Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic: Denver Nuggets superstar's defensive improvement contributed to his MVP-level season

Nikola Jokic has had an incredible season. So good that he has been announced as the 2020-21 NBA MVP.

Jokic's rise to stardom is a story fit for a Hollywood movie. A second-round pick who has turned into one of the best offensive players of his generation.

While most point to Jokic's offence being the reason for his rise to fame in the NBA, his improvement on the defensive end often gets overlooked.

Is he a great defender of the ilk of Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid? No, but his improvement over the years on that side of the ball does deserve some credit. His incremental tuning on defence turned him from a star to a superstar, and this season, it has helped place him as the league's MVP.

At first look, many may see Jokic and think they can play with him. Then they watch him and realize very few can play like him. He's not the most athletic guy in the world (I know, understatement of a lifetime) and doesn't always present the flashy crossovers or dunk packages. But what he does have is his feel and smarts for the game. Jokic sees plays before they happen. He's one of the most intelligent players to play the game. There's never a wasted motion or play when Jokic touches the ball.

His brilliance offensively requires you to appreciate a different style of basketball, that goes far beyond freakish athleticism. The same is required to appreciate his efforts defensively.

Jokic isn't going to routinely block five shots a game. He's not going to chase anyone down from mid-court and pin the ball on the glass. Heck, he's not even going to shuffle his feet, step in front of you and draw many charges. That's not his game. His game is using his brain.

Jokic does the little things on defence that, when you watch the tape, annoys the offence.

He'll pull the chair on you when you're not expecting it.

He'll discretely play the passing lanes and bait you into throwing a turnover.

He'll play the angles and smartly use the sideline as a third defender and put you in a no-win situation.

He'll also play off of you and force you to try and shoot over the top of him.

None of it looks pretty, but it's effective.

The numbers back that up as well.

Jokic finished in the top ten in total steals this season with 95. According to Cleaning the Glass, he finished the season with a steal percentage of 1.7, ranking him in the 80th percentile for his position. He was also able to finish defensive possessions with a defensive rebound rate of 23.3 percent, ranking him in the 84th percentile for his position.

This season, Jokic finished with a defensive real plus-minus of 1.96, according to ESPN. That number put him ahead of known quality defenders like Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green and Anthony Davis. Does that mean that Jokic is as good of a defender as those All-Defensive Team types? Of course not, but it does show that his impact defensively was a positive this season for the Nuggets.

According to Cleaning the Glass, opposing teams shot just under a third (31.0 percent) of their field goals within four feet of the rim when Jokic was on the floor, ranking him in the 80th percentile for his position. For comparison, Myles Turner, who led the league in blocks this season, saw opponents take 37.1 percent of their field goal attempts within four feet of the rim while he was on the floor, ranking him in the 11th percentile.

It's impressive for a player like Jokic, who constantly gets knocked for not being a great rim protector, to seemingly deter teams from even thinking about shooting inside when he's on the floor.

The Nuggets as a team gave up the sixth-least amount of paint points per game at 45.2 and saw just 28.2 field goal attempts per game inside of six feet, good for ninth in the league. For a team that lacked rim protection, that's pretty good.

And if the shots aren't coming inside, it's likely because teams are trying to exploit Jokic on the perimeter, right? Trying to put him in mismatches where his lack of light feet might be an issue.

Well, Jokic fared there well too.

According to NBA Stats, Jokic was guarding shots from 15-feet-and-further 30.2 percent of the time and held opponents to just 37.2 percent shooting from the field. For comparison, Clint Capela, who should fare better on switches defending outside of the paint, allowed opponents to shoot 42.9 percent from the same distance.

Defensive metrics aren't perfect. A lot has to be taken into account when looking at numbers defensively. Matchups matter, who's on the floor around you does, too, but there's enough data to show that Jokic isn't a liability defensively.

Narratives start and sometimes they never end. When it came to two-time MVP Stephen Curry, the early narrative was that he was a poor defender. It took a while for that narrative to be shaken off, and it still may rear its ugly head from time-to-time today. Jokic has some of the same narratives said about him defensively.

It took Steph a couple of MVPs and three championships to silence some of that. Hopefully, it doesn't take Nikola Jokic that long to do the same.

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