One of the few times the Nuggets have actually stopped Donovan Mitchell in their first round streak thus far has come at the end of Sunday’s Game 4 defeat. The jazz star dribbled a Rudy Gobert screen and attacked the big man guarding Gobert, just as he had done a million times before. The difference on this possession was that he was attacking Paul Millsap rather than Nikola Jokic. Instead of being smoked from dribbling, Millsap stayed with him on his journey and blew Mitchell’s shot out of bounds:
Unfortunately for Denver, Millsap decided to stare at Mitchell afterwards as if it were LeBron James who was blocking Steph Curry in the 2016 NBA Finals. It was a pretty ridiculous thing to do for a player averaging 39.5 points to 56.3%. of shots in the series. At the right time, Mitchell knocked down a 3 on Millsap on the next possession to effectively end the game.
Embarrassment aside, the Nuggets can still learn a valuable lesson from what happened. Their only chance against the Jazz is to hide Jokic and put better pick-and-roll defenders on Gobert to give them more options when defending Mitchell in those plays. This lesson has even greater implications for their future.
It will be difficult for the Nuggets to come back after falling behind 3-1 and seeing Donovan Mitchell transform into a Salt Lake version of Damian Lillard. The level of trust running through his veins at this point should be illegal in all 50 states.
Denver manager Mike Malone created a monster by leaving his worst defender on the opposing team’s leading scorer. There are no right decisions for Jokic as he protects the duo match between Mitchell and Gobert. It’s not fast enough to extend to the perimeter and can’t protect the rim well enough when it falls back into the paint. Jokic may have changed bodies during the break, but he still has severe defense limitations.
Mike Conley upset the series when he returned to Race 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 level point guard, but Utah can now start three elite 3-point shooters (Conley, Royce O’Neale and Joe Ingles) around Mitchell and Gobert. A pick-and-roll between those two against Jokic will always create an open shot somewhere. The Jazz now have the players to make them.
The numbers, according to 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 selector, and no. 31 in the average number of points per possession (1,373) allowed in those played. He is above JJ Redick’s average on unattended catch-and-shoot jumpers (1,348) this season.
Malone has to get Jokic off Gobert in Game 5 as 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 changes in these playoffs. Clippers coach Doc Rivers took Ivica Zubac off Kristaps Porzingis to swap 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 matchup after Conley’s return.
The move would not solve all of Denver’s problems in the series. But at least it would give the team a chance. Putting a better perimeter defender on Gobert would allow them to change his screens for Mitchell and keep the other three defenders at home on the Utah shooters. This was the defensive strategy that Houston deployed to smother Mitchell in each of the last two postseason. He is in the 91st percentile of pick-and-roll scorers in this season’s playoffs after being in the 14th percentile last season. He’s improved a lot last season, but Denver isn’t challenging him enough to find out how much.
In fact, the Nuggets will never be able to protect Utah as effectively as Houston with Jokic down. Small-ball Rockets were as much about defense as they were attacking because it allows them to play with five perimeter defenders for the entire match. The Jazz will still focus Jokic in the pick-and-roll regardless of who he’s protecting, but the Nuggets will have a better chance if Jokic is on a more limited shooter like Royce O’Neale or a defensive-minded RPG like rookie Juwan Morgan instead. by Gobert, one of the best roll men in the NBA. The French center averages 19.3 points per game with 75% of shots in the series, having never scored more than 13 points per game in the previous playoffs.
The Nuggets should always put Jokic on the least threatening player in the opponent’s frontcourt. The team’s defensive strategy doesn’t really matter in an 82-game season, when offenses don’t make as many adjustments to attack mismatches in particular games. But the playoffs are about adjustments. Jokic is in the 12th percentile of the big names when defending pick-and-roll after finishing at the 76th percentile in the regular season. It’s time for Malone to make some changes.
The Nuggets made it to 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 widen the field with shooters and attack Jokic in space. The Spurs executed a more traditional offense built around isolations for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, while the Blazers started two no-shot wings (Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu) that the Nuggets could help. Their future playoff opponents look more like the Jazz. It is possible that they will return in this series given their offensive firepower. But in the next round they would still have to face the Mavs or the Clippers, who could have attacked Jokic just as easily.
The two most important players in a team built around Jokic are the players in the frontcourt next to him. The fifth-year center-right will have to improve in defense, especially when it comes to spinning and playing their role within a larger scheme. But there is only so much he will be able to do.
Denver can learn from how Dallas built around Dirk Nowitzki, another all-time great 7-footer with defensive problems. It’s no coincidence that Dirk’s only NBA title came when he was playing with Tyson Chandler, Defender of the Year, and Shawn Marion, a Hall of Fame-caliber defender. 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 Dirk on the helper side.
The ideal partner for Jokic’s frontcourt would be a player who could defend all five positions and be in contention for the DPOY every year, a player who could trade the pick and roll between Gobert and Mitchell and defend great men like Anthony Davis in the paint and forward as Kawhi Leonard on the perimeter. The good news for the Nuggets is that one of the few NBA players who checks all those boxes will soon be on the market.
Ben Simmons will be a perennial selection of defensive teams throughout the next decade. He could also be the perfect defensive partner for Jokic. The two would have been even more fun to watch up front. Jokic is not a player who dominates the ball and is more of an offensive threat from the perimeter than Joel Embiid. Imagine the room where Simmons would have to attack from dribbling with Jokic jumping off the 3-point line, or how Jokic might find Simmons as a high-post cutter, or how they might push the ball along with Denver’s Mile High Height.
Philadelphia will eventually have to switch to Simmons or Joel Embiid. Their current team will need nothing less than a miracle to win a championship. And the Sixers won’t be able to take back 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 is frustrated and demands a trade.
This is where Denver comes in. There is no better business goal out there for Philadelphia than Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. Murray became a legitimate star in his own right, losing 50 points in Game 4 and averaging 28.6 points with 52.5% of shots and 6.6 assists per game against Denver. And Porter, 22, has the same potential as any player in the NBA. The gigantic wings with its ability to shoot and score dribble don’t come often. Both would be much better offensive compliments for Embiid than for Simmons. A healthy, committed Embiid might even do more than Jokic to protect Murray or Porter, neither of whom project themselves as a catch, on defense.
The 76ers would likely require both in any potential deal. But the Nuggets should be able to hold the line to just one. It hardly matters which one they give up. Jokic can make it work with both. He is so good in attack. That’s why they’re building around him in the first place.
To get back to the Dirk analogy, Jokic, Porter and Murray are like the early 2000s Mavs with Dirk, Steve Nash and Michael Finley. That group was unstoppable, but they never stopped enough when it counted in the playoffs. Dallas owner Mark Cuban said letting Nash walk was the biggest mistake of his tenure in the NBA. But letting Chandler leave in 2011 was much more important. The whole point of having a gifted player like Dirk is that he doesn’t need someone like Nash to thrive. His presence alone guarantees an elite offense. The goal should be to harness that 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 ranked bout in the NBA four times in the Dirk era. Their only championship came when they were more balanced, with no. 8 offense and n. 8 defense.
The Nuggets will never win a title by playing so many offensive-minded players around Jokic. They may not even win many playoff series given how stacked the West is. Denver must find three or four elite defenders to protect their franchise player. Swapping Murray or Porter to make it happen would have been difficult. But it has to be done.