How Nikola Jokic Helped The Denver Nuggets Win A Title With His Defense

Just about 14 months ago, the Denver Nuggets’ season was ended because they couldn’t get stops. The Golden State Warriors, eventual 2021-22 champions, dissected their overmatched defense in a clinical first-round dispatching. Denver lost in five games and posted a dismal 123.4 defensive rating — the worst among 16 playoff squads.

On Tuesday night, the Nuggets ended the season on their own terms because they generated stop after stop and nabbed the franchise’s first title. Along the way, they went 16-4 and posted a 111.0 defensive rating, the fourth-best mark among 16 playoff squads.

That dichotomy can be attributed to offseason moves and the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., both of whom were absent for Denver’s five-game playoff cameo in 2022. Whereas the likes of Monte Morris, Will Barton, Bones Hyland, and Austin Rivers manned the backcourt for the Nuggets against the Warriors, Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown and Christian Braun assumed those duties this year. Those proved to be major upgrades defensively, offering more size, mobility, dexterity and screen navigation on the perimeter.

The revamped guard rotation allowed Nikola Jokic to go from the linchpin of the defense — a role for which he is ill-suited — to a key cog of a good defense (though, he was the linchpin of the Finals). It lifted some of the burden off his shoulders and broadened his margin of error, which was razor thin last postseason.

Much of the blame for Denver’s defensive ineptitude in the Golden State series centered on Jokic and his limitations. Yet he was regularly having to account for ball-handlers and screeners as his guards were stuck trying to play catch up and never rejoined the action. None of Morris, Barton, or Hyland provided concise screen navigation or strength at the point of attack. Caldwell-Pope, Braun, and Brown did. Folks forget a play like this because the Nuggets were demolished, but they happened throughout the series. Jokic was given an impossible job doomed for failure. This year, it became much more reasonable and ended with success of the highest order.

The analysis was results-based, not process-based, just like there’s now a swelling tide to crown Jokic a staunchly stellar defender after this past series, when he excelled and Denver won handily. Rather, he is in the midpoint of those extremes, a good defender finally surrounded by complementary personnel who rose to the occasion in a favorable matchup for a dominant five-game showing.

After Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Stephen Curry decimated Denver’s defense in consecutive playoff appearances, the prevailing narrative emerged that potent off-the-dribble threats were the path to counter Jokic and magnify his defensive shortcomings. The Nuggets faced various pull-up creators en route to a ring, headlined by Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Anthony Edwards. The result was an .800 win percentage and feisty, overwhelming defense.

Early in this last series, the Nuggets danced between playing drop and keeping Jokic at the level, given Miami’s brigade of shooters and dribble handoff threats. Because of Jokic’s cumbersome lateral quickness and vertical explosion, they’ve often stationed him at the level to try and deploy his size and dexterity as an impediment for ball-handlers. Yet as the Finals progressed, he increasingly adhered to deep drop coverage. Denver grew content to gauge the Heat’s pull-up shooting and didn’t want to create 4-on-3 chances for Adebayo. Those instincts aged well.

Miami entered the series with an effective field goal percentage of 45.2 off the bounce in the playoffs. Against Denver, it tumbled to 37.7. That’s not how the Heat offense thrived amid their Finals run. Jokic and the Nuggets dared them to win that way. They couldn’t. The big fella was disciplined and active in drop coverage. He engaged ball-handlers long enough for his teammates to recover and prevented Adebayo from finding free lanes all the way to the rim. He knew when to commit to drivers and when to stay home on Adebayo’s dives.

The Heat ran many pick-and-rolls at him. It didn’t matter. It was some of the stingiest drop coverage I’ve seen him employ throughout his NBA career. If Miami did find pocket pass windows to Adebayo, they hardly occurred when he had an angle past Jokic. Instead, he had to settle for midrange jumpers. Pocket passes with a runway were squashed out because of Jokic’s positioning and timing. He and the Nuggets wrapped up these Finals sporting a 106.2 defensive rating, cobbling together plenty of possessions just like this.

Almost entirely veering away from slotting Jokic at the level was a vital tweak for Denver. Adebayo’s playmaking chances evaporated. He tallied nine dimes the first two games and just seven over the final three. Rarely did Miami’s offense jolt the Nuggets into a scramble. Jokic’s aptitude in drop, paired with effective point-of-attack options, allowed them to play 2-on-2. Their brazen, seemingly automatic pre-rotations from a low man were less frequent. The Heat were left trying to boogie off the bounce, despite lacking the juice to do so.

With Jimmy Butler passive as a downhill scorer (likely due somewhat to the sprained ankle he suffered in the second round), nobody aside from Caleb Martin could vigorously attack the rim for the Heat. That boded well for the Serbian wunderkind, who acted as a consistent deterrent and influencer around the basket. He short-circuited drives. He lurked around the paint. He rotated and recovered. He held his ground against contact.

The Heat shot 17.2 percent worse than their average when he was the primary defender on field goals within 6 feet. They also walked into this matchup with a 29.5 percent rim frequency through three rounds, but only 23.4 percent of their shots came at the hoop in the Finals. Jokic ensured their interior endeavors would be both hellish and less popular experiences.

Some of the reason Denver can play defensive stalwarts like Aaron Gordon, Braun, Brown, and Caldwell-Pope without worry of any floor-spacing or offensive quandaries is because of Jokic. Gordon punished smaller defenders inside and flourished as a cutter, opportunities that often stemmed from attention Jokic commanded or the cross-matches he fashioned as a rebounder and subsequent transition engine. Braun’s cutting was amplified by Jokic’s immediate processing speed and extensive passing web. Brown could commandeer ball-screens because teams would sell out on Jokic’s rolls to the rim. Caldwell-Pope ran dribble handoffs into quick pull-ups because Jokic freed him with hulking screens.

His mastery allows virtually any lineup to succeed offensively. All four of those players can fill different roles and matchups defensively, and they did on their path to a championship. Jokic’s offensive shapeshifting means more wiggle room for defensive shapeshifters. His defensive responsibilities are clarified as a byproduct of his offensive dominion.

None of the offensive exploits should overshadow Jokic’s defensive congruence across an array of schemes this postseason. He navigated drop. He stuck at the level of the screen. He flirted with some switching. He hung in the corner on non-shooters to be a low man. He and the Nuggets oscillated between his responsibilities resting on the backline and the frontline, a testament to the versatility of he and his teammates.

Defense is a task of details. Success is not replicable solely because of effort. There are angles and subtle events that cannot be guaranteed every trip down. Slight changes in offensive positioning and spacing may arise. A steadfast, buzzing motor certainly never hurt, though, and Jokic flew around the court in the Finals. All the while, however, he didn’t let that impose on his feel for the game and astute positioning. He scurried out to shooters while avoiding reckless contests. He spiked rebounds off the glass to himself and away from swirling limbs. He tipped rebounds out of Adebayo’s clutches. Simply put, the dude played really freaking hard defensively.

For years, the Warriors and their grandiose shooting warped the idea of what viable, title-caliber defense could resemble. Drop coverage was a dinosaur exiled by Golden State’s meteor. Switching and rangy, small-ball lineups were the future.

Yet, here we are, a day removed from a team earning a championship, partly because of its tremendous defense. For at least five of those games, the bedrock of that unit was a 7-footer short on mobility or hops who adhered to drop coverage and smothered the opposition while doing so. Let it be a reminder: the winning formula in this league contains no absolutes, only historic greats doing so however their greatness dictates. Nikola Jokic is the latest example.