championship race.

His passes—seamless, constant, beguiling—make Jokic one of the most selfless and pragmatic franchise icons in NBA history. The shots—innovative, velvety, cartoonishly graceful—cement him as unstoppable. That inverse, complementary relationship relative to almost every other star—whose threat to score demands help and leads to a pass, not the other way around—makes him special.

There’s no stopping a superstar. That’s why they’re a superstar. It’s possible, though, to create an uncomfortable circumstance that chafes against their natural instincts. Jokic is reluctant to shoot, often explaining his mindset with an old adage that a coach first told him years ago back in Serbia: A pass makes two people happy, while scoring only satisfies one.

Making everyone else shine is his superpower; he’s a terminator on his own terms who can dominate games without even looking at the basket. When he does shoot, sometimes it’s like watching Santa Claus keep a present for himself. “He never, in my opinion, takes bad shots,” Nuggets center DeAndre Jordan told The Ringer. “He takes shots that the defense gives him.”

Coming off a dominant title run that capped off a pantheonic three-season stretch, Jokic is averaging 17.1 field goal attempts per game, up a good amount from last year’s 14.8. The 20.8 shots per game he averaged in November were the most during any month in his career. His usage rate in that month (33.6) was also a career high.

These numbers have dipped over the past few weeks, putting his usage rate and shot volume this season slightly below where they were in 2021 and 2022, but the only players who’ve taken more two-point shots than Jokic this season are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Anthony Davis.

The spike in Jokic’s shot volume at the beginning of this season can be attributed to several factors, including hamstring and ankle injuries that sidelined Jamal Murray for 14 games. When asked about Jokic’s rising field goal attempts, Murray laughed: “I mean, somebody’s gotta shoot.”

“With Jamal having played less than half of our games, Nikola was clearly the focal point of what we were trying to do,” Malone said last month. “Obviously, we put him in a lot of different situations where we want him to be aggressive.”

But Murray’s injury doesn’t exclusively explain that uptick, which goes back to the way defenses guard Jokic, regardless of who else is on the court.

“I think that people are playing single coverage a little bit more than last year. I think last year he was getting doubled a lot. And I think that some teams are kind of trying to switch their strategy towards him,” Nuggets wing Peyton Watson told The Ringer. “But, I mean, he cooks every defense regardless.”

Watson has another interpretation for why Jokic is shooting more this season. “Last year was our first time kind of establishing that full core that we had,” he said about the team, which finally had Aaron Gordon and healthy versions of Murray and Michael Porter Jr. “So I think he was trying to share the ball, get guys in rhythm, which he always does a good job of.”

When Jokic was asked to explain the uptick, he reiterated that there’s no preconceived motive. There’s only the action informing his decisions in real time. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “Maybe in a lot of them I’m open. Or maybe I’m just aggressive. I really don’t know. Maybe the team wants me to shoot more. I cannot explain it, to be honest, but it just happens to be like that. I didn’t go into the season and say, ‘I’m gonna shoot more.’ It just happens to be more.”

Some of Jokic’s greatness rests in how reliably reactive he is to his surroundings. It’s his nature. “The best thing about Nikola is he’s going to read the game,” Malone said. “If they double-team, he’s not going to force a bad shot. He’s going to make the right play and find the open man.”

Whether the outcome of that approach results in success or failure, Jokic processes the defense as quickly and accurately as anyone ever has. So much of his greatness is making the complicated look simple, absorbing help rotations frame by frame, anticipating a better option as soon as one gets taken away. “I think ultimately, Nikola reads the game better than anybody that I’ve ever been with,” Jordan said.

Guarding Jokic in the post is like trying to carry a mobile home while walking in a bouncy castle. He can bully ball pretty much anyone and, with his ambidextrous, fluffy touch, is crafty enough to torture big men whose teammates are instructed to stay home on the perimeter.

When Jokic makes a move in the post that forces the defense to help or rotate, Denver generates a whopping 1.19 points per possession, which is second highest among all players who average at least one of those plays per game—and Jokic has the greatest volume of these plays in the league.

When he runs a dribble handoff or sets a ball screen that leads the defense to switch a smaller defender on him at the nail, the possession turns into a game of chicken. Jokic would love nothing more than for the defense to compromise and put itself in a rotation. The defense knows all of that, too, and, in avoiding the rotating predicament altogether, will psych itself out and dare Jokic to attack on his own.

If Jokic were obsessed with putting the ball in the basket himself, he’d probably own a scoring title or two. He can rack up points in myriad ways from various spots on the floor, using gravity and spontaneous movement that belies his size. His teammates definitely enjoy playing with someone who doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body, but they also implore him to be more aggressive. “Nikola, he should shoot the ball,” Jordan said. “He’s a really efficient scorer.”

How efficient? His career true shooting percentage is third highest in NBA history! (The two players in front of him are Rudy Gobert and Jordan, a pair of rim runners who don’t venture outside the restricted area.) Of late, he’s been accurate to a degree the league hasn’t seen since Wilt Chamberlain’s prime.

This doesn’t mean he should stop picking defenses apart and eliminate the spontaneity that obfuscates his intention from play to play. But curbing Jokic’s occasional tendency to overpass would make Denver’s offense even better than it is.

Jokic produces a perpetual pick-your-poison conundrum, so it’s fascinating to see defenses evolve against him without making any real progress. “We’ve seen him trapped from the baseline. We’ve seen him trapped from the passer. We’ve seen him trapped from a designated player,” Nuggets forward Christian Braun told The Ringer. “We’ve seen everything this year.”

To be clear, there are no right answers. Like all great players, Jokic transcends any statistical evaluation that tries to measure his influence on everyone around him. In the fourth quarter of a win against the Raptors last month, on a night when Toronto threw the kitchen sink at him, Jokic was able to manipulate a possession without even touching the ball. He instructed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to set a screen that switched Scottie Barnes off Murray, complicating Jokic’s subsequent pick-and-roll with Murray, which then led two Raptors to stick with Jokic as he dived through the paint. This is someone who plays like he can see five seconds into the future.

Even though he’s an all-time great counterpuncher—however a defense wants to play him, he’ll find an answer that yields an open shot—opponents can’t dictate every move he makes. Just because Jokic is guarded straight up doesn’t mean he’ll try to score. A perfectly symbiotic supporting cast gives him that freedom: It has 3-point specialists, smart cutters, lob threats, and enough size to take advantage of every mismatch that’s provoked by Jokic’s constant movement. In tandem they construct an escalator to basketball utopia.

Whether he passes or shoots, or shoots to set up a pass and then passes to set up a shot, Jokic remains a confounding matchup the league isn’t any closer to figuring out, and is currently the odds-on favorite to become the ninth player in NBA history with three regular-season MVP awards.

Every head coach is well aware of the doomsday scenarios he generates. Some still choose to till their own cemetery with strategies that persuade him to shoot as much as possible, and others will sell out to prevent him from wreaking havoc on an island. “I mean, every team is different,” Jokic said. “Some teams play me one-on-one, some teams double. It’s part of the adjustment and part of the game.”

Regardless of whatever even the most carefully executed, well-designed defensive game plans in the world choose to do, sometimes flawless isn’t good enough. Jokic will inevitably find himself one step ahead.