Nikola Jokic plays Volkswagen Golf defense in a Lamborghini league. It’s efficient. It’s effective. But it’s not in your face. It’s not showy.
It doesn’t easily translate to a poster, the way that a Dikembe Mutombo or a Marcus Camby did. It just … works.
“(Jokic is) an easy mark,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said earlier this week, “because he’s not that shot-blocking athletic guy that’s making plays at the rim.”
And yet, on top of everything else the reigning NBA MVP does better than anybody in the world, the Joker is also off — stealthily — to the best defensive start of his Nuggets career.
Before games Tuesday night, the Big Honey topped the Basketball-Reference.com NBA leaderboards in Defensive Rating (96.2, or 96.2 points allowed per 100 opponent possessions), a smidge better than Utah’s Rudy Gobert (96.5); Defensive Win Shares (1.0); and Defensive Box Plus/Minus (plus-4.9). He ranked third in Defensive Rebound Percentage (36.9), trailing only Gobert and Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic.
With Michael Porter Jr. stuck in hoops purgatory and Jamal Murray on the mend, the Nuggets have had to reinvent themselves on the fly. For now, Ball Arena is the place where opponent possessions go to die.
The Nuggets rank third among NBA clubs in Basketball-Reference.com’s Defensive Rating, allowing an estimated 102.9 points per 100 opponent possessions. A 111-101 setback at Dallas on Monday night was only the fourth game among the Nuggets’ first 14 in which Denver surrendered 100 points or more.
“We have the No. 2 defense in the NBA after 13 games,” Malone told reporters this past Sunday. “Nikola is the anchor of our defense … he’s doing something right.”
Several things, now that you mention it.
Fast feet. Active hands. Talking. Communication. Recognition. Quick adjustments. Persistence. Discipline. Cantankerousness.
Offense is nature. Defense is nurture. It’s one of the few basketball skills at which one can improve as they age. If they want to.
“For some reason people always try to make a big stink about Nikola not being a good defensive player,” Malone noted recently. “He’s been great defensively. I think he’s like ninth in the NBA in contested shots per game. He’s had a huge impact.”
On several fronts. Jokic’s blocks (1.4) and steals (2.0) per game are both up over his historic 2020-21 MVP season, while his block percentage (2.7%) and defensive rebounding percentage (36.9%), per Basketball-Reference.com, have improved by a fairly healthy clip over last year’s pace (1.9 and 26.1, respectively) already.
Even as he’s shed weight from his midsection and added layers to his game, the Joker isn’t a classic skywalker. He won’t slap at shots as much as contest, molest and change shots.
“We are having a couple different coverages, and I think guys are buying in,” Jokic said after helping hold Portland to 43.8% shooting and 12 turnovers during a 29-point victory. “I just like how we are helping each other, even when we make a mistake. We fly for each other.”
During the Nuggets’ recent 5-0 homestand, the opposition’s starting center averaged 11.8 points, 8.4 boards and 3.2 personal fouls per game. Miami’s Bam Adebayo went 3 for 10. Jusuf Nurkic shot 2 for 5. The numbers don’t lie. Neither do your eyes.
The Joker won’t leap to the rafters and swat shots into Douglas County. You won’t hear the engine coming from six blocks away. Yet that Golf is always there at the finish line, quietly building the case for a second MVP award. One opponent brick at a time.