It was no surprise that when ESPN analyst and former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy recently appeared on Zach Lowe’s podcast The Lowe Post, he offered no shortage of pointed opinions as he came out blasting against tanking in the NBA, lamented the ridiculousness of how open court violations are called (or not), and broke down his take on the Most Valuable Player race, playoff matchups, and other topics as well.
What most caught my attention, however, was when the topic turned to which teams had been the biggest disappointments this season, particularly when Van Gundy set his sights on the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Although the Denver Nuggets did not come up in their discussion of disappointing teams – perhaps since the Nuggets at least ostensibly met or exceeded the middling expectations of their final record by reaching 40 wins – when Van Gundy spoke of the Timberwolves, he certainly sounded exactly as if he could have been talking about Denver.
As you read through what Van Gundy had to say, just replace “Minnesota” with “Denver” and “Karl-Anthony Towns” with “Nikola Jokic,” and you are likely to find that his admonition regarding poor defense rings just as true for the Nuggets as it does the Wolves.
“I watch Minnesota all the time, and it was interesting, you know. Everybody - and rightfully so, Towns is an incredible offensive talent, as is Wiggins. But there are so many empty baskets in seasons for losing teams, and teams who don't defend, which Minnesota didn't guard, right? And a lot of that was because their best players didn't guard. And so there's this statistical, everybody's spouting statistics, and you know, statistics - you can't praise the individuals who put up great numbers and lose consistently. And I think what Towns and Wiggins have to decide is, how important is winning to them? Because if you don't guard, you're saying that winning is not important to you. And so they have to figure that out. Like, just how, what do I want to do in this league? Do I want to put up numbers? Because Kart-Anthony Towns offensively is an absolute monster. And Wiggins is very good. But until they guard, and try to do it on a nightly basis, and then surround those two guys with better players, because they have so many guys that don't compliment their best players.”
Van Gundy kind of let his train of thought trail off at the end there, but the implication is clear. Despite Towns being a “monster” on offense, until he chooses to put in a better defensive effort game in and game out, neither he nor the Wolves will be winners.
Viewing this in the context of the Nuggets, much the same could be said of them as well, and this raises an issue which may have been somewhat overlooked thus far.
Many have focused on the question of whether Jokic can become a better defender, given his slow lateral speed, his lack of athleticism, his overall sluggish demeanor, and his seeming inability to avoid getting into silly foul trouble.
But perhaps the more critical question to ask is whether Jokic will choose to improve his defensive game and play harder on that end of the court.
Next season, Jokic’s honeymoon will be over. After his sudden mid-December explosion into an effectively All-Star caliber player on offense, it was easy to overlook some of his shortcomings, since his performance was so overwhelmingly impressive as to practically blind everyone to his flaws.
From day one of the 2017-18 season, however, he will be under a far brighter spotlight with more critically scrutinizing eyes upon him than ever before. And as great as he already has so quickly become, at 22-years-old, the powerful pressure of expectations for him to keep improving will loom large.
The best way for him to charge into that challenge head on is to focus his offseason work on defensive improvement and the best place to start is conditioning. Nuggets' director of performance Steve Hess needs to run him up and down the steps at Red Rocks until he sheds the last traces of all that baby fat and can hit the court running in October with a high enough level of conditioning so that he won’t be getting exhausted by the end of third quarters.
Additionally, the Nuggets coaching staff needs to work with him and capitalize on his high basketball IQ in order to help put him into positions where, even if he will never be a great defender, they can minimize his weaknesses. This, of course, isn’t only on Jokic but involves better denial of penetration by the guards at the perimeter, and (as Van Gundy mentioned regarding Minnesota), perhaps an assist from the front office in the form of adding a player or two who will better complement his strengths and deficiencies.
“If you don't guard, you're saying that winning is not important to you.”
–Jeff Van Gundy
But the thing it will take most of all is effort. One thing I love about both Jamal Murray and Kenneth Faried (and I think it would be fair to add Mason Plumlee to that list as well now) is that when they are on the court, they are just constantly giving it their all, playing with such high energy and intensity that it becomes frustratingly obvious that many of their teammates are not.
Jokic can no longer be a defensive bystander, and the Nuggets can’t afford for him to be, either.
While slacking off on defense might at least nominally fly for some more under-the-radar players, Jokic, who is now the clear-cut cornerstone and leader of this Nuggets team, must now lead by example in this respect too, by putting forth a defensive effort that shows he has a genuine respect for the game, and that winning truly is important to him.