Can anyone save Nikola Jokic?
That’s the question every championship-hungry team must ask themselves, especially those in the West who may have to pass Jokic to reach the Finals.
In last year’s playoffs, Jokic performed well against every defensive player he faced, averaging 30.0 points and 9.5 assists per game while shooting 54.8% from the field and 46.1% from three-point range. Strategies against Jokic range from disastrous plays to 12-alarm plays.
Still, some defenders make him better than others, and some strategies make sense at least on paper. Here’s how different defenses performed.
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The best individual defenders in Nikola Jokic
No one in the league could stop Jokic one-on-one during last year’s regular season. He shot 63.2 percent from the field, so making even half of his field goal attempts is a remarkable achievement. According to league tracking statistics, a handful of players can do that.
The best ones (at least 60 rounds) are as follows:
|Jokic’s field goal percentage
|Wendell Carter Jr.
Olynyk’s success is largely due to his shooting luck – Jokic shot only 16.7% from three-point range, but shot 61.5% from inside the three-point line.
Because of his size, Carter has done a good job of retaining Jokic throughout his career. Jokic once praised Carter’s long 7-4.5 wingspan (and was fined $25,000 for it).
Ayton has had some success early in his career, guarding Jokic well in the 2021 playoffs. In that series (especially without Jamal Murray), he held Jokic to 47.7 percent shooting while also playing solid post defense.
Ayton hasn’t had the same success in the 2023 playoffs – Jokic is averaging 35.0 points and 10.0 assists while shooting 57.5% from the field. The Nuggets’ added weapons and ability to force Ayton to defend more in space have limited their effectiveness.
LeBron James did not reach the threshold of defending Jokic in the regular season, but he is the best Jokic defender in the 2023 NBA playoffs. Jokic shot 4-for-12 from the field against LeBron and forced five turnovers.
James has an innate feel for catching Jokic’s passes and the ability to provide good resistance in the low post. But this matchup obviously took a huge toll on him, and he was only able to do that for a short period of time in the Western Conference Finals.
Players dominated by Nikola Jokic
Some players had zero shots on Jokic. Here are the bottom-ranked defensemen, according to the league’s tracking data:
|Jokic’s field goal percentage
Jokic definitely cooks Valanciunas better than any player in the league, and Valanciunas knows it. He praised the big man, telling Mozart Sports this summer, “Guys like (Jokic) come along once every 100 years.”
Jokic also destroys smaller centers when they don’t have elite rim protection behind them. He is the most frequent low-post scorer in the league. At 284 pounds, he can overpower a skinny center like Gafford or a smaller five like Williams and pin them to the basket.
The most successful players all share some basic characteristics. They have the baseline strength to support Jokic in the paint, but also have the excellent touch and mobility to know where he’s most likely to pass the ball.
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Guard Nikola Jokic with smaller players
When the Celtics tried Grant Williams against Jokic, they were overwhelmed. In that game, they tried to use Al Horford as a roaming assistant, but Horford couldn’t provide enough resistance. More elite big men have had slightly better luck playing a roamer role while letting a smaller teammate have Jokic as his primary defender.
The Lakers are trying to match up Hachimura against Jokic in the playoffs and have Anthony Davis help in those matchups. The Nuggets were still able to sweep the Lakers, but that strategy slowed Jokic at least slightly, especially in Game 1 when the Lakers fell behind late. In this series, Jokic shot just 10-for-25 after being saved by Hachimura, according to NBA tracking data.
The Warriors tried the strategy of using Draymond Green as a roamer, the 76ers used P.J. Tucker to support Jokic and Joel Embiid as a helper, and the Timberwolves used Rudy in the playoffs. ·Gobert’s roaming strategy. Like every other strategy, the Nuggets have found a way to beat it.
Best defense against Nikola Jokic
The best defense against Jokic is to admit that there is no such thing. He will destroy every type of defense with his size, passing and shooting. Therefore, the best strategy may be to maximize the offense and let Jokic work on the other end of the court, where he is barely dominant.
Steve Kerr shared this sentiment on the TK Show podcast last summer.
“You can’t just look at it and say, ‘Okay, we need a really big, strong guy to guard Jokic.'” You also have to say, “Okay, on the other end, what are we going to do? Even if you How can we make the game better with guys like that?” Well, it’s running the offense and passing the ball and putting the other team in trouble. ”
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Kerr’s Warriors used this strategy in 2022, knocking the Nuggets out of the playoffs in five games. Jokic is averaging 31.0 points per game on 57.5 percent shooting, but the Warriors have him defending in space as much as possible. Kevon Looney is a great defender, but Kerr only played him 67 minutes in this series, opting instead to take better shots on the floor.
According to “Basketball-Reference” data, the Warriors used more offensive-minded players in this series and achieved an amazing 123.1 offensive rating. Their offense outweighed any damage Jokic could do to them. They fight fire with fire, which is the only plan that works.