The Denver Nuggets were rolling over the New Orleans Pelicans in the first quarter on Friday night when Nikola Jokic found himself in the unfortunate position of having to defend DeMarcus Cousins in space. Denver ran out to a 27-6 lead in the first seven minutes of the game. The Pelicans desperately needed a bucket to stop the bleeding.
New Orleans used a funky set to set Cousins up with the ball on the left side of the court with plenty of room to work with. Last season, Jokic might have allowed Cousins to breeze by him and get to the rim. Or maybe Jokic would've just hacked him instead.
On Friday, Jokic did neither of those things as Cousins made his move downhill. Jokic shuffled to his left, beat Cousins to a spot on the floor and used his chest to slow Cousins' progress. Cousins threw up an air ball.
This offseason, Nuggets coach Michael Malone challenged Nikola Jokic to improve on the defensive end. So far, the numbers and the eye test suggest Jokic has made strides on that end of the floor. When Jokic plays, Denver allows 100.2 points per 100 possessions. When Jokic sits, that number balloons to 113.7 points per 100 possessions. Put a simpler way: The Nuggets defend at a top-five level when Jokic is on the court, and when he isn't, they defend worse than the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are dead-last in defensive efficiency.
Numbers can, of course, be deceiving. Jokic ranks second in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus, ahead of players such as Al Horford and Draymond Green. If you truly believe Jokic is a better defender than Green, well, you should probably take the advice Rick gave Morty and Summer after he convinced them Redgren Grumbholdt was a real person.
Jokic isn't even the best defender in the Nuggets' frontcourt. That distinction goes to Paul Millsap, who at 32 years old is already one of 23 players ever to record 1,100 steals and 850 blocks. Millsap is up there with the best big men in terms of switching onto smaller players. He's also strong enough to stymie the game's giants in the post.
Millsap masks other player's flaws on the defensive end. But he shouldn't get all the credit for Jokic's improvement on that end. Jokic isn't the quickest player. What he does have is spatial awareness and great hands. Jokic is averaging 1.5 steals per game. He's racked up 22 steals in 15 games, the third-most among centers.
When Jokic can't get his hands on the basketball, he's doing a much better job of defending without fouling. Jokic averaged 5.1 fouls per 100 possessions a year ago. That mark is down to 4.2 fouls per 100 possessions 15 games into the 2017-18 season. Watch here as Cousins tries to get Jokic to bite on an up and under. Jokic keeps his hands high and does just enough to disrupt Cousins' shot without hacking him.
"He’s been great on the defensive end this year," shooting guard Gary Harris said. "I think just this whole new team defense we have, us helping each other out and playing on a string helps everyone out."
Denver is playing a more aggressive defensive scheme. On pick-and-rolls, Nuggets big men now jump out and hedge instead of hanging back inside the three-point line and waiting for the action to come to them. On Friday, Denver often sent a second defender to double Cousins in the post, an approach they could get away with because of New Orleans' lack of shooters.
After the game, Jokic was asked about slowing Cousins. He and Millsap combined to limit him to 14 points 16 shots. Jokic admitted that he's taking more pride on that end of the floor this season while adding that Millsap's presence and the revamped scheme is helping as well.
"It’s kind of both ways," Jokic said. "It’s me a little bit and my teammates. When it’s five guys playing like one, it’s easier to play defense, to be honest."