Can the Nuggets build a series defense around the Joker?


One of the only times the Nuggets have stopped Donovan Mitchell in their first-round streak so far has been after their loss in Game 4 on Sunday. The jazz star dribbled around a Rudy Gobert screen and attacked the big man guarding Gobert, as he had done a million times before. The difference on this possession was that he attacked Paul Millsap rather than Nikola Jokic. Instead of getting smoked from the dribble, Millsap stayed with him in his practice and sent Mitchell’s shot out of bounds:

Unfortunately for Denver, Millsap decided to watch Mitchell afterward as if he was LeBron James blocking Steph Curry in the 2016 NBA Finals. It was a pretty ridiculous thing to do to a player with a 39 GPA. 5 points out of 56.3% of shootings in the series. At the right time, Mitchell knocked down a 3 on Millsap on the very next possession to effectively end the game.

Embarrassment aside, the Nuggets can still learn valuable lessons from what happened. Their only chance against Jazz is to hide Jokic and put better pick-and-roll defenders on Gobert to give them more options when defending Mitchell on these games. This lesson has even more important implications for their future.

It will be difficult for the Nuggets to come back after falling behind 3-1 and seeing Donovan Mitchell turn into a Salt Lake version of Damian Lillard. The level of trust that runs through its veins at this point should be illegal in all 50 states.

Denver coach Mike Malone created a monster by leaving his worst defender on the opposing team’s main scorer. There are no good decisions for Jokic when he keeps the two-man game between Mitchell and Gobert. It is not fast enough to extend all the way to the perimeter and cannot protect the rim enough when it falls back into the paint. Jokic may have changed his body during the break, but he still has serious limits when it comes to defense.

Mike Conley turned the tide of the series when he returned in Game 3 after missing the first two games for the birth of his son. The Jazz shot 49.5% from the field in two games without Conley and 54.1% in two games with him. Not only is he an All-Star point guard, but Utah can now throw three 3-point snipers (Conley, Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles) around Mitchell and Gobert. A pick-and-roll between these two against Jokic will always create an open blow somewhere. The Jazz now have the players to do them.

The numbers, per Synergy Sports, don’t even seem real. Jokic is second in the playoffs among all players in possession per game (14.8) defending a pick-and-roll picker, and no. 31 in the average number of points per possession (1,373) awarded on these games. That’s higher than JJ Redick’s average on unsupervised caught and pulled jumpers (1.348) this season.

Malone has to take Jokic out of Gobert in Game 5 like he did in Game 4. He might as well give his big man a blindfold and a cigarette if he doesn’t. Other coaches have made similar adjustments in these playoffs. Clippers coach Doc Rivers took Ivica Zubac away from Kristaps Porzingis to trade the pick-and-roll with Luka Doncic. Jazz coach Quin Snyder put Gobert on Millsap in Game 2 to do the same with Jokic and Jamal Murray, although he returned to that game after Conley returned.

This decision would not solve all of Denver’s problems on the show. But that would at least give the team a chance. Putting a better perimeter defender on Gobert would allow them to switch his screens for Mitchell and keep their other three defenders at home on the Utah shooters. It was Houston’s defensive strategy to stifle Mitchell in each of the last two playoffs. He’s in the 91st percentile of pick-and-roll scorers in this season’s playoffs after being in the 14th percentile last season. He improved a lot last season, but Denver doesn’t challenge him enough to know how much.

To be sure, the Nuggets will never be able to keep Utah as efficiently as Houston with Jokic on the ground. The Rockets in the middle of the small ball were as much about defense as it was offense, as it allowed them to play five perimeter defensemen throughout the game. The Jazz will always target Jokic in the pick-and-roll no matter which one they keep, but the Nuggets will have a better chance if Jokic is on a more limited spot-up shooter like Royce O’Neale or a player. defensive role. like rookie Juwan Morgan instead of Gobert, one of the best men in the NBA. The French center is averaging 19.3 points per game on 75% of shots in the series after never averaging more than 13 points per game in the playoffs before.

The Nuggets should always place Jokic on the opponent’s least threatening player in the frontcourt. The team’s defensive strategy doesn’t matter as much in an 82-game season, when fouls don’t make as many adjustments to attack imbalances in particular matches. But the playoffs are all about adjustments. Jokic is in the 12th percentile of great men when he defends the pick-and-roll after placing in the 76th percentile in the regular season. It’s time for Malone to make some changes.

The Nuggets reached Game 7 of the second round last season, but their success was a bit of a mirage. Denver faced two teams (San Antonio and Portland) that didn’t have the staff to spread the ground with shooters and attack Jokic in space. The Spurs led a more traditional offense built around isolations for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, while the Blazers threw two non-pulling wings (Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu) that the Nuggets could help. Their future playoff opponents will look more like Jazz. It’s possible they’ll return in this series given their offensive firepower. But they would still face either the Mavs or the Clippers in the next round, both of whom could attack Jokic just as easily.

The two most important players in a team built around Jokic are the frontcourt players next to him. The fifth-year center will need to improve on defense, especially when it comes to making rotations and executing his role in a larger pattern. But he won’t be able to do much.

Denver can learn from how Dallas built around Dirk Nowitzki, another all-time attacking 7-footer with defensive issues. It’s no accident that Dirk’s only NBA title came when he played with Tyson Chandler, a defensive player of the year, and Shawn Marion, a Hall of Fame-caliber defenseman. Marion and Chandler had the versatility to handle the toughest defensive assignments regardless of position, as well as the length, speed and defensive IQ to cover for Dirk on the auxiliary side.

Jokic’s ideal frontcourt partner would be a player who could defend all five positions and be in contention for DPOY every year – a player who could switch the pick-and-roll between Gobert and Mitchell, and defend great men like Anthony Davis in painting it and moving forward like Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter. The good news for the Nuggets is that one of the only NBA players to tick all of these boxes will be hitting the commercial market soon.

Ben Simmons will be an eternal selection for the All-Defensive squad for the next decade. He could also be the perfect defensive partner for Jokic. Both would be even more fun to watch on offense. Jokic is not a dominant player on the ball and is more of an offensive threat from the perimeter than Joel Embiid. Imagine the room Simmons would have to attack the dribble with Jokic coming off the 3-point line, or how Jokic could find Simmons as a high post cutter, or how they could push the ball together at Denver’s Mile High Altitude.

Philadelphia will eventually have to leave Simmons or Joel Embiid. Their current team will only need a miracle to win a championship. And the Sixers won’t be able to pick up any good players for Al Horford or Tobias Harris given their oversized contracts. The 76ers will likely continue to lose in the first or second round until one of their stars gets frustrated and requests a trade.

That’s where Denver comes in. There is no better business goal for Philadelphia than Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. Murray has become a legitimate star in his own right, dropping 50 points in Game 4 and with a averaged 28.6 points on 52.5% shots and 6.6 assists per game against Denver. And Porter, 22, has as much potential as any NBA player. Oversized wings with its ability to shoot and score the dribble don’t come often. Both would be much better offensive compliments to Embiid than Simmons. A healthy, committed Embiid could also do more than Jokic to protect Murray or Porter, neither of whom project like a stopper, in defense.

The 76ers would likely require both in any potential deal. But the Nuggets should be able to hold the line with one. It doesn’t matter which one they give up. Jokic can make it work with either. He’s so good on offense. That’s why they build around it in the first place.

Going back to the Dirk analogy, Jokic, Porter and Murray are like the Mavs of the early 2000s with Dirk, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley. This group was unstoppable, but never had enough saves when it mattered in the playoffs. Dallas owner Mark Cuban said letting Nash walk was the biggest mistake of his tenure in the NBA. But letting Chandler go in 2011 was far more important. The point of having a player as good as Dirk is that he doesn’t need someone like Nash to thrive. Its very presence guarantees an elite offense. The goal should be to take advantage of this skill to build a great defense around him instead of adding more players who can score but not defend. The Mavs had the no. 1 offense classified in the NBA four times during Dirk’s day. Their only championship came when they were more balanced, with the no. 8 offense and no. 8 defense.

The Nuggets will never win a title playing so many offensive players around Jokic. They might not even win much of the playoffs given the West stacking. Denver must find three or four elite defenders to protect their franchise player. It would be difficult to trade Murray or Porter to get there. But it must be done.


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