Analyzing the Denver Nuggets’ New Pick-and-Roll Defense

In their opening game of the season, the Denver Nuggets debuted new pick-and-roll coverage with Nikola Jokic. For most of his career, they often dropped him back into the paint, trying to mask his athletic limitations, and hope his active hands disrupted the play.

The issue, though, is that Jokic doesn’t just struggle to defend in space. He’s not a plodding big man who excels in the paint. He’s a plodding big man who can’t defend the rim either, highlighted by his “F” interior defense among all big men with at least 2,000 minutes last season, per the Bball Index’s Player Grades. In 2017-18, the Nuggets began to inch away from drop coverage and encouraged Jokic to hedge — or confront the ball-handler at the point of attack before retreating to the roll man — more often.

It worked to an extent as Jokic improved from the 31st percentile (1.05 points per possession) in defending the roll man to the 50th percentile (0.98 PPP) between 2016-17 and 2017-18. During the preseason, Jokic continued to experiment with the new scheme and finished in the 71st percentile (0.45 PPP), albeit on just 20 possessions.

When the Nuggets took to the court for their season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday, they leaned all the way into the new approach. Rarely did Jokic sag back into the paint and invite ball-handlers to blitz him.

On five possessions defending the roll man, Jokic surrendered just two points (0.40 PPP) and overall, Denver conceded 0.76 PPP on 21 pick-and-roll possessions (ball-handler and roll man included), down from 0.94 PPP last season. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean the Nuggets are going to become pick-and-roll stalwarts. The sample size is incredibly small and the Clippers aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut. Nonetheless, there should be substantiated hope that this approach can somewhat buoy the defense, especially with a witty help side defender like Paul Millsap flanking Jokic inside.

Generally, having the big man hedge in screen and rolls forces the ball-handler to become a playmaker, so as long as the big takes the proper angle and doesn’t allow his man to find the edge and burst to the rim. With Tobias Harris, a limited facilitator who sports a paltry 1.7:1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio for his career, Jokic and Co. did just that:

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The second clip in that series is the most notable one in my eyes. Whereas the other two aren’t necessarily telling of Harris’s shortcomings, with Denver executing crisp rotations and positioning, Montrezl Harrell is open on the roll in the second sequence. If Harris rotates his hips and slings a pass around Jamal Murray, the Nuggets’ defense is likely compromised, as each defender is outside the paint. But Harris doesn’t get it to Harrell and that’s why this works.

While hedging with Jokic is a better approach than dropping him back, it has a tendency to be boom or bust, relying heavily on the positioning and ability of the tag man — the defender who rotates into the paint to guard the roll man while the big is doubling the ball-handler.

With the tag man often coming from either corner, a shooter is generally open. It’s just a matter of whether or not teams can decode the hedge and get the ball to the roll man to create 4-on-3 situations. On Wednesday, the Clippers were able to do that a few times and find open looks:

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Note how each of those shots is the result of someone tagging the roll man and abandoning their assignment. Although, Los Angeles isn’t the type of offense designed to counter hedging as it lacks the shooting and playmaking to make those possessions commonplace.

Against teams with high-level shooters, short roll passers or primary facilitators, however, the Nuggets might get torched into oblivion as more floor generals should be capable of the court-bending pass Patrick Beverley flashed in the third clip.

But in comparison to the alternative, one that leaves Jokic backpedaling into the key like he’s been sucker-punched by a heavyweight boxer, taking that risk is worthwhile.

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Jokic isn’t a fleet-footed assassin, though his issues primarily arise due to a dearth of straight-line speed. He moves well (enough) laterally and harnesses a 7-foot-3 wingspan to envelop ball-handlers, underscored by his “B” perimeter defense among bigs with at least 2,000 minutes last season, per the Bball Index.

It would be unwise to glean too much from one game against a club who projects to rest on its defensive laurels this season. The Nuggets aren’t going to suddenly vault into the top 10 of defensive rating with this scheme, given it’s better labeled as a bandage than a cure-all.

Yet, there’s a certain level of optimism around Jokic’s pick-and-roll performance, born out through the numbers. There will be nights when super-charged offenses bury Denver and others where the defensive execution is just a fraction off, leading to waves of easy buckets.

Most importantly, this new approach is one that doesn’t immediately feature all of Jokic’s glaring weaknesses on defense. For a team short on wing stoppers and daunting interior defenders, cornered into relying on technique rather than talent, maximizing the defensive impact of its best player is prudent. Now, it’s time to see if the final 81 games can prove to be as successful as the first.

*Statistics courtesy of the Bball Index’s player grades and Synergy’s playtype data.*

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