Nikola Jokic is the NBA MVP for the second consecutive season, making him the 13th back-to-back MVP in league history. But what if I told you that he deserved to win the Defensive Player of the Year as well?
Okay, the headline and the opening paragraph are bait—sort of. I don’t actually think that Jokic should have been the DPOY, or even a finalist for the award, but his strides on the defensive end is a big reason why that narrative from last year (that he can’t play defense) did not carry weight this time around. The short of it is that Jokic has been every bit as good as Marc Gasol was in 2013 when the younger Gasol hermano was named the DPOY.
The primary reason why Gasol won was, of course, advanced metrics. He was first in defensive BPM, second in defensive win shares, and fifth in defensive rating, while leading the Memphis Grizzlies to the second-best defense in the league. His traditional stock (steals + blocks) numbers are decent but not eye-popping; he averaged 1.7 blocks per game, which was good for 12th in the league, to go along with a steal per, which ranked 10th among the centers.
Jokic ticks almost all of these boxes. He is first in defensive BPM, second in defensive win shares, and seventh in defensive rating. The Nuggets aren’t as good defensively as the 2013 Grizzlies—they’re only 15th in team defensive rating—but that’s because the Nuggets were a G-League team whenever Jokic went to the bench this year. Peel back and you’ll see that Denver had a defensive rating of 108.9 points per 100 when Jokic is on the floor, which would’ve been good enough for seventh in the NBA right behind the Mavs. The Nuggets were a much better defensive team with Jokic this year compared to last season, when they actually posted a better rating with Jokic on the bench (104.6 versus 112.6 with him on the floor).
Jokic also finished 12th in the league in steals with 1.5 per game; he is first among centers, ahead of two-time All-Defense selection Bam Adebayo. His 0.9 blocks per game is nothing to write home about, but he is ahead of Adebayo and Deandre Ayton, so it’s not too bad either. In fact, Jokic averaged more stocks (2.4) than three of the top four finishers in this year’s DPOY voting: Marcus Smart (2.0), Mikal Bridges (1.6), and Adebayo (2.2). Rudy Gobert had 2.8. The simple explanation for this is that his hands have been very active—he led all centers with 2.9 deflections per game.
Apparently, credit for Jokic’s defensive improvement goes to the 2017 DPOY, Draymond Green. In 2020, Green ripped Jokic on national TV for his lackadaisical defensive effort. “If they’re ever gonna win anything, he has to be better defensively,” Green said during an Inside the NBA segment. Great players take criticisms constructively, and Jokic proved why he is a lock for the NBA’s centennial anniversary team (I’d replace Damian Lillard with Jokic in the NBA 75 team in a heartbeat). According to Green, the MVP saw the segment and made it a point to show his appreciation when they met the following year.
In today’s positionless game, a center needs to have a keen understanding of complex offensive schemes built around the pick-and-roll, three-point shooting and myriad misdirection plays, so as not to become a defensive liability. Like Gasol and Green, Jokic has mastered the art of occupying the in-between space on the pick-and-roll, forcing ballhandlers into less-than-ideal options. It’s about timing and positioning; combined with his size and active hands, ballhandlers are now forced to think twice when facing the Joker in these situations.
Obviously, Jokic would never be Rudy Gobert on the defensive end and the fact that Gasol won in 2013 is hardly a conclusive argument in favor of Jokic. The DPOY, like the MVP, is not an exact science. But there’s at least a colorable discussion to be had that Jokic is now a very good defender, and those who have not been paying attention should take note.