The Denver Nuggets have struggled a bit to start the 2021-22 season. Following three consecutive campaigns with a win percentage of .630 or better, they are .500 following a 108-106 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night. Still, there is encouragement for Nuggets fans, both from this game and their team’s overall performance this season. That encouragement comes from the Nuggets’ vast improvement on defense.
They’ve been a middle-of-the-pack defensive team for the last two seasons, but steadily improving. The Nuggets were 16th in defensive efficiency in 2019-20, and 12th last season. Going into Wednesday night, they were second in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 99 points per 100 possessions. In the Nuggets’ first eight games, they have held five of their opponents under 100 points, and only one has scored more than 110.
The Nuggets defense was solid again in last night’s loss to the Grizzlies, even though it was off to an ugly start. Memphis had scored 32 points with three minutes remaining in the first quarter. For the next 39 minutes the Grizzlies only scored 76.
Denver’s addition of Aaron Gordon at last season’s trade deadline has helped its defense, but the player who has changed it the most this season is a bit of a surprise. It’s their MVP, center Nikola Jokić.
While the Nuggets have been a near-average defensive team for the last two regular seasons, both years in the playoffs they’ve had the worst defensive rating of any team to advance past the first round. There was blame to go around, but a serious problem was Jokić defending the pick-and-roll.
Teams could target him for an entire series, and none did it better than last year’s Western Conference champions, the Phoenix Suns. They forced Jokić to switch on the ball handler as often as possible and make quick decisions. The result was an offensive buffet for the Suns, who scored less than 120 points only once as they swept the Nuggets in that semi-final series. Jokić’s individual defensive rating for that series, and for the entire playoffs, was 121 points per 100 possessions. In the regular season it was 109.
Yes, individual defensive rating is not a perfect statistic. It is difficult to quantify an individual defensive performance in the NBA. With the constant pick-and-roll action, and so many shooters camped at the 3-point line, defense is now, more than ever, a team concept. However, when a player’s defensive rating tumbles the way that Jokić’s did from the regular season to the playoffs last season, it’s cause for concern.
Jokić has started the 2021-22 season on fire defensively, and his hot start has ratcheted up the conversation of whether he truly is the best player in the NBA. His individual defensive rating is 91 points per 100 possessions and much of that can be attributed to how well he has been playing the pick-and-roll. With Jokić defending the pick-and-roll, opposing players are shooting 38.5 percent from the field.
Just look at this video, and the stats make sense. Jokić is no longer the person hesitating on the pick-and-roll, it’s the offensive player who’s taking pause.
Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is third in the NBA in scoring, averaging 28.3 points per game, 0.4 points per game behind current leader Steph Curry. Morant made some spectacular plays against the Nuggets on Wednesday, but he only scored 18 points. Toward the end of the game, Jokić helped swarm Morant on a pick-and-roll, which forced Morant to heave an awful 22-foot shot as the shot clock expired. If the Nuggets hadn’t mismanaged their next possession, they might have won the game.
Denver has been so good on defense that the blame for their mediocre start should be placed on their normally dynamic offense. The Nuggets’ offensive rating is currently the 26th in the NBA, but there is reason to believe that will turn around, especially once star guard Jamal Murray returns from the ACL injury he suffered back in April.
The Western Conference is looking a bit shaky for the first time since Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers were a championship favorite every October. If Jokić can continue to play strong pick-and-roll defense in May, a healthy Nuggets team has a real opportunity to use their high-altitude home-court advantage to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.